There is no shortage of debates in the world that will never be resolved. At this point in my life, I steer clear of discussions on the death penalty, abortion, and the existence of God because people are so entrenched in their opinions -- right or wrong-- that there seems to be no room left for intelligent discourse. But in all those arguments, at least I know what people are disagreeing about. The current "rape joke" debate in the news, however, seems to be a volatile convergence of deeply-held convictions minus the framework of any organized discussion. Quite simply, I don't fully understand what either side is trying to prove. Yes, I do, generally, but not when you nail down specifics like you should in any reasoned debate.
"We'll establish rules later. Just know for now that you're wrong and I hate you."
After all, any non-sociopath agrees that rape is awful, and most people believe that in America, at least, you can say whatever shitty thing you want even if you're not a comic. So what are we arguing about? To answer that, let's jump back a bit. Although this debate is not new, it reared its head a little over a year ago when Daniel Tosh apparently told some rape jokes onstage. I don't know what that consisted of exactly, but when he got heckled by an offended woman in the audience he responded it would be funny if she got gang-raped. Anyone want to defend that "joke"? I don't. I haven't met anyone who thinks that was a funny or intelligent thing to say. It doesn't make me laugh, and unlike much of the material on his innocuous TV show, it is highly offensive.
Enter blogger Lindy West, who wrote an article I agree with almost entirely. She called Tosh out on his shitty joke but also acknowledged he had every right to tell a shitty, offensive joke. (Agree!) She also pointed out that words have consequences and that anyone who was rightly offended by his hurtful hackery had a right to criticize him for it even if that led to the termination of his show. (Agree again.) This was an article and a debate that made sense to me -- because it was joke-specific. Anyone could sit down and debate the merits, or lack thereof, of what Tosh had done (the gang-rape comment, at least). But in the months that followed, and especially recently after a debate with comic Jim Norton, the discussion has lost all focus. It has devolved into a senseless and unrelated screaming match between the First Amendment and "rape culture." It is an argument that leads to neither consensus nor illumination on either side.
That's why I'd ask anyone engaging in this debate to focus and be mindful of these following questions in the hope that all those spinning their wheels will at least take us someplace helpful:
#4. What Are Rape Jokes?
Here is the first problem with this debate. What the consensual-fuck is a rape joke? I don't hear a lot of them. Are we talking about stand-up bits that involve the concept of rape? Are we discussing the use of the word rape? In Lindy West's original column on Tosh, she linked some stand-ups talking about rape that she purportedly did not find offensive. Yet, I'm sure there are some who would have a problem with those links. Here's a bit she did not link to from the late Patrice O'Neal talking about how doesn't want to date a woman not hot enough to be raped. Is this a rape joke? (Jump to 4:58)
To me, this bit satirizes how awful the male psyche is. It is critical of men who care more about the public's perception of their girlfriend as arm candy than their girlfriend's own safety. That's what I take from that bit, anyway. But others may see it differently and find it highly offensive. I can understand that. We could debate it, but at least it would then be an argument about a piece of art. We can debate the intent, effect, and execution of this bit that involves concepts of rape, because we all know what we're talking about even if we don't agree.
OK, now let's remove the Patrice bit and talk about "rape jokes" in general. Pro or con?! What does that even mean? How can you answer without the specifics? I've heard Jew jokes that are hateful and those that are funny. Homophobic gay jokes where the punchline is little more than "Ha, faggots are funny" to legitimately funny ones. Indeed, on every subject, I've heard jokes I approve and disapprove of. There are jokes that are healing and harming about everything. I can't debate the merits of "rape jokes" unless you tell me what the joke is. And here's the important part: neither can anyone else.
The rape joke debate is not like the death penalty debate where lethal injection versus electric chair doesn't make a difference. Here, specifics matter. Art can handle any topic well and disgracefully. Answer me this: How do you feel about movies regarding radical medical techniques? Oh, before you answer I should probably tell you if I'm talking about Lorenzo's Oil, in which a family works with a chemist to devise an oil that halts a destructive illness or The Human Centipede, where a mad scientist stitches three people together mouth to anus. Seriously, before we start shouting can we go case-by-case and explain what specific jokes we're talking about?
Not the same.
#3. Why Just Rape Jokes?
Why are we just talking about rape jokes? There is no shortage of absolutely horrible, terrible things in the world that comics joke about. Why are we singling out rape? Here, unlike the question above, I at least know what the answer is. Some have said that it's because rape jokes contribute to rape culture. That there are many women who have been raped. Those women could be sitting in the audience and continue to live in shame and fear by hearing such comedy.
There are men who reject that argument, and they do so for hateful, wrongheaded reasons. These are the men who deny the problem of rape and who are unsympathetic to these issues. They are men like the piles of human garbage who attacked Ms. West in the most savage and disgusting ways online using their big, powerful Internet man muscles. Nothing these cretins have to say matters or should be part of this debate. The cause being supported by the "anti-rape joke" contingent is noble and right and not open to debate.
But I do find a hole in the logic that we can limit this discussion to rape jokes. You can craft an argument for how any offensive joke is bad for society. In the discussion, West says rape jokes are different than Holocaust jokes because there will be more rape victims than Holocaust survivors in the audience. Well, I guess, maybe, depending on the audience and the year of the show and a bunch of other variables already involved in this already too uncertain and nebulous debate. But I'm not sure that kind of math should be the lynchpin of her argument.
Probably shouldn't be necessary for any debate about speech, art, and rape.
Let's take the movie Borat. In it, Sacha Baron Cohen as the lead character, Borat, describes an event happening after "the Jews caused 9/11." The point of that joke is to satirize Borat's bigotry for perpetuating or even believing such a lie. I got the joke, but it made me uncomfortable. I knew the film would be seen in places in the world, even places in America, where people actually would believe that. It would give aid and ammunition to those who seek to commit hate crimes and do harm. Bad can come from that joke. But it's a joke. And where I personally would draw the line can't be the standard.
Or how about Chris Rock's bit about the difference between black people and "niggers"? That's one of the most important comedy bits in the past 20 years. Couldn't that be embraced by those seeking justifications to hate blacks? Or those who are looking for a justification to call certain blacks "niggers" and get away with it?
When making jokes about rape, racism, child abuse, the holocaust, 9/11, AIDS, there is no shortage of ways to trivialize serious issues while aiding and abetting the worst people in the world. My personal rule when approaching those areas is that it's alright to joke about anything -- as long as you can make it funny. Of course, the darker the issue, the greater the challenge, and you better make sure the joke works. West is right when she says that most comics hit the rape topic in merely hacky attempts that aren't justified. But a broader statement that hack comics hit all these topics in failed attempts to be edgy would also be true. And arguments can be crafted that in doing so they contributed to all sorts of ideas and cultures that are bad for society. Nothing is gained in a debate about the responsibilities of artists and the appropriate responses of the viewing public by limiting the discussion solely to rape.