I, like most every college student in America, do not make a habit of watching “Real Time with Bill Maher.” My parents watch it weekly, as they have for years. But they will be the first to tell you, they no longer watch it for his clever commentary or his takedowns of right-wing pundits. They mainly watch it out of habit, or to complain, because Bill Maher no longer makes content for Democrats or liberals. He creates content for closeted right-wingers who call themselves progressives because they didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but they still laugh at anti-masker jokes and think loan forgiveness should not be wasted on young people. This week, my parents brought a segment of Maher’s to my attention—a short segment where Brandeis University was the butt of a joke.
Many of us here at Brandeis are aware that attention brought our way is rarely complimentary. Our school is too expensive, it’s full of outspoken social justice warriors and it could be described as an institution that breeds “East Coast elites.” Every few years Fox News spits out some filler piece about us being overly sensitive or bad Jews who hate Israel. And that’s fine, my parents don’t watch Fox News. But when Bill Maher spends five seconds on an irrelevant story from two years ago, I must abuse my power as a student journalist to respond.
This segment was about trigger warnings—a topic he covers, according to my parents, in practically every episode. Brandeis was brought up when he noted a project by PARC, once meant as a learning tool for student staff. The project consisted of a few dozen words and phrases that one could rephrase or stop using altogether to encourage inclusivity. As a third-year Brandeis student, this list has never been brought to my attention—perhaps because it is no longer used and because it was only made to be shown to a handful of students. But I digress from his misrepresentation. The list, and the inclusion of Brandeis at all, while it may have brought my attention to the segment, is not what’s really important here. I have no problem with critiques of my school or its study body. I get triggered, as it were, when they are critiqued on the grounds of sensitivity, of weakness.
I am sensitive. So are a good deal of my friends and peers. I get overwhelmed when people yell at me or argue too aggressively. I appreciate content warnings before depictions of animal abuse or bugs. I occasionally write 700-word rants when an unfunny comedian vaguely mentions my university. But I am not ashamed of those things. I hope my friends aren’t either. Because for all the monologues I have heard about young people’s sensitivity being the downfall of my generation, no one has told me why it is an actual problem.
I can sympathize with feeling annoyed, maybe even experiencing some cultural whiplash. A mere decade ago many words were widely used that we nowadays would call slurs, including a slur against Romani people that Maher actually used as an example of ridiculous words to ban. But I do sympathize, at least slightly. There are a lot of us young people and we have a lot of ways to express our thoughts and opinions that people like Maher, as cultural commentators, are forced to look at. But his hatred, the malice in his voice as he called those born within five to 10 years of me weak, confuses and worries me.
Is he that passionate about ridding us of our anxieties and supporting us in overcoming our individual traumas? I do not think he is. The reason he calls young people weak is not to help us find ways to manage our sensitivities or to strengthen us, it is because he wants us to stop complaining that we do not find him or his colleagues funny anymore. If Maher was an advocate for therapy or if his comedy ever took a break from insulting young people, maybe I would think differently. But from where I am standing Bill Maher looks like an angry old man. One who no longer knows how to pander to the audience that made him popular in the first place, so he routinely overblows the same two bits about how we college kids will start burning down buildings if you misgender us or say “you guys.”
The generational war, so often discussed by right-wing newscasters, is made-up nonsense that Maher physically cannot stop parroting. What begins as a valid criticism of cancel culture quickly spirals into a revulsion of change. Because if young people are spearheading a movement, be it climate change, rights and protections for transgender people or reduced tuition for college, it must be some culture war, coddling, woke madness.