“In a civilized society freedom to offend should be protected.” – Nigel Warburton
“I’m not changing anything,” I said to Keith, standing tall with my palms pressing hard on his desk.
Before he could say anything, I left his office, thinking to myself, who were the censors to decide what was appropriate or not for the public? We had a target audience! What age was this that people still got offended by a swear word? When thinking about the word censorship itself, another more daunting word would come to mind – suppression. If you visualized it from here, you’d think of a citizen from a communist country like China where media censorship was in full force. Theoretically, freedom of speech never existed.
Next, I grabbed my bag from my desk and walked toward the elevator to go on lunch break. Adam, my co-worker, held the door open for me.
“Are you going to your interview with that foul-mouthed hockey player?” I asked him.
“Yeah, it’s going to be fun. He’s hilarious.”
“How do you transcribe the interview again?”
“Oh, it’ll be edited. You know how hockey players talk: Gotta give it all, y’know? Get the puck in!”
“I love your Canadian accent, Adam,” I laughed.
He blushed and stared at the ground. Five people from the censorship department entered next and made Adam and me step away from each other to make space. Two were tall, slender women wearing high pumps. The other three were men smelling strong of Armani cologne. Somehow our chat turned into polite smiles until we reached the lobby.
“I was going to say that nobody ever comes out of Keith’s office with a happy face…” Adam said, “except for you, usually.”
I looked at the censors strutting past the receptionist without thanking him for automatically opening the gate for them.
“That’s because it wasn’t about our magazine.”
“You showed him your book?” he said.
The censors lit their cigarettes outside while choosing their lunch destination. Eventually, they headed north.
“Care to join me for lunch, Adam?”
We grabbed some sandwiches near the Riverwalk, one of my favorite places to hang out in Chicago. I moved here out of intuition that I would be able to contribute to media freedom. New York and Los Angeles were too vast to grasp or wrap my head around. There was something about Chicago that gave me hope. It could be the cold wind, or it could be John Hughes movies.
“Press freedom in the States is a joke, Adam. I don’t understand how people stay silent about it.”
We were crossing the busy DuSable Bridge with our sandwiches and drinks because I preferred to walk.
“I don’t think people are silent. Plus, we can only tell so much,” Adam said and took a sip of his milkshake. I knew that he referred us to the press.
He continued, “Over 40 percent of Americans want a socialist society over capitalism, but nobody knows because the media doesn’t share this information.”
“So why don’t we?”
Adam almost choked on his next sip and started a round of coughing.
“There’s a reason why I’m a sports journalist, Andrea.”
“But even people in sports can’t tell what they think! What’s with this Canadian hockey commentator that got fired? What did he do? He criticized immigrants for not wearing poppies on Remembrance Day. That’s crazy!”
“Firing a legend is indeed crazy…”
I knew that Adam knew a lot about the suppression of speech, but he wouldn’t team up with me. Nobody would.
“The problem is this whole PC bullshit!” I said. “If you’re a public figure, you’re not free to state your opinion, because a certain group of people out there will take offence.”
I thought of social media, which, in my eyes, was the public. The public had been involved in the media and politics for over a decade. You had all sorts of voices and perspectives based on everything – bias, lie, truth and ignorance. The majority was brainwashed by carefully selected ads. People’s behaviors were tracked and recorded. If you were without an opinion, the government would feed you one.
“Everything is PC these days, especially if you’re in the public eye. You know that. Isn’t that what your book is about?” he said.
“You’re making a wrong move.”
“What do you mean?”
“Trust me, Andrea. If you want it published, you’ll need to do it yourself under a pseudonym. I’m just trying to save your ass.”
“Yes, you’ve already shown it to Keith, I know. Either way…I’d like to keep you as a co-worker.”
Adam looked at his watch and then finished his sandwich in two bites.
“Shit, I have to head up to the arena.”
“Well, thanks for hanging out.”
I was awake till late that night – reading about journalists in danger, detained and exiled whistleblowers, the torturous imprisonment of the Wikileaks founder, an Iranian satirical writer jailed for twenty-seven years…
What Adam was trying to say was that the government and the police owned the media. I knew that. I was also aware that there were evil forces out there manipulating the relationship between the west and the east. The only way to trigger a potential threat for war was to create conflict between powerful, wealthy countries.
Meanwhile, the news on existing wars in underdeveloped, third world countries fell through the cracks, but they would eventually creep up again if there were a flood of asylum seekers. Religions, cultural differences and mentalities were frowned upon more deeply these days. And as a result, racism was on the rise. Immigrants were criticized for not adapting to the culture of their new home. The problems of the world went on and on.
It was evident that someone was on the Canadian prime minister’s case, watching his every move and listening to every whisper. When you saw footage or pictures of those in the news You would never hear about who was behind it when you saw footage or pictures of those in the news. Who sent those to the press? The public would be too fixated on the content itself than comment on the reporter’s motive.
Blackface, two-faced…Was nothing else more relevant to report?
I actually never asked Adam about his opinion on his prime minister, or any political matters in his home country. Canada is multicultural. With this melting pot, a nation’s perception changes. Non-western mentalities join the club, and they have probably never laughed hard at a piece of comedy.
I opened my manuscript to some random page, which happened to be the section on transgender identity and how a public figure (whether politician or TV host, celebrity) could lose his or her job or reputation if he or she made an inappropriate comment. The employer didn’t know any better way to secure the company’s reputation than to fire that employee (i.e. misinterpreted actors accused of racism). In my book, I took real-life examples, whether the accused people were actors, politicians or other public figures. They usually ended up finding justification and consent on popular internet podcasts or other. As long as you weren’t on national television, you were kind of safe. But as soon as you disappeared from the screen, people would forget about you.
Just before I fell asleep, my phone vibrated. Adam messaged me, saying, “I have to take you to the Comedy Bar tomorrow.”
I didn’t sleep well. The nightmares I had on publishing my book were a clear sign that I was, in fact, scared. Images of me lying dead in the gutter or being raped in prison gave me the shivers. Moreover, this fear came from feeling alone. I looked at my manuscript with a sudden desire to burn it. Adam was right. There was only so much you could tell. I didn’t vote for our president, but I could tell how his lack of depth and decency in his speeches reached out to the people. They listened to him because there was no such person like him in politics. Only the late-night shows were able to tell the rest of the world that there were sane people in the United States. But that was no longer politics or media. It was pure entertainment. Unfiltered politics—presented by entertainers.
I thought Adam had overcome his fear of asking me out, but as soon as he stressed the importance of the comedy show, it no longer felt like it was a date.
We met on W Illinois St for some pizza before we headed to the show. The casual nightlife in Chicago was very easygoing, especially where we were. Many students from the University of Chicago would hang out here.
I’d never been to the Comedy Bar, and I didn’t realize that there were two stages. The guy that we were going to see got upgraded from the brewery stage to the main stage because the main act cancelled at the last minute. However, a lot of the people decided to stay instead of requesting their money back. The room was filling up quickly, as people from the lower floor all came upstairs to the main venue looking for seats. This part of the venue would probably fit over one hundred people. Adam and I grabbed a table not too far from the stage and ordered a couple of IPAs.
“Did you look this guy up?” Adam asked.
“No. I don’t even know his name. I came with zero expectations,” I said, keeping to myself that I’d anticipated it to be a date and perhaps seek a confidant in him. But at that time, I didn’t even realize what he was doing for me.
The lights dimmed, as the stage brightened up – hands were clapping.
A skinny guy of perhaps 5’10 appeared on stage with an innocent smile. He was probably 23, if not younger.
“Hi, my name is Ted,” he spoke into the mic. “I recently graduated from the University of Chicago, where I studied journalism, arts and media. Imagine what my parents would have said if I’d wanted to study nothing but the arts?”
There were a couple of chuckles in the room.
“Yep, they would’ve killed me. There’s only one Andy Warhol in a million. Becoming successful in the arts is almost like a gambling game unless you master the rules and shortcuts of marketing. Then you can write songs that go I really really really really really really like you. And I want you, do you want me?
My condolences if your eleven-year-old daughter fell for this song…”
“There are software systems out there that study and trace people’s behaviors. These systems are capable of measuring your attention span. And needless to say—technology has slowed down our thinking! ADHD no longer just affect kids, but at least 11% of adults. Make me read a book by Charles Dickens, and I’d rather shoot myself in the head!”
Again, there was laughter. I saw a huge grin on Adam’s face. Something told me he’d already heard that joke.
“Going back to my studies…,” Ted began, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not a comedian, despite being the class clown. But I came to realize that only comedy can save the human mind.
In journalism, you learn about the necessity of social media. And here’s where things go wrong…”
My heart was up to my throat, and there were goosebumps all over my forearms. Ted looked over to us for a second before he continued.
“Free press comes with many perspectives and therefore involves a huge amount of bias. Your audience—the public has suddenly become the judge. Twenty years ago, you had professional critics taking you down, and now the entire world has the ability to shit on you.”
I saw some serious faces in the audience, but quite a few people didn’t look sure about this.
“This isn’t TED talk, dude!” someone shouted from the back.
“I’ll make you laugh, pal. I promise!” Ted shouted back, smiling.
“On a more important note, after tonight, you’ll wonder if there’ll still be comedians ten years from now.”
He paused for a while, and there was silence.
“The world is going through drastic changes, and on a cultural and sexual level, it seems like we all have to be nice and politically correct. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to comedy. Freedom of speech prevails in comedy. But what’s the point of comedy? You see, for a comedian, the goal is to get a reaction out of his audience. To do that, he or she needs to push boundaries and here’s the problem:
How far do you push the boundaries? How offensive can you be?
Your safest bet is to create a TV animation. There is no human face that you can judge. In the end, you can choose to walk away from it, unaffected by the content, whether it’s jokes on racism, homophobia or misogyny. If you laugh during these shows, it means you understand the joke, and you’re aware that it is a joke. This is the purpose of comedy.
I was saying earlier that comedy might not exist anymore in ten years, but before that happens, you’d probably have to sign your consent that you made a choice to subject to the content of the comedy show.”
I noticed that I’d finished my beer already, whereas Adam’s was still half full.
“In journalism, you have codes of ethics, pillars, and all that shit to follow, but journalists have their own agendas. Except that now, the secret police watch each journalist closely. As scary as it may sound, political censorship doesn’t only take place in Asia and the Middle East. It’s here in North America too.”
He took another sip of his water and smiled at the audience. “I’m sure you agree that growing censorship is a huge danger to what you think is a free society… Either way, let me begin my show…”
Here, people started raising their eyebrows, and Adam chuckled.
For the next half hour, Ted delivered a wildly entertaining stand-up show filled with offensive and yet hilarious jokes. His entire personality changed, and he suddenly seemed taller and more mature. He’d fooled the audience successfully.
After the show, I knew that Adam would introduce me to Ted. He joined our table and shook my hand firmly.
“Pleasure to meet you, Andrea. I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow at Adam and smiled back at Ted.
“Ted works at the university in the publishing sector. After reading his essays, I felt that the two of you had to meet,” Adam said.
We spoke about my book and how it was not appropriate for the press, according to our chief editor. Even Ted looked worried, knowing that our chief knew about my book.
In Ted’s eyes, we couldn’t stop the media from brainwashing the public. Though we could still save humor. Provoking a reaction out of people is the only thing that was still relevant.
When we parted outside the Comedy Bar, Ted gave me a copy of Free Speech – A short history by Nigel Warburton. We’d arranged to meet at the university during the week. He wanted a copy of my manuscript. He was convinced that my book wouldn’t just stir up the media but also put me in danger. Therefore, we had to work on a strategic plan for the publishing part.
Adam drove me home. I lived in a high rise in the Loop district. On that particular night, I didn’t want to be alone, so I asked him to come up with me.
“I promise I won’t make any moves on you,” I said jokingly and realized that I was tipsy and emotional.
He smiled, and I could tell that he was about to say no.
“For all I know, I could be dead tomorrow, Adam. On some days I’m scared for my life because I feel watched. We expose ourselves so much without even realizing it.”
He stopped me right there. “I’ll come up for some tea if you have some.”
I was nervous in the elevator. The white neon lights were hurting my eyes, and my bubbly head was throbbing. I felt his eyes on me as I was walking out of the elevator first.
My heart sank when I saw that my apartment door was open. Adam gestured for me to stay back. He carefully pushed the door open, and we saw a turned dinner table and chairs.
“Hello?” he said.
He switched the light on, and we walked into my apartment. All my books and magazines were lying around on the floor.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
I ran into my bedroom, not caring if anyone was there or not. There, I found torn pages of my manuscript, and at least one-third of it was missing.
“Andrea…” I heard Adam say.
I knew immediately that both Ted and I were in danger and that whatever measure we were going to take, it had to happen now.
by Paula C. Deckard (c) 2019-2020