The last man fighting the culture wars is Ricky Gervais. I know you didn’t expect it—neither did I. But it seems success has gone to his head. He’s almost fanatical in the cause of freedom of speech, comedy, and a certain understanding of humanity. His new Netflix show, “Humanity,” attacks progressive pieties more shamelessly than anything available in America and is far likelier to reach liberal audiences than anything conservatives do.
The atheist liberal who mocks Texan Christians and God gives a welcome lesson about what an anti-progressive coalition might look like. Gervais gives all sorts of examples of progressives’ desire to control what we say and think and do in the name of safety. Progressives’ claim to virtue has to be laughed at and humiliated until people who are progressive, but not totalitarian, can take back control of their movement.
Gervais’s defense of freedom of speech is only superficially about saying nasty stuff without censorship. It’s not even about legal permissions or corporate decisions. It goes deeper than the usual pundits’ arguments to the attitude people bring to the public space. If famous people and mobs on one side of the debate can claim with impunity that people on the other side want dead children, there is no freedom left for disagreement, much less for comedy. The only thing left is partisan strife.
Take Out Your Misery in Laughter, Not Oppression
There’s no common ground between Gervais and the Texan Christian he says he traded insults with on Twitter. But he felt compelled anyway to defend the guy’s freedom of speech from his own mob of Twitter followers, of which he has millions.
Moreover, he dedicates his show to crystallizing the emergence of progressive hysteria, from celebrities to mobs, on Twitter. He takes it so seriously he spends more time mocking it than he does mocking Christians. He’s learned the Left, not the Right, is the urgent threat to freedom of speech and comedy.
He also understands that anger about politics has a lot to do with the misery of our lives, so that’s what he spends most of his time on. His audience laughs along, admitting they know what he’s talking about, even if few others are willing to talk about it. He describes himself as a brat whose self-loathing and self-absorption show us ugly things true of so many of us.
He also talks about what a lonely age this is, with mobility and association both at historical lows, and family apparently being wiped out in much of society. He wants us to be able to see our own misery, so we’re less self-righteous about others. He wants us to make it more bearable to suffer as we do.
The less we believe we can improve things personally or politically, the more we look for crazy status symbols. The more we find the real world miserable, the more we run into the virtual world, where we can profess the most moral opinions and think of and hate those who disagree with us to our hearts’ delight.
The Celebrities Have No Clothes
Ours is above all a moralistic age. That’s how we react to our fear of death. Even as people laugh at Puritans, men and women far less scared of death than we are, we impose our moralism on politics, society, culture, universities, and corporations. Even our celebrities, oligarchs, and their sycophants jockey for position as the most morally enlightened people ever. Of course, it helps them distract everyone from the ugly class divide they thrive on and prop up as best they can.
So we need Gervais, because he does the opposite: He revels in revealing the ugliness of the privileges of the influential, who live charmed lives even as they tell those less wealthy how to live. So he’s not going to be loved for this. Then again, he doesn’t care. Remember, he twice scourged Hollywood when he hosted the Golden Globes. No one else humiliates celebrities, and, boy, do they need it!
Just think of this year’s Oscars, which included zero apologies from Hollywood celebrities. Alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein once led celebrities in cheering on and advocating for the rapist Roman Polanski. Now Meryl Streep, who once called Weinstein “God” at an awards ceremony, got another nomination. And Kobe Bryant, who was accused of rape, won an Oscar. But the academy expelled Weinstein, so that’s alright. That’s the #metoo era for you.
In “Humanity,” Gervais trains his fire not on the celebrities who want to add moral virtue to their glamour, but everybody who’s progressive. Everyone who says those who disagree are not even human—they have blood on their hands, or lack any compassion, or want you dead or enslaved.
Everyone else who understands how dangerous to freedom of speech progressive moralism is should find ways to support works like Gervais’s. It’s certainly a stretch for most conservatives to see his point, not least because his primary audience is liberal, but we don’t have much culture that goes beyond the narrowest partisanship.
We have to find ways to understand what we have in common. Freedom of speech might be it. And it might mean more than we usually think: It might include our attitudes, our willingness to take some public responsibilities, and a desire to establish broad, generous, but firm commitments to tolerate each other. We’ll still agonize over our mortality and our disagreements, but we’ll be better at being human.