I can't wish someone a 'Merry Christmas' in the US

On Christmas Eve, Sony decided to release The Interview, which many lauded as a triumph for free speech against oppressive censorship. To observers, this affirmative stance confirmed that America remains a bastion of free speech, a country that would risk attack (the Sony hackers threatened 9/11-like repercussions on theatres) in order for a movie to be shown.

It is therefore ironic that amid this Christmas season victory, many Americans feel unable to wish one another a simple "Merry Christmas" because it is considered politically incorrect, as many non-Christians do not celebrate Christmas. Instead, to be all-inclusive, we wish one another a neutral "Happy Holidays".

This is just an example of an increasing phenomenon in the United States, where freedom of speech is being curtailed by too much political correctness.

I am a US-based stand-up comedian, and several high-profile comedians like Chris Rock have spoken out on the current culture of heightened sensitivity.

Rock describes a cultural climate in the US where college students are so afraid to offend, they will not say "the black kid over there", but will instead say "the guy with the red shoes".

This PC culture has resulted in comedians no longer being able to speak as freely as we once could. We end up self-censoring, and audiences do not hesitate to turn on us with boos and groans should they take offence.

Most comedians know either to steer clear of certain topics like rape, domestic violence and recent tragedies - or explore them at our own risk.

Earlier this year, news broke that football player Ray Rice had been caught on tape hitting his wife in an elevator. Brian Kilmeade, comedian and co-host of the morning news show Fox & Friends ventured a joke about the incident, saying on the show "the message is, take the stairs". The backlash was resounding, and he had to address his remarks on air the next day, stating that domestic violence is a serious issue not to be taken lightly.

Making racially based jokes is "tread with caution" territory, unless they are about your own race. Interestingly enough, in the US, comedians feel completely free to make fun of Asians. It could be that Asian stereotypes are relatively benign - we are good at mathematics, we are bad at driving; or it could be that we are perceived as too meek to take offence (although North Korea has certainly disproved that assumption).

Despite knowing broad categories of controversial topics, however, it is still challenging for comics to figure out where to draw the line. This is because the boundaries of humour are not only intangible, but also a moving target. Sensitivities, like comedy, are subjective and vary not only by geographical region, but even within one city where different crowds will react differently.

This is one reason why comics call being the first comedian to take the stage "taking the bullet". That first comic is going up to an unknown crowd where it is anybody's guess as to what they will like, and what they might take offence to. Later comics have the benefit of being able to watch earlier acts, and can adjust their sets according to how the crowd is responding.

The politically correct era we are in has reached the point where not only do comedians feel compelled to censor their speech, but some may also even feel pressured to take affirmative action.

Jerry Seinfeld was the brunt of much criticism when his self-produced web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee featured only white, male comedians for the first season. Seinfeld had not said or done anything offensive per se - it was what he did not do that was considered objectionable. For the second season, he promptly featured female comedian Sarah Silverman on the first episode.

One might argue that pushing people to be more sensitive towards others is healthy and desirable for society. However, one of the higher purposes of comedians is to shine light on societal issues. This invariably involves pushing boundaries, calling beliefs into question, and yes, eliciting offence.

True freedom of speech is invaluable for calling attention to issues that have gone unrecognised or unaddressed. Yet in a climate where even comedians, who presumably operate under the protective premise of "these are just jokes", have to toe the politically correct line, what more so for other artists, journalists, politicians and the like? In our effort to be sensitive to all, we end up compromising on one of the fundamental tenets of a strong democracy.

Is America still the bastion of free speech it has long been known for? For the most part yes, but this bastion is being eroded by the tidal wave of political correctitude, turning it into a country where comedians are chastised for cracking jokes, and people cannot freely wish a neighbour "Merry Christmas".

This article was first published on December 30, 2014.
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