4 Questions People Debating Rape Jokes Should Ask Themselves
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:
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.
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.
Who Has the Power?
In the past year, I've spent a lot of time in comedy clubs, making friends with a bunch of comics, and I can tell you, by and large, comics are not the power elite directing the zeitgeist of the public's perceptions. Comics might be one of the few groups of people who get less respect than bloggers, and I feel confident (and depressed) saying that advertisers and reality television stars hold more sway over popular culture than the overwhelming lion's share of comics. In our world it seems, only the treasured few comics are exalted and when they are, only for doing something that isn't just stand up: a TV show, movies, books. For reasons that make no sense to me, the public is more inspired by pretty actors than the combined writer-performers that comics are, but there it is.
Something else about comics: They want to be liked. Desperately. It's their job to make you happy. Go into a comedy club. See how hungry the majority of comics are for approval. Watch the comics before they go on. Do you know what they're doing? They're watching the audience. Feeling the vibe, seeing what's getting laughs,and who's in the crowd. They're doing that so they can tell the kinds of jokes that audience wants to hear. They're thinking about adjusting their sets, changing their jokes, changing their demeanors, even. The audience is the boss. If they go up there and no one laughs, they lose. Nine times out of 10, if a comic tells some "joke" where the punchline is "Ha, someone got raped," that comic will lose that crowd. The 10th time? Well, apparently, the comic is telling shitty, awful jokes, to a shitty, awful audience that apparently likes shitty, awful things. But most audiences will rightfully hate you. I got boos onstage once for an anti-Canadian rant where I said I would never compare Canadians to Nazis because Nazis are efficient and good at something. Personally, I find nothing unPC about saying Nazis were efficient and good at genocide, but that's the point. Most audiences are sensitive even to the proximity of an edgy joke when none is being made.
Me, reacting to an audience member apparently finding me anti-Semitic.
In support of the power of words, Lindy West explained to Jim Norton that 50 years ago there were more wildly racist jokes towards blacks, and now that we don't tell those jokes anymore, society has become less racist. In science, they call that a temporal association. Two things happening at similar times with no proof of actual causation. Like you might be reading this on the toilet, but there is no proof that my prose causes defecation. (Anecdotal evidence doesn't count). The credit for our society becoming less racist should probably go first to men like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and --if you need to throw white, funny guys into the mix-- men like Norman Lear and his socially relevant shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons. Respectfully, Ms. West has it backwards. Comics cleaned up their acts because audiences would not tolerate mere racial hatred masquerading as humor. These hack comedians who Ms. West rightfully finds so offensive are not capable agents of social change. They're half-talents in bad haircuts grinding out livings, at best, in basements.
Related: Wait ... 'Power Rangers' Got Good?
So Now What?
The thing that's so frustrating about this debate is its lack of a clear goal. What is being sought? In her original Tosh piece, Ms. West's goals were clear: She wanted the right to criticize Tosh for his unfortunate remarks. She did not feel his status as a comic safeguarded him from the consequences of his words, and I absolutely agree with that. (Remembering that we say all sorts of unspeakable things and only some of us have the misfortune of saying them spontaneously on stage.) At the start of the Norton-West discussion, she reiterated this point, recognizing the constitutional right to free speech for both rape-joke tellers (never defined) and the people calling rape-joke tellers dicks. Again, I agree, and I'll go even further and say I disagree with Norton, when he says people shouldn't threaten sponsors to pull ads from things they find offensive. Norton says the market should decide instead what is good or bad, but people threatening sponsors is exactly what the free market is. Do I find most protest groups who seek to limit speech attractive? No, I usually don't, but that is society. That is a right we all have.
But something is getting lost in this discussion: Just as any good comic should be mindful of the ramifications of words while mining dark territory for jokes, good protestors also have responsibilities. By the end of that Norton-West discussion, it did not seem West was content merely to call hack comics "dicks." Instead, she was putting forth an undefined rhetoric that "rape jokes" are just bad for society generally and shouldn't be told, which takes us back to the first point: What jokes are we talking about exactly? It's not possible to speak about this in the abstract.
Or on the 'net, but here we are.
Not surprisingly, attempts to have this "debate" without specifics has gotten incredibly ugly because emotions have filled the void. Unfortunately, the two biggest catalysts for joining causes are hatred and pain. Look at the monsters saying unspeakably ugly things to West. They are haters, and not in the 21st century bullshit vernacular, but in the truest sense of the word. Their hatred of this woman reveals an obvious hatred of women generally and a clear hostility towards the undeniably right cause of a safer world. And look at some of the activists referring to Norton as if he were some sort of mentally-impaired barbarian. They are protesting from a place of a pain, reacting to a world that has been hostile to them.
At the end of the day, I'm not comfortable having people make decisions about the validity of art when they're coming from places of pain or hatred. When you do that, it's really easy to go off the rails. Remember the PMRC in the '80s? No? Ask your mom. That was that group started by Tipper Gore who, despite perceptions, was hardly a square. Anyway, Tipper was surprised to learn that her children's music had lyrics supporting cocaine use and fucking like a beast. Things she didn't know until after she had purchased the music. She sought to start an organization to put warning labels on records to advise parents about this content. Of course, from that noble or innocuous intention, came more and more followers placing increasing pressures on artists to keep the children safe. By the end, the PMRC was a mockery. I remember taking special delight in their press release that Eurythmics were a bad influence for children because Annie Lennox occasionally dressed like a man, but Michael Jackson was a wonderful role model for kids.
And this isn't even the worst thing to show.
It's absolutely true: There are words and jokes so indefensible they should be rejected. They should have consequences. Still, it's just as important that we be highly specific with our criticisms. It's no secret that everyone from geniuses like Jonathan Swift and Stephen Colbert to average unnamed comics have been accused of supporting things they were opposed to by people who simply didn't get the joke. And if we're going to have consequences for humor, then we better have specific indictments. Because only in response to specific charges can comics defend their work and let the public judge. If the court of public opinion is going to deem what's offensive without hearing the details of that offense, it will hand down sentences based not on bad acts, but subjective beliefs about unspeakable words and untouchable topics. I want to live in a world where convictions are based not just on good intentions and passion, but evidence and reasoned discourse.