I grew up thinking that Lenny Bruce was a hero, because he suffered and died to expand the range of things we, as grownups, were permitted to talk about.
The Victorian era was a dark, superstitious time when words such as”belly” or “leg” were considered injurious to “sensitive” souls, and therefore banned from polite society for the common defense. A pantheon of public-spirited writers, such as Joyce, Lawrence, and Nabokov, risked their reputations and in some cases their freedom to reveal that humans were not actually harmed by words like “leg,” or by more conventionally vulgar fare; now at last we could read books about controversial topics, and even (Bruce’s innovation) laugh at them.
As Dorothy Kilgallen said, speaking for the defense at Lenny Bruce’s trial, “They are words, Mr. Kuh. Words, words, words.”
Bring back the phlogiston, because it turns out the Victorians were right in the main, and only wrong on the details. They were superstitious and ignorant because they thought trains and beards were dangerous, and now we are enlightened and correct because we think smoking and cocaine are dangerous—points for us! Similarly, they were superstitious and ignorant because they thought the words “grunt” or “bull” had magical powers to make decent people faint or weep, and we are enlightened and correct because we have discovered new words with magical powers. You can spot the decent people by the fainting and weeping.
Let’s talk about the latest, EXTREMELY PREDICTABLE nonsense, in which ten Harvard prospects had their acceptances abruptly yanked because of memes they shared on a private Facebook group. This action is then celebrated by my demographic (yes, probably by you) on social media.
All the conventional bromides come out. We set parallels between what Harvard can do (as a private institution) and what prospective students should do (to avoid consequences). We stress that college admissions is partially based on character, which is incompatible with transgressive humor, and so call this justice.
Somehow we have decided that the rats who tattled on the jokers have character that the jokers lack. I can see why Harvard is eager to bring in people they know ahead of time will run to the administration and sell out their fellow students, but it’s unclear to me why we should celebrate this self-serving decision. We seem intent on shoveling power towards an institution and away from individuals. We are, in a word, good Victorians.
How did that happen?
Here’s another way of looking at it: Harvard is less an educational system than it is a brand, and brands are defined negatively (“This is not your grandfather’s comic book,” etc.). Harvard is making a marketing decision, and we can acknowledge that it might be savvy. It’s the equivalent of a clothing brand not making large sizes, for fear “those people” might wear them. And yet why are we celebrating Harvard’s brand-building strategies? How did Harvard get us to applaud their marketing team as a moral force?
Did it turn out that all this time stool pigeons and ad-men have been the real heroes? Maybe Lenny Bruce was just a vulgarian.
It’s difficult (for a non-Victorian) to read the Harvard Crimson‘s article on the affair without using the term “pearl-clutching.” The headline itself worries about “obscene memes,” invoking the specific charge against Bruce, Lawrence, etc., and raising the understandable concern that college freshmen may be confronted with “obscenity.” The obscenity, the Crimson tells us, included “images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children.” And here’s where the Crimson shows its hand.
I believe that humor is by its nature transgressive and that the comic spirit, by definition, butts against the boundaries of what is acceptable. I believe, with Shea and Wilson, that freedom defined is freedom denied, and building a pale is counterproductive. But even if we got together and agreed that sexual assault and the Holocaust were really taboo, for real, and anyone violating this taboo by failing to adopt a proper tone must be punished—why did the Crimson go on to fret about “the deaths of children”?
Q: What do you get when you drop a piano down a mineshaft?
A: A flat miner.
Actually, the death of a miner in a mining accident is not funny. But that’s not how humor works. Dead children are not funny, true; but, somehow, “Someone Ate the Baby,” Belloc’s “Jim,” and The Gahslycrumb Tinies are all funny (I recommend all three). You’ll notice that I didn’t even go to any fringe sources for my examples here: These grim texts are all well in the anthologizable mainstream, and you probably read one or two as a child. Why would the Crimson even bother to suggest that something as bland or anodyne as morbid humor is punishable?
Victorian verbal taboos, unlike Victorian fear of train travel, did not come out of nowhere. Victorians feared that outsiders might sneak into their social group; that the “coarsening” of modern life might “ruin” “decent” people; that a burgeoning populism might break down the existing class structure. They chose their taboos carefully, focussing on barnyard animals, waste (a farmer’s tool), body parts that a laborer might be more inclined to use or show than a gentleman, and sex. It’s important to note that they weren’t faking it. When Leigh Hunt edited the word “stinketh” out of his edition of Chaucer, he honestly thought he was being the good guy. He thought he was helping!
Sometimes certain segments of the internet leap into discussions with the old saw, “You’re not really offended!” or even “You’re looking for reasons to be offended!” This is probably unfair; humans tend to have actual emotions  and don’t need to fake them. In all probability, whatever meme “mocked” “the deaths of children” was more grotesque than 1907’s demure “Jim,” and it really did offend someone somewhere. It might have offended you. Your offense is real. As real as Leigh Hunt’s.
It’s easy to see that Hunt’s emotions was feeding into the same power structure that shaped them. We’re far less willing to imagine that our own emotions are liable to the same manipulation. Our emotions are real, just as real as the emotions of whatever Harvard administrator decided to send the guilty parties a letter that more or less ran, “We received information that you privately said things that might get you in trouble. Please tell us everything you said that might get you in trouble so we can decide whether you’re in trouble or not.”
We read this letter and perhaps we think, “That’s a little Maoist; I thought Americans weren’t supposed to testify against themselves.” And then we smoothe over this brief agita be reminding ourselves that Harvard is not the government, and private institutions can ask people to testify against themselves all they want. We rearrange our mental processes so that the good guys are brands and institutions, and also the people who fink to those brands and institutions; can we pretend this is coincidence?
This is the crux of it: Harvard was not offended by these memes and then punished the prospective students; Harvard was offended by the memes in order to punish the prospective students.
The punished students revealed, by their actions, that they are not like us. So our default response is: “It’s important for these seventeen-year olds to realize that words are not for making jokes, words are for flattering power structures. The only way for them to learn is through punishment. I’m a good person!”
Sorry, I misspoke in the above paragraph. I mean to say: We were not offended by these memes and then celebrated a punishment; we were offended by the memes in order to celebrate a punishment. That little rush of power when someone gets beaten down, this is what we live for.
(If you haven’t already, read Freddie deBoer’s “Planet of Cops,” you should.)
The rat who ratted these troublesome jokesters out thought, “I am fighting the power! I am taking a stand against hate speech!” But you don’t fight the power by handing more power to the powerful. You don’t get to help Harvard brand itself better and then pretend you’re sticking up for the little guy.
Obviously, the ten kids who violated our taboos didn’t get hurt too badly. They have to scramble to get into their second-choice schools, which is not, in the grand scheme, a terrible fate. But their lives were certainly changed forever, and changed for the worse.
And we get to celebrate that fact and pretend we’re heroes. We’re heroes because we enjoy the pain of others. Only people who make jokes we are uncomfortable with (I’m looking at you, Lenny) are bad.