How Seinfeld became a bad joke: The threat of a hyper-vigilant left-wing outrage machine has been greatly exaggerated

A millionaire tells a dumb joke and nobody laughs — and that's proof we're all oppressed by social activists?

Published June 11, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Jerry Seinfeld       (AP/Kevin Wolf)
Jerry Seinfeld (AP/Kevin Wolf)

Jerry Seinfeld is the latest brave middle-aged white man to weigh in on the “creepy” ascendance of humorless p.c. SJW anti-free-speech scolds. We know the drill now--we’ve heard it from comedians like Seinfeld and Patton Oswalt and, to a lesser degree, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock. We’ve heard it packaged in a different format from Very Serious media commentators like Jonathan Chait, Laura Kipnis and, most recently, an anonymous white male adjunct professor whose left-wing students “terrify” him.

It’s a familiar, tired drill. Point to instances of creeping overreaction by angry left-wing young people in the classroom, at protests and especially on Tumblr or Twitter. Portray these forces as a terrifying, swelling horde of enforcers with the power to totally destroy the lives of good old hardworking members of the chattering class like yourself. Talk about how this army of Social Justice Stormtroopers has successfully create a stifling Orwellian monoculture, especially on the Internet, where all of us live in constant fear of saying anything the least bit “offensive” lest our lives be ruined and as a result all online discourse has been stripped down to the level of catchphrase-spewing party apparatchiks seeking to avoid Stalinist purges.

This is clearly an extremely compelling narrative when it comes to a lot of people’s personal fears, because it’s a narrative they spin out of comparatively little evidence. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a left-wing witch hunt or that people haven’t been harmed by them -- it’s that, for something that’s so scary that it warrants trend piece after trend piece on a biweekly basis, it seems pretty hard for these pundits to come up with actual examples of harm to themselves.

Daniel Tosh, whose nasty rape joke at an audience member spurred the comedy world to rally around him waving flags with apocryphal Voltaire quotes -- yeah, he got a lot of mean tweets, and got analyzed in a bunch of think pieces, and got a really unkind (but hilarious) Onion article written about him.

And … that was it. His stand-up career is still going fine. He’s still on Twitter. He still has a damn top-rated show on Comedy Central, which makes him better off than 99.9 percent of all stand-up comedians in the country. (A show, by the way, which derives a lot of its humor from mocking people who are already being mercilessly made fun of or criticized on the Internet, which adds a little bit of irony to this whole “lynch mob” thing.)

Jonathan Chait combs through years of outraged viral right-wing posts on Facebook about left-wing atrocities but only comes up with one story of significant material harm, a kid being fired from a college newspaper, after Chait himself has gotten embroiled in controversy for trying to get journalists fired from newspapers for doing their job wrong. (As always, it’s actually about ethics in journalism.)

Laura Kipnis has a stronger argument for having been mistreated, even though the Title IX system she criticizes did, in fact, end up letting her completely off the hook -- and even though the actual reason for the complaint against her wasn’t her “wrong opinion” but her spreading untruths about a student embroiled in a sexual harassment claim against a professor, which pretty much every “political correctness gone mad” pundit talking about the Kipnis case has ignored.

The professor who hides behind the pseudonym “Edward Schlosser” has, by his own account, never actually been targeted by left-wing students at all. He has only ever received one formal complaint against his teaching, from a right-wing student who accused him of being a communist -- but his whole thesis is his left-wing students are scarier because his personal intuition is that they might come after him worse than that right-wing student did and it might be worse for him if and when they do.

He claims the troubling “The customer is always right” attitude universities increasingly adopt toward their students unilaterally empowers the angry p.c. left-wing radicals, and gets gently schooled by a black female professor who points out how she gets challenged by students for being too radical all the time, how progressive academics like Steven Salaita get silenced by institutions regularly.

And, with the most staggering lack of self-awareness I’ve yet seen in a hand-wringing think piece, “Edward Schlosser,” who has taken as many steps as possible to shield himself from any possible negative social consequences for an unpopular opinion, takes time out of his article to name-and-shame an online activist for having an unpopular opinion. As a result, conservative media made her the Hippie-Punching Target of the Week, she got the usual tidal wave of harassment and death threats women online get for unpopular opinions, and Vox was forced to edit Schlosser’s piece and put in an apology. Whether Schlosser’s take on who the real victims of “outrage culture” are was affected at all by this remains unknown.

And then there’s this most recent Seinfeld thing. What’s Jerry Seinfeld’s clincher for how political correctness is ruining comedy? What’s his vivid example to let us visualize how the New Left McCarthyism is destroying art?

The fact that he did a really dumb, obnoxious, middle-school-level joke about how the scrolling gesture built into the touchscreen user interface of smartphones makes you look kinda gay, and people didn’t laugh.

That’s it. Not that there was a vitriolic #CancelSeinfeld campaign on Twitter because of that joke, not that anyone actually confronted Seinfeld after his set expressing their displeasure (something he speculated might happen, but in fact did not). Hell, it doesn’t seem like anyone from that night even remembered that joke or publicly talked about it until Seinfeld brought it up with Seth Meyers, but the fact that he could “feel” the opinion in the room shift against him because of it is what he calls “chilling.”

Yes, a stand-up comedian is crying political oppression because people didn’t laugh at his joke, and because his infallible comic intuition tells him the joke, in a world undistorted by politically correct brainwashing, would be objectively hilarious.

The best part is this is exactly the kind of navel-gazing self-generated persecution complex that the fictionalized Jerry Seinfeld was always spiraling into on Seinfeld. It makes me once again wonder what Larry David thinks about all this, and if the whole concept behind Seinfeld wasn’t one big joke at the real Jerry Seinfeld’s expense that he apparently missed.

Maybe the reason I have a hard time taking any of this seriously is that I’m, as I’ve said before, from the Internet, and people who really think the Internet is one perpetual, ever-vigilant left-wing outrage machine that clamps down hard on the faintest sign of offensiveness are talking completely out of their ass.

Jon Ronson of "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed" fame has argued that it’s the social justice left who are the “merciless” ones in the world of public shaming, perhaps because he’s not into video games and didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of personal attacks Anita Sarkeesian got just for launching a Kickstarter to look at sexism in gaming in 2012 and that has only intensified in the years since then. Ronson’s book went to press before August 2014, so he couldn’t include a section about the permanent hate mob camped out on Twitter that will do their best to drive you out of the public sphere with sustained harassment for criticizing a game they like or just for mentioning their name in a negative context.

Yes, what happened to Justine Sacco was horrible, a perfect storm of factors that made opportunistically piling onto the world’s biggest pile-on nearly irresistible. But part of why it was horrible is that it was so arbitrary - -that because Sacco was a P.R. executive for a major Internet brand who made her bad tweet just before getting on an international flight, she became a lightning rod for anti-racist anger -- when there are thousands of people saying way more racist things every single day on Twitter with no reaction. (You can see for yourself just by typing an actual racist slur into Twitter’s search box.) The whole reason Ronson sees “outrage events” like Sacco’s experience as a newsworthy topic is that when something like this happens it’s headline news.

Meanwhile, women like Lindy West get a low-level version of this kind of abuse (by “low-level” I mean hundreds of nasty messages per day rather than tens of thousands) on a continuous basis, and it only makes the news when one of the trolls actually publicly apologizes and stops.

I can’t help feeling it’s like white male academics complaining about social forces that make them far more likely than black female academics to be publicly shamed for racism while ignoring the social forces that make them far more likely than black female academics to be hired in the first place. Or how a cop being shot by a black suspect was always a headline story in the local paper but, until recently, black suspects being shot by cops was generally not news at all.

To paraphrase an Internet meme that paraphrases an evil clown, social exclusion, toxicity and shaming are fine as long as they’re business as usual, “part of the plan” -- but flip the script and have people who aren’t used to experiencing social consequences suddenly face them and “Everyone loses their minds.”

As I said in my original response to Chait’s piece, sure, blame the Internet for making things worse, but what the Internet is really doing is amplifying everyone’s voice, removing the filters that keep the worst people in every political or social faction (of which there are dozens) from being heard. Yes, that means there are feminists or anti-racists or queer activists who go too far and upset people like Jonathan Chait because in his mind that discredits the entire Respectable Left.

But it also means that those supposedly harmless little gay jokes or fat jokes or racial stereotype jokes that people like Seinfeld trade in also, nowadays, “go too far”; in fact they reach an indisputable “too far” point almost instantly nowadays.

Seinfeld got a lot of cred back in the day for “going there” by popularizing using the term “Nazi” for someone he didn’t like enforcing supposedly unfair rules in his own private business, which back in 1995 was “edgy” and therefore hilarious. Nowadays it happens at the drop of a hat, en masse, through hundreds of spammed memes Photoshopping people’s faces into images of actual historical atrocities, and if only by sheer repetition it’s not funny at all anymore.

Take a look at the most recent person to get called a “Nazi.” Would Seinfeld consider it “creepy” and overly “p.c.” if a stand-up comic whose act revolved around holding up photos of fat people and straight-up calling them disgusting and hideous and encouraging people to leave them mean notes on Facebook got banned from a club? Is that the absolute kind of “free speech” he defends in the comedy world? Would Seinfeld stand by his friend Michael Richards if Richards hadn’t just used a racial slur against a heckler but then started a comedy routine based on quoting black people in a stereotypical, insulting accent and then calling them racial slurs repeatedly?

Because that’s the premise of two of the subreddits (r/fatpeoplehate and r/shitn*****ssay) that just got banned on Reddit -- after years of these subreddits being active, and weeks of r/fatpeoplehate repeatedly getting voted onto Reddit’s front page. This is what business as usual on the Internet has been like. When I first went viral I hadn’t heard a certain anti-Asian slur in person in years, only to see it a dozen times within the first few hours of becoming “Twitter famous.”

If people seem more thin-skinned than before, maybe it’s because they’ve been getting jabbed with ever-increasing ferocity and viciousness by a record number of pricks. If there seems to be a constant escalation of offendedness by activists on Twitter, maybe it’s in response to a constant escalation of offensiveness by trolls.

The massive shitstorm on Reddit calling for CEO Ellen Pao’s ouster and creating hundreds of clones of r/fatpeoplehate daring Reddit to delete them and generally claiming that anti-harassment policies somehow violate the First Amendment? They’re approvingly linking to Jerry Seinfeld’s Seth Meyers interview right now, claiming that Seinfeld’s flubbed “gay French king” joke is equivalent to their daily hobby of telling fat people on Facebook they deserve to die, claiming that Seinfeld’s discomfort with “creepy” p.c. culture means their twisted sociopathic subculture Seinfeld has probably never heard of has mainstream support.

And earnest, liberal white guys like Seinfeld and Jonathan Chait keep feeding this narrative. Because it hurts when you work really hard on a joke about how smartphones make you look prissy and the crowd doesn’t laugh when you know they should. All the bullying of fat teenagers to suicide and all the broad-spectrum blasting of racial slurs in the world is worth it, to keep that from happening again.

There was a Seinfeld episode I liked about Jerry getting increasingly upset that people don’t find his random jokes making fun of dentists particularly funny, only for him to double down on his right to make such jokes no matter what dentists think of them, and to find out that as a result he’s been socially ostracized as an “anti-dentite.”

Jerry finds solace with a girl on the rebound from a recent breakup who laughs at his dentist jokes, shares some of her own, and then, just when they start to develop a rapport, moves on to jokes about “Jews and blacks” and excuses herself to “go get her head shaved.” Jerry reacts with his signature awkward exit.

The moral of that episode was pretty clear to me -- stand up for your free speech because you think your offensive jokes and comments are no big deal, fine, but don’t complain when you end up disgusted by who you find yourself standing next to.

Maybe the real Jerry Seinfeld could look around him right now and take that to heart.

By Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Comedy Jerry Seinfeld Jonathan Chait Political Correctness Reddit Shaming Tv Twitter