Humor on Campus – Free Speech on Campus, Ep. 2

Laura Kipnis,

Release Date
August 3, 2016


Free Speech

In this episode of Free Speech on Campus, professor Laura Kipnis discusses why it’s important for students to take on social stereotypes. She notes how campus humor is a good way to judge where the boundaries are for each generation.

Free Speech on Campus (playlist): Learn about all of the major issues affecting freedom of speech, open inquiry, and academic freedom on college campuses at
Free Speech — Trigger Warnings, Academic Freedom, and More (program): Join Professor Tom Bell, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the Institute for Justice in this new program, and learn about rights so fundamental, they’re in the very First Amendment. 
The Coddling of the American Mind (article): In the name of protecting students’ emotional well-being, college students and administrators are calling for censorship of certain forms of speech. The results deleterious to students and freedom of thought.
Freedom of Speech: Why Are Sex and Comedy Censored? (Video): While universities often like to show themselves as being progressive by supporting sex-positive speech, they are also increasingly clamping down on sexually explicit speech, imagery and even jokes. 

>> So I’ve been hearing a lot lately about comedians saying they’re not gonna play college campuses cuz students are too easily offended. And I think this is a great loss because offensive humor is one of the great gifts I think that we’ve been given. And I remember one of the really formative experience of my life was hearing this Sarah Silverman joke when she just started out God knows how many years ago.

It was a joke, I’m not gonna be able to do this very well. She said something like, I was raped by a doctor, which is such a bittersweet experience for a Jewish girl. And I thought, my gosh, at the time I was so taken aback. She’s making a rape joke.

And not only that, she’s adding the Jewish stereotypes about Jewish women and doctors to it. That’s bold i thought. And also she’s reclaiming the subject and saying, I can make jokes about whatever i want. And I just thought that was great and interesting and ballsy. And I think if college students are going to try make themselves immune from experiences like that, that’s a real loss.

But I’ll also say that as a teacher you often have students, and I teach on the creative side of the curriculum. I teach film, and so my students are writing scripts and shooting films. And they’re oftentimes interested in taking on social stereotypes and playing around with them because they’ve seen that happening a lot on cable TV, on roasts, on Saturday Night Live.

And you never exactly know where this is going to go. The students need to be able to risk being offensive in order to do work that’s meaningful, I think. One of the weird things about this moment is that it seems like the social proprieties are actually becoming heightened.

There’s more likelihood for people to take offense now than maybe there was in say the 1950s which we think of as a more repressive era. So it is a question mark as somebody who’s working in cultural areas to where the proprieties are. And jokes are a good way of mapping where the boundaries have shifted, where the social sensitivities are, and where the permissiveness is.

I have students I’ve noticed in the last few years who seem to be making a lot of references to anal sex in their scripts. And that’s a new thing, so it’s like that boundary his shifted. Whereas other boundaries, I mean having to do particularly with race and gender, have become more touchy.

So jokes are always I think pressing against where those social boundaries are. They’re kind of like a map. As someone who’s a writer and who teaches students who are in the creative area, I mean, it’s not like you want there to be central committees of censors deciding what is and isn’t appropriate.

And I’m somebody who wants to give advice to students. I think that every generation has to figure out their own politics. But to the extent that students are setting themselves up as censors or would-be censors, I’m not sure that’s a great direction.