Opinion: The World Is Evolving and Ricky Gervais Isn’t

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Ricky Gervais' new stand-up show for Netflix 'Humanity' takes aim at political correctness, Twitter storms, and comedy taboos. Here, New York Times columnist, Lindy West, fires back.

Ricky Gervais, the British comedian, does not care what you say about him on Twitter. He does not care if you are offended. He does not care if you hate the latest joke he told about rape, or the Bible, or Caitlyn Jenner, or Hitler or your child’s fatal peanut allergy. And just to make sure you’re crystal clear on all of the tweets he does not remotely care about, he has built his new Netflix stand-up special, “Ricky Gervais: Humanity,” around them — these negligible tweets, the droning of gnats, several years of which he appears to have accidentally screen-grabbed and saved to his phone. (Ricky Gervais: Butterfingers!)

Similarly, I don’t care about Formula One racing, which is why I’m working on a tight 75-minute act about the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Gervais seems to care quite intensely, of course, which is natural. It would be grotesque, inhuman, not to care. Absorbing critique on a scale as vast as Gervais’s Twitter feed (13.1 million followers), whether the specific critiques are warranted or not, is objectively grueling. Stand-up comedy is vulnerable and hard. Twitter is awful. Devoid of context, Gervais’s bravado might be sympathetic, a relatable if tedious coping mechanism. As Gervais himself helpfully points out in “Humanity,” however, nothing can truly be divorced from context.

So here’s some context for you: Recently, the secretary of housing and urban development, Ben Carson, testified in front of a House subcommittee that trans women in homeless shelters make cisgender women “not comfortable.” According to a 2016 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 20 percent of trans people report having been homeless at some point because of their gender identity, 55 percent report being harassed by homeless shelter residents and staff, and 29 percent have been turned away from shelters for being trans. Meanwhile, on Netflix, Gervais graphically speculated about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender confirmation surgery, repeatedly referred to her as a big strong man, relentlessly called her by her pre-transition name and compared gender dysphoria to a human choosing to identify as a chimpanzee.

That is the context within which Gervais insists he doesn’t care about critiques of his work — critiques pointing out that describing trans women as goofy, freaky, delusional men who’ve just “popped on a dress” isn’t edgy or cheeky, it’s dangerous. Giggling at the “weirdness” of trans people — presenting your spasms of discomfort as something relatable — makes it harder for trans people to find a safe place to sleep. Transphobia is not a pet issue of the hypersensitive but a continuing international emergency.

And sure, some critiques are silly or bad. Public opinion is a numbers game: Distribute your work to a large enough sample and you’ll accrue people who love you, which is intoxicating, but also people who don’t, which is painful. You’ll find some who get the jokes but hate them anyway and some who hate you without even bothering to watch. This doesn’t actually say much about humanity except that it is vast and varied. Yet, out of this data set, some comedians and their fans seem determined to gerrymander an epidemic of bowdlerization.

“People see something they don’t like and they expect it to stop,” Gervais says in “Humanity.” “The world is getting worse. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve lived through the best 50 years of humanity. 1960 through 2015, the peak of civilization for everything. For tolerances, for freedoms, for communication, for medicine! And now it’s going the other way a little bit.”

The Trump/Brexit era is a rich, famous, white, middle-aged man declaring the world to be in decline the moment he stops understanding it.

“Dumpster fire” has emerged as the favorite emblem of our present moment, but that Gervais quote feels both more apt and more tragic a metaphor: The Trump/Brexit era is a rich, famous, white, middle-aged man declaring the world to be in decline the moment he stops understanding it.

Gervais is not alone in presenting himself as a noble bulwark against a wave of supposed left-wing censorship. (A Netflix special, for the record, is not what “silencing” looks like.) We’ve heard similar sentiments from hand-wringers across the political spectrum who insist that overzealous, “politically correct” college activists are strangling academia. We’ve heard it from pundits and politicians who insist that white men were so victimized by the “sensitivity” of marginalized people, they had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Men who scream “snowflake” at rape victims feel so wounded by even minor critiques that they have been re-litigating the same arguments about “offense” and “free speech” for decades.

What they’re actually reacting to is the message deep at the heart of the March for Our Lives, of Black Lives Matter, of the Women’s March: The world is bigger than you, and it belongs to us too.

If you’ve spent any time with Gervais’s work beyond “The Office” and “Extras,” you know that the man is obsessed with evolution. His 2003 stand-up special was about animals; his 2010 special was called “Science”; in 2009 and 2010 he released special episodes of his podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show, devoted to natural history, the human body, the earth.

On their Xfm radio show in the early 2000s, Gervais and his co-host, Stephen Merchant, did a recurring segment called “Do We Need ’Em?” in which the producer, Karl Pilkington, chose an animal he found strange or useless (jellyfish, for instance) and interviewed a scientist about whether or not we should “keep” them.

“What are they adding to the world?” he once asked Gervais and Merchant about giraffes. “What are they doing?”

Gervais explained that species aren’t here because they add something to the world. They weren’t chosen by a benevolent creator; they aren’t the most beautiful or the strongest or the most beneficial to the whole. They just didn’t die. They survived to pass on their genetic material, and that’s it. That’s evolution. The world thunders on, with or without you. Adapt or perish.

It’s baffling that Gervais can have so much reverence for physical evolution and so little for intellectual evolution. He might find trans people silly, but you know who doesn’t? Teenagers. I remember the first gay kiss on TV, and I am only 36 years old; my kids think I must be lying. My husband, a stand-up comic, used to do a bit about a Comcast commercial in which a woman goes on a date with a little green alien; at the time, interracial human couples were taboo in advertising. That joke doesn’t work anymore, because the world changed, and it’s going to keep changing.

It is frightening, I assume, when you are accustomed to being not just a voice of authority in your field but the archetype of authority in your civilization, to be challenged and feel those challenges stick.

I’m being hard on Ricky Gervais not because his attitude is extraordinary but because it is common. Not because I think he and the other ostensibly left-leaning men who succumb to this trap are just like Trump, but because I believe they aren’t. Or they don’t have to be.

You can choose to be permeable, to be curious, to be the one that didn’t die.

Lindy West is the author of “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman” and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. 

Source The New York Times