Although it's a month old, the controversy about Tracy Morgan's Nashville stand-up show is probably the most potent, useful example of why "political incorrectness" matters. First off, calling Morgan's act "politically incorrect" -- an act that says homosexuality is a choice, that he would stab his gay son and that Obama should man up and stop supporting gay rights -- is an understatement. Those kinds of statements should fall far beyond The Line, past decency, and past mere risque. Some people do disagree, mostly other stand-ups. While I'm usually inclined to agree with them, Morgan's situation is reprehensible in a very different way.
The context of Morgan's anti-homosexuality rant is important: It was in a theater in Nashville, a state that is currently fighting a wrong-minded Don't Say Gay bill. Although he probably didn't aim to, he was rousing a lot of prejudice. Here was a guy saying and validating all of the hateful things they were thinking. No need for any guilt here! Be as hateful as you want to be, and, hey, maybe tell your congressman. Wanda Sykes likened it to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, and more than any debate about the kinks of free speech, this one fits the famous metaphor.
Let's be clear: It's not to say that people shouldn't be allowed to air out the ugly parts of their soul. It seems a lot of people get tangled here. The argument isn't about censorship, or stifling freedom of speech. It's about good ideas and bad ideas. It's about whether a famous comedian, in the context of his political climate, should face consequences with promoting outright cruelty and prejudice. The free speech experience is not one devoid of reactions to your action. You have the right to be free of government censorship, but not from the criticism of individuals.
What happened with Tracy Morgan's rant is a hyper-inflated version of what happens any time a Tyler the Creator raps about rape; he alters the standard of culture. In Morgan's case, it's just more direct, he unintentionally rallied the anti-gay troops in the face of a gay rights battle. If it weren't for the backlash of the so-called "PC police" it might have been more damaging to the cause. It's hard to hide behind "it's just a joke and comedians shouldn't take it seriously," because everyone else will. It's not as simple as changing the channel. When you are a public figure, you are adding a brick to the wall of where you want to build The Line. Where you put it does damage to whole groups of people.
But, the somewhat insular community of comedians are always quick to defend whatever comes out of their mouths as sacred and protected as art, but as Gabe Delahaye says:
We must always walk that line sometimes slipping over it and then refinding it again, and there is nothing particularly dangerous or harmful to a free and open society in being asked to occasionally re-examine where that line is to be found.
We walk the line, and inevitably fall over it, because that's how we define it. There's no shame in that, but you have to be held accountable, because we're held accountable for literally everything else we do. It's society's job to have this cultural conversation to end up deciding what decency is. I'm suspicious of anyone that believes that The Line doesn't exist, and that there is no such thing as bad taste, and that nothing is sacred. Sometimes it's just harder to realize. You wouldn't think Bam Margera would be the type to be offended, but he sure didn't like Roger Ebert calling his recently deceased friend a jackass. This time let's pull a quote from Jay Smooth, in regards to OFWGKTA:
Everyone loves a line-stepper, until it’s your line getting stepped over.
I wonder how the people who have stepped up to Morgan's defense, like Louis CK, feel about Tyler the Creator, or just about any music in any genre that gets vitality from vulgarity & stepping over the line. If you don't believe that pop culture shapes our standards of decency, you need only look at the modern prominence of the word bitch. I don't think it's controversial to say it's in our vernacular because of pop music, and that it comes with a mindset/philosophy that doesn't think about it in its degrading context. We've equipped the common person with an easy anti-woman word that just rolls off the lips because it has been placed inside the line through decades of art, battles where criticism lost in the eyes of public opinion.
While the watchdog/entertainer debate dynamic about The Line is pretty strong, it's also a vastly different scene in music. The whole Tyler the Creator vs. Tegan & Sara fiasco was over in a blog post, a twitter reply, and a GLAAD reprimanding. Not over as in figured out and settled, but forgotten and swept away by the news cycle. There is a much more apathetic acceptance of "this is how music is." Tyler's own approach to the offhanded homophobia in his music is that he's just a kid and doesn't think about it, he just wants to use a word that has an edge, which it turns out is exactly one of the things people love about him. It's an admittedly exciting kind of unfiltered, warts-and-all edginess that hasn't had a major evolution since Eminem. It's an indulgence in our ignorant youth set to cool beats. Fans that dig the overall creativity of his music decide to just ignore the rape fantasy and homophobia because they know he doesn't mean it, and they know they're not endorsing it.
But in doing so, we completely disregard that this is the culture it is building: apathy, acceptance, and unnecessary exclusion. No, I don't think it makes you a rapist. But we build a culture that keeps survivors afraid to speak out, and, in the worst case, we slowly push The Line toward a place that is more comfortable for rapists.
The Line, I think, definitely has to do with power. The Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen is a form of crossing the line that people generally accept because it is anti-power. It is not cruelty to disrespect an extravagantly wealthy and powerful monarchy. When a successful comedian, with a microphone, on a stage above everyone, picks on people fighting for their civil rights, the power dynamic is backwards. It's the reason Don Imus got shit for picking on the black players of a women's basketball team. It's just being a bully.
Not that being a bully is illegal. But when people, activists, sponsors and networks start pushing back, that comes with the territory, so lie in your bully bed. You have a lot of power as a public figure, and if enough people think you are using it for evil, they will fight you.
The Line in video games was indirectly debated with last week's Supreme Court ruling that removes federal punishment for selling M-rated games to minors. There can definitely be depictions of violence that are in bad taste, but I have a hard time finding them to be actively harmful in the way that pop-prejudice is. Firstly, the power dynamic of cruelty is missing. If it were a video game where you specifically killed illegal immigrants, yeah, you have a problem. So, unless the battle for ninja rights is an issue, Mortal Kombat isn't poison in that specific way. Secondly, studies don't find a correlation between violent behavior and exposure to video games. It's harder to say that violent depictions shape culture by making violence okay, because I think it aims at a different wavelength. It can make seeing violence okay, in the way that Friday the 13th doesn't have as much punch since the Saw series raised the gore bar. But it doesn't make committing the act of violence come any easier.
To bring it back to entertainment: does listening to a lot of angry, anti-gay Jo Koy material make you more likely to commit a hate crime? Unlikely, unless you were already predisposed to it. But I think it does validate and reinforce any internal prejudice that is in all of us, which in itself, can be harmful in a society of voters, diversity, inequality, and civil rights battles.
The trouble with great, big conversations like this is that they go on forever. They have to. Every new art, controversy, and public opinion shapes it with varying weight to their words. Some people are armed with heavier words, so it's important that we all talk about it. We make our own art, or throw our own words in, responding to each other in a cosmic volley of ideas. The long arc of time bends toward justice, Martin Luther King Jr. said, and we're responsible for calculating the degrees in which That Line tilts.