[TRIGGER WARNING: rape] Court jesters were often the only members of a royal court who could verbally attack the wearers of the crown and live to see another dawn. They told daring and suggestive jokes, often layering innuendo and sycophancy over barbed clever insults. They were the obscene comedians of their day, speaking pointed truths to personified power.
Or so they’re portrayed in literature and plays. The reality might not have been so noble, but let’s stick with that story. It feels truthier!
In a similar vein to political artists and the fourth estate, humorists still hold a position of exception. At least in the United States, they do. Stand-up routines and lampooning essays can make you laugh at the expense of presidents, powerful businessmen and companies, religious institutions, celebrities, or any other bearer of some form of power without resulting in the silencing of the originating comedian.
That exercise of our freedom of speech is astounding. There are places in the world today where if you even implied that a person in power might be in the wrong, you would breathe your last breath. And I applaud the exercise and I laugh at many and I love comedy. The best examples shake up my perspectives, make me learn new viewpoints, and leave me better than I was before.
Then there are people who attack victims from behind the invisible shield of, “It was just a joke!” Those are the jackasses.
There is no intrinsic virtue to telling jokes. Joke-telling is a skill and a power and can be used well or abused. Just like a sex act can be great and positive or it can be a horrific violation. It’s a commonly stated mantra of comedy that no subject should be off-limits for jokes. That’s a conceited statement from a place of privilege.
A jackass like Daniel Tosh will take the lazy route of tossing out offensive and outrageous comments under the guise of humor. When he does, he relies upon shock to startle audiences into laughter arising from the daring of talking about sensitive subjects like rape as if it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal.
I’ll concentrate on rape instead of other subjects (like violence against women, child abuse, etc) since rape was the topic of the recent controversy. The woman who protested against Tosh’s routine said that “rape jokes are never funny”. I would say that jokes that belittle rape victims or dismiss the severity of such vicious crimes are never funny. I’d say it’s possible that jokes which target rapists could be funny.
Here, I made these comments on my friend Lexa‘s facebook post about this topic:
If Tosh had made the joke, “You’re a rapist, aren’t you? You hate me making fun of your favorite pastime??” how would I feel? I’d feel that’s an appropriate way to deal with a heckler. Point out that the heckler is pushing into the power position by interrupting your work.
Instead, he pushed her into the victim position. No, it is never ever funny to attack victims. It’s just not. If you’re the victim, you can make fun of yourself, your situation, your attacker, the system, whatever you like because there’s no position of less power than where you are and you should be allowed to reclaim some. But when you’re standing in a safe position of privilege and then you attack someone for telling you that you’re abusing your position? Then you’re an asshole like Tosh.
You wouldn’t say it’s okay for a boxer to punch an audience member who showed up to see a fight in the ring. You wouldn’t say it’s okay for a doctor to operate on someone who doesn’t need it. It’s similarly not okay for comedians to fling their arsenal at someone who’s not attacking you but instead protesting your material.
I know some women who vehemently side with the tellers of rape jokes. They try to apply anecdotal proof that it’s okay because they, themselves, have been victims of rape and so if they’re okay with it, so should everyone else be okay with it. I don’t know how everybody works, but that sounds to me like a tactic to avoid feeling bad about a memory over which you have no control. You just deny that it’s that bad. And if that’s how those people need to think in order to heal, I can’t say anything against them. But there are hundreds of thousands of rape victims who are hurt by the act of belittling their traumas. Just because you don’t mind poking at your injury doesn’t mean it’s okay to poke at the injuries of others.
What do other comedians think? Well, some are on my side, like DC local Natalie Shure.
But many other comedians have defended Tosh! Even those like Patton Oswalt and Louis CK who have significant numbers of feminist fans! How could that be? I think there are two reasons. First, perhaps the comics just heard an erroneous description of the scenario like “blogging heckler complains about Daniel Tosh’s offensive joke” and that sounds like a situation where if you were in his same profession, you’d side with Tosh automatically — especially if you didn’t know that Tosh consciously aimed a rape threat at a woman outside of his routine. Second, perhaps those comedians just always chime in on the side of “any joke is allowed” on some misguided principle. The third option, that some of my favorite comics might condone Tosh’s behavior, is just too awful to consider. I hope they change their minds, regardless.
And finally, what about the layperson who makes offensive jokes unapologetically, also holding up the “any topic is okay to joke about” defense to head off criticisms? Well, again, I’d point towards the rule of thumb of: only attack those in positions of strength. Only make fun of oppressors, assailants, and rapists — not their victims. Because you never know who’s been a victim and there are more of them than you realize.
But there’s also the guideline of: listen to people. If you tell a joke about an offensive subject and a person who hears it tells you that it upsets them, LET IT GO. Why the hell would you keep trying to injure someone who’s told you that you’re hurting them? Is some theoretical right to tell a joke more important than the wellbeing of someone right in front of you? Your answer better be no.
Otherwise you’re a jackass.
p.s. Alyssa Rosenberg is so much smarter and better of a writer than I am. She wrote about the Daniel Tosh incident, too.