John Cleese gives an inadvertent demonstration of how to strawman. It’s rather embarrassing to see one of Argument Clinic’s idols as a subject for dissection, but we must follow the path of intellectual honesty, and break out the flensing-knives.
Perforce I will have to present this as a commentary on video, so we’ll time-code the commentary on the left side, then provide detailed analysis on the right.
|0:00||So far, so good! Cleese is doing an error-free performance.|
|0:03||1984 splashes up on screen. Implication: orwellian totalitarianism ahead. Without even saying anything, yet, the strawman argument has begun.
Implication is: “political correctness” (as yet undefined) is totalitarian, brings 1984-esque orwellian nightmares.
|0:11||Cleese: “I’m offended every day. For example, the British newspapers offend me with their laziness, their nastiness, and their inaccuracy.”
This bodes well. Cleese is offended by inaccuracy, laziness, and nastiness. Thus we can be sure that he is not going to be engaging in any of that sort of behavior himself. My body is suffused with relief.
|0:17||Cleese: “But I’m not going to expect anyone to stop that happening.”
I see a pile of straw, and a bunch of twist-ties. Cleese has begun collecting straw and is now wrapping twist-ties around it. What could he possibly be doing? Oh, he’s making a little idol out of the straw!!
Cleese has left himself wide open for counter-attack, and it’s only 18 seconds in. Picture him being interrupted, “What are you talking about? Is someone expecting the newspapers to stop being lazy, nasty, and inaccurate? Is there an actual proposal that newspapers be forced to behave differently?“
|0:18||Cleese: (continuing) “I should just simply speak out about it.”
Now, Cleese is patting himself on the back for speaking out against that which annoys him. Thus, he sets up this situation:
Cleese has formed a leg and an arm out of straw and is now trying to make a torso.
|0:19||Cleese: “Sometimes, when people are offended, they want someone to just come in and say ‘right, stop that.'”
Now the torso is complete. Cleese appears to have built a strawman of someone who is going around telling people to be quiet.
This is a fairly typical move for the anti “political correctness” set: the term is used as an undefined label, which forms the torso of a strawman argument about people who are silencing others. At this point, we recommend you disable your irony meter, or place it in a protective faraday bag. Because Cleese appears to be about to ask people to be quiet about asking people to be quiet.
That, of course, is one of the many parries that can be employed here. The first parry is to direct your opponent toward an endless quagmire of detail:
Who’s saying that? Not me! If someone is saying “stop speaking” obviously a) you haven’t been stopped because you’re whining about ‘political correctness’ and b) I don’t advocate curbing anyone’s speech, so we’re on the same side.
A more meta- parry is to attack the substance of their approach:
You appear to be setting up a strawman argument. So before you go any further, maybe you should define your terms and give me an idea who you are actually talking about.
|0:34||Cleese: “As a former chairman of the BBC once said, ‘there are some people one would wish to offend.'”
There is also a snarky option:
We are on the same side! Let us build and burn strawmen together! Please pass me those miniature nazi armbands, I want to dress my strawman up as a fascist.
|0:40||Cleese: “The idea that you have to be protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion is one I absolutely do not subscribe to.”
Me either! We are on the same side! Pass the lighter fluid! This is so fun!
Oh, by the way: who exactly is advocating that people need to be protected from uncomfortable emotion? What is the name I should give my strawman, here?
|1:01||Cleese: “If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to stop trying to control other peoples’ behavior.”
That’s wonderfully profound-sounding. But, who are these people? Who is trying to control my behavior!? What name do I put on this strawman I have made, so I can ignite it and watch it burn?
|1:08||Cleese: “When you’re around super sensitive people, you cannot relax and be spontaneous because you have no idea what’s going to upset them next…”
Fortunately neither of us is super sensitive! So you can relax! I can call you a “plummy-arsed failure at Argument Clinic” and you can call me “a snarky nobody” and nobody will step in and try to stop either of us. In spite of the fact that we’re sitting here in a pile of lighter fluid-soaked strawmen in nazi uniforms, nobody has done any totalitarian, Orwellian, anything. Is Cleese saying that he’s afraid I am going to suddenly jump up and start oppressing him? I’m quite the former fan; I’m enjoying this – it’s an embarrassing performance but it’s not offensive and I’m not hitting the “stop” button except to transcribe.
One strategy in this battle might be to sit back and let Cleese go on for the entire 2+ minutes then, near the end, ask him “Who on Earth are you complaining about?”
|1:15||Cleese: “And that’s why I’ve been warned recently, ‘Don’t go to most university campuses.’ Because the political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, which is ‘let’s not be mean, particularly, to people who are not able to look out for themselves.’ That’s a good idea, to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual group can be labelled, um, …. ‘Cruel’.”
I appreciate that Cleese recognizes that the mechanism in action here is labelling.
So, is the problem of political correctness that people are labelling some speech as “Cruel”? Is that it? And that John Cleese can’t relax and be spontaneous because of fear that someone is going to label his speech as “Cruel”? I thought that’s partly what you built your entire career out of, but what do I know? It seems to me that we’ve got the embarrassing spectacle of the man who scripted and performed “How to Irritate People” complaining that people may label him as “Irritating.”
One basic come-back to this would be: “are you complaining that students’ sense of humor has perhaps grown too sophisticated for your comedy?”
|1:50||Cleese: “all comedy is critical. Even if you make a very inclusive joke, like, ‘how do you make god laugh?’ – ‘Tell him your plans.’ Now that’s about the human condition, it’s not excluding anyone.”
Please pass more straw. I am going to name this next strawman ‘Andrew Dice Clay’ because that’s how funny that joke was.
But we must note: Cleese begins to bring in another pile of straw labelled ‘Inclusive’ness.
Standard parry: “Are you saying that someone is advocating stopping non-inclusive humor? I’d like to know who that is.”
There are humorists, like the aforementioned Andrew Dice Clay, who experienced career downturns because they weren’t very funny. As Cleese is not being very funny, here. Nobody silenced Clay, or is silencing Cleese – they just chose how to spend their money as they saw fit.
Imagine if I opened a food cart that sold “Food that tastes bad” – after the first reviews of my alum/capsiacin chili hit Yelp, I might find my clientele dropped to pretty much zero. That doesn’t entitle me to complain that I am being silenced by food critics. I made a mistake, as Andrew Dice Clay did, in the selection of my target audience. I can complain all that I like that it’s hard for me to be relaxed and spontaneous with my menu selection, but it’s not that I’m being oppressed – I’m being ignored by people who have chosen something else.
|2:16||Cleese: “All. Humor. Is. Critical.”
As someone whose entire life has been held up to critique, I expect Cleese to understand that. And to understand that it’s a give and take.
Critique is not control. Repeat after me: critique is not control.
It is beginning to sound suspiciously like one of my comedic idols is complaining that he’s afraid to go to universities because someone might complain about him not being funny.
If that bothers you, John Cleese, you might want to stay off Youtube, too.
|2:19||Cleese: “If we start to say ‘Ooh! Ooh! We mustn’t criticize or offend them’ then the humor’s gone. With humor goes a sense of proportion. And then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re living in 1984.”
Rewinding a bit: nobody said ‘mustn’t criticize’ – in fact, we’re both doing it. Cleese said his bit, I said mine, and now The Commentariat will critique me in turn. I will not prevent people from criticizing my precious words, as Cleese did not prevent people criticizing his. Therefore humor is not destroyed. Therefore a sense of proportion remains. Therefore, no 1984. Whew.
Hand me the lighter would you?
When I describe ‘political correctness’ as a ‘whine’ – this is what I mean. Cleese doesn’t actually present an argument. He vaguely hand-waves about something something someone said universities complain something something therefore we must fear 1984.
Strategically, Cleese has left himself vulnerable to so many counter-attacks it isn’t funny. My favorite would be to (as usual) “go meta-” and point out that he started talking about people telling people to stop talking, never finished making that argument and then switched to people complaining, in order to equate complaining with orwellian dictatorship. How can he defend that as intellectual honesty? Big Brother’s dictatorship is manifestly worse in every respect than “people complaining” and Cleese can be expected to know that. Therefore he can be expected to acknowledge that he’s blowing things a bit out of proportion.
John Cleese is a man who has made his life out of criticizing others, mostly humorously. He appears to now be complaining that he fears he may be subject to critique, himself.
What would an effective critique of “Political Correctness” look like? First, you’d want to define the term narrowly enough to avoid quagmires of linguistic nihilism. I’d try to avoid the label entirely, but it might look something like: “Political Correctness is causing problems – and by ‘political correctness’ I am referring to the practice of complaining about things that offend you.” Then I’d get specific with a few concrete examples of the behavior that I felt was inappropriate, and why. “Fear of complaining makes some of my favorite comedians look foolish because they fearlessly complain about fear of complaining. For example, John Cleese did a video on youtube in which he complained a great deal without any substance behind his complaints – clearly, he’s just afraid of complaining, so he complained about it.” Then I would distance myself from the problem by wrapping myself in a Cloak Of Righteousness: “As a life-long proponent of free speech, I support anyone’s right to complain about anything, even complaining about people complaining about people complaining, so if you wish to complain about this, the comment-box (below) is open.”