Back in April, the Free Speech Union put together a spoof April Fools’ Day news article about how the Daily Sceptic was looking to recruit a team of sensitivity readers to, as we put it, help the editorial team create a “safe online space from which those with distasteful views can be excluded”, and be responsible for “developing untapped issues in the field of sensitivity (e.g., ‘Are verbs racist?’, ‘Is proper grammar fascism by other means?’, ‘Do linear narratives perpetuate colonial thought structures?’, etc) and bringing these to the attention of the editors”.
Even at the time, we were getting perilously close to the point at which satire might plausibly cross over into plain reportage. According to Steerpike in the Spectator, however, a particularly earnest group of progressive undergraduates at the University of Cambridge have now contrived to blur that distinction altogether.
This is the news that the legendary Cambridge Footlights, one of Britain’s oldest student comedy troupes, whose alumni include Germaine Greer, Sue Perkins, Stephen Fry, Richard Ayoade, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Clive James and David Mitchell, is now recruiting for a new ‘sensitivity reading’ service to ensure “all student comedy” is as “inclusive as possible” and “to check for potential oversights regarding racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, or any other kind of sensitive or upsetting material”.
The new “optional request for any student-written comedy” will involve a member of the Footlights Committee offering to vet submissions and conferring with the other members of their panel as to any necessary changes.
A briefing document for members seen by the Spectator stresses that this is “an opt-in service and is not at all compulsory” and promises that “this is not a joke deletion service… we would seek to maintain all the humour and hopefully we’re qualified to do this”.
It also asserts in bold that “this is not censorship”, and that “we are not trying to stop students pushing the boundaries on what is acceptable… we are only offering a second, uninvolved opinion on your work, specifically to check whether it comes across as punching up rather than down”.
Despite these nods to the importance of artistic creativity and freedom of expression, the invocation of the metaphor ‘punching’ up or down does rather suggest the document’s authors may well have other, more progressive priorities.
In the new woke lexicon, to ‘punch down’ is to make fun of any person or group who is in some way deemed to be less ‘privileged’ than the comedian. This, apparently, is the greatest crime a modern comedian can commit.
Of course, many comedians might well argue that what they’re swinging away at during their routines isn’t people, but abstract sets of ideas; not trans folk or Black Lives Matter protesters, for instance, but trans activist ideology and critical race theory.
It’s therefore interesting to consider the extent to which the metaphor of ‘punching’ up or down serves to reframe reality, forcing us to personify humour’s intended targets, and thus render the comedian either as an abuser (i.e., ‘punching down’) or a progressive campaigner (i.e., ‘punching up’).
In that sense, the Footlights Committee’s new sensitivity reading initiative won’t need to involve, as they put it, “joke deletion”, “censorship”, or any direct attempt to “stop students from pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable”, to end up having a chilling effect.
Because what budding young comic among Cambridge’s student body will want to be whispered about among friends and peers as a psychologically abusive, hate-fuelled, minority-victimising bully?
Dr. Frederick Attenborough is the Communications Officer of the Free Speech Union.