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Comedy is an essential component of free speech

Public speech is limited by what people find offensive, commonly held beliefs in a community and the status of the person speaking. In comedy, this is not the case. There is something inexplicable within the human consciousness that allows comedians to say funny things without penalty.

People might laugh, but comedy is serious. It is true that not all comedy is created equal. Consider this: Why might some people think John Oliver delivers news more efficiently than Anderson Cooper? Cooper is a journalist, while Oliver is a comedian. There should be no comparison. What matters is the space. Comedy occupies a space that is outside the normal discourse.

Stand-up comedy allows and perpetuates forms of speech that do not exist in normal spheres. In public spaces, there are rules for how and what to speak about, and if someone does not follow these rules, they will be shamed. In a stand-up setting, however, performers can say things that would ordinarily seem audacious.

Ask yourself, have you ever read a headline about a comedian saying something inappropriate? Probably not often because comedians can get away with saying controversial things in an entertaining way. These jokes are obviously facetious, but they contain fragments of truth.  

Dave Chappelle, in his comedy special The Age of Spin, makes controversial comments on gay rights and transgender people. He urged homosexuals to back off while they were ahead and asked to what degree he had to participate in the identity of trans people.

Chappelle reflected that he could claim he was white, but in reality he would still be black. He also pondered the legacy of Bill Cosby, seeking to balance the awful acts he committed with the good he did in the community.

The nature of the comments Chappelle made would likely not be appropriate in public under ordinary circumstances. Needless to say, he received some criticism for these jokes. Whether we agree with the things Chappelle said is irrelevant because in a regular space, he would not have said them.

This is an example of a phenomenon that occurs often in stand-up: speaking recklessly. Chappelle coins this term in his more recent special The Bird Revelation. Speaking recklessly entails saying something you believe, even if it might popularly be considered wrong.

The reality is that we need more of this speech. Not hate speech, but unpopular opinions. Ostracizing viewpoints is not going to change people’s minds. The reality is if we as a society tell people they can’t think something, they put their heads down, and when the time comes, they vote for Donald Trump.

How do we know if an idea is wrong? We talk to people about it. Conventions of acceptable speech have created a chilling effect on people sharing their opinions.

The only way we can move the needle in a society is if everyone says what they think. If opinions are left to fester while we maintain the cleanliness of public spaces, then we will have more, not less, hate. Speaking recklessly is the way to create progress.

We cannot claim something is changed if half the country simply doesn’t say anything about it. Silence is not concession; people will just continue to believe what they believe.

The way to ensure change is honesty, not correctness. If we want to truly change a society, then listening has to be the first step.  Accepting that people have opinions that do not entirely conform to societal standards is critical. Changing these attitudes requires being aware that those attitudes are possible and not just some fringe of society.

Speak recklessly, speak often and most of all, listen.

Opinion columnist Zach Appel is a political science sophomore and can be reached at [email protected]

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