Well, here’s a tricky one.
Delta airlines recently came under fire for screening an edited version of the film Carol on their flights. As many of you are probably aware, Carol is a film about two women who fall in love. There is therefore sex and yes, even kissing between the two women. However, in the edited version (edited by the studio and not the airline) said sex and kissing between the women had been taken out, while the hetero-kissing remained.
Now, the airline is once again involved in a censorship story for what seems like the opposite reason: instead of censoring the homosexuality, they claim to be taking a stand against homophobia. The item in question is Chris Rock’s 2008 Emmy Award winning comedy special, Kill The Messenger, which includes a section of Rock saying the word “faggot” — a lot. But Rock’s usage of the word comes in the midst of a comic deconstruction of the power of slurs. (Rock’s ultimate thesis about context feels dated in 2016. In 2008 what was culturally acceptable seemed to be “depends on the context.” Today the unspoken rule is often “never use this word unless in a radically reappropriative manner.”) But his interesting, if flawed thesis, is undermined when he says that even he, a straight man who loves Gwen Stefani (a gay icon), can be called a “faggot” when he is listening to “Hollaback girl” so intently that he blocks traffic.
Grindr employee Jeremy Foreshew brought it to the airline’s attention after he first began watching the special on a flight from NY to LA after having just spent time with activists from the Human Rights Campaign and True Colors (among other nonprofits) for work in NY. On the flight, he notified a flight attendant of his concern after he saw the aforementioned segment. He said to Gay Travel:
Having come from being with all these activists, knowing the current state of violence against the LGBT community, and knowing the current political climate… I just came to a place where I couldn’t believe this was something happening in 2016. When you think of the number of people who fly Delta every day and have access to that language… it just shocked me.
The flight attendant hooked him up with customer service representatives at LAX, who in turn hooked him up with an executive. And so, alas, the special is being pulled, with Delta issuing the statement to Entertainment Weekly:
The Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger segment should not have been uploaded on flights based on our criteria for excluding onboard programming that includes content featuring explicit language, slurs, extreme violence, and explicit scenes. We apologize to any customers who were offended by the content or our airing of the segment, and we are working as quickly as possible to remove it from our aircraft. Our commitment to inclusion and respect of all customers is rooted in Delta’s values and culture, and we proudly embrace diverse people, thinking and styles.
It’s understandable that the airline might want to be extra careful following their bad press over the desexualizing and de-romanticizing of Carol. At the same time, that was a controversy not over what was shown, but what wasn’t. It hardly seems like the antidote to censorship is another case of censorship, even if it is a comedy segment that now seems distasteful, or to some, hateful (though I’d say that Rock was unsuccessfully attempting to deconstruct the types of speech that can be considered hateful).
This year, at the Oscars, people got a dose of Chris Rock’s acute ability to underscore America’s continuous issues of racial injustice and oppression by perception; but Rock also perpetuated some prejudiced perceptions with a few questionable jokes of his own. Comedians are, as Flavorwire’s Alison Herman once noted in the wake of a not-too-dissimilar controversy, to an extent, playing hyperbolized characters, and sometimes those characters say really dumb shit, couched within smarter commentary. Comedy is often about experimenting with the edges of acceptability — so when it does ultimately cross a line into offensive territory, it’s in part because that’s the nature of what the form itself challenges: if nothing else, these failed moments help identify those lines, and why they exist.
As a gay person, I cringe a little bit when I hear a joke like Rock’s. But I want to keep that in mind, and then hear the rest.
Obviously a private company can decide not to show whatever they want to their cramped, midair, Benzo-clouded captives. (Or, of course, people who’re less afraid of flying than I clearly am.) But this double exclusion of both the dumb shit a comedian might say and the smart shit he says (because Rock is arguably one of the most trenchant voices in comedy, not to mention an indispensable mainstream black voice in a white-dominated field) seems a small example of a larger, unsettling step we’re moving in culturally, where the immediate reaction to any offense, from any side of a given argument, is to completely silence or shun. This pushes aside the value of listening and experiencing something, even something questionable, and then deciding for yourself what may be wrong with it.
The answer to getting in trouble for censorship isn’t to also censor in the opposite direction. Art and culture often examine the grey areas. Censorship — especially on a larger scale than what Delta chooses to air or not air on their flights — only provides an answer in black and white. Thus something that could’ve been visible, and informative in numerous ways, becomes invisible, contributing nothing whatsoever.