So, last week Patton Oswalt tweeted a story in 53 tweets regarding the Trevor Noah kerfluffle. And by "kerfluffle" I mean Noah, the newly anointed host of "The Daily Show" has tweeted some racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic things over the years. Boiled down to contrarian viewpoints, one side says "A public figure given such an important role shouldn't be a bigot, and casual statements like this prove an inherent bigotry" and the other side says, "Comedians push boundaries, and besides how are you going to punish somebody for something they said on something as ephemeral as Twitter?" Or something like that.
Oswalt takes a more nuanced view of the discussion. Well, anyway, he exposes it in satire. It's well worth reading all 53 tweets, especially since it'll take you all of four minutes, but his basic argument is "Humor is subtle, and finding something funny is a matter of audience and context, and if you really want to go down the rabbit hole all humor, if not all human behavior, is ultimately mean-spirited and objectionable if you want to find it so."
Oswalt raises an interesting point, in that people can take offense to anything if they care to, and similarly have a capacity to accept just about any horseshit if they care to. It's at the root of tribalism, after all. If I like a guy, if a guy is good, then anything he does is good, even if it's objectively wrong, and if I dislike a guy, anything he does is wrong, even if it's objectively right. So, yeah, animal rights advocates could take umbrage at any old chicken-crossing-the-road joke and advocates for the hearing impaired could get pissy about knock-knock jokes because they belittle the real-life struggle. The path of which has a tail that tends towards the silly and ultimately the preposterous.
But then again...
We're not talking about knock-knock jokes and chicken jokes, are we? We're talking about real, pretty honest-to-God anti-Semitic and racist and misogynistic jokes. Said in a public forum, no less. So the whole "man throwing butter out a window" crack seems a bit disingenuous. Yes, people can take umbrage at any silly thing, and do all the time, but it's not like in this case people are taking umbrage at silly shit. They're taking umbrage at bigotry. It's not like the KKK is forming a lynch mob and people are demonstrating against it, but it's not like a wacky, "Three's Company"-style misunderstanding either.
So. More compelling is Oswalt's argument about context. In context we are talking about a comedian making jokes to his self-selected audience. So, there's some value in this. No one's making anyone follow Noah on Twitter. And anyone who follows his Twitter feed and realizes his jokes are a bit risqué for them can leave any damn time. And comedians!
Let me tell you about comedians. I know some comedians in real life and on social media, and I can tell you one thing they all seem to share in common: they feel that comedy is sacrosanct. Comedians sincerely believe that they should be allowed to joke about anything, no matter how foul, no matter how contrary to the social mores of the time, no matter how sacrilegious, sexist, racist, or otherwise. Their raison d'être, to hear them tell it, is to be Diogenes, so far outside the system that no one can attack them, shining a light on all of society's little flaws. With poop jokes.
I actually understand this argument. It is, honestly, what comedians do. To elicit humor you need to outrage, and people today are far harder to outrage than almost ever. And I think it comes from a shared coastal spiritual home. Comedians come up in either New York or LA, which are metropolitan areas, where race and gender and sexuality are in your face as a part of everyday life. Then you take that show on the road and maybe it doesn't play in Peoria or Luverne. And then you say, "Look, this is what I do, don't fucking censor me, I'm a comedian, if you don't get it, don't watch, and also fuck you."
But we're also living in 2015. And at the risk of disappearing up my own asshole, 2015 strikes me as a unique moment in history. In the '90s we were vaguely aware of making an attempt to not hurt other people's feelings. We called it being "politically correct." And it was largely phony, if possibly good-hearted. Now, though, we know, instantaneously and with a deafening roar, what actually bothers people. Through the wonders of the internet and that selfsame Twitter I now know what hurts people's feelings, what microaggressions are, what #yesallwomen suffer through. I know about police abuse and white privilege and systemic sexism and all the things which in the era of old media would literally have been invisible to me.
So. Context. Here's a context. With my old friends who I came up with in high school and everything, we're horrible to each other. We call one another every racist term in the book, tell jokes, whatever. Because...this is in context, mind you...the love is there. It's proven through years of having one another's backs. Crossing a line with them is essentially impossible.
What about at work? At work, I am a mask, a cipher. No one knows me. They don't know I write, they don't know anything about me fundamentally. I wouldn't crack wise with someone at work except maybe about those kooky hacks in HR. At work, crossing a line is so possible, it's almost a certainty. If you're not professional in all your dealings, you will, at some point, cross a line. And potentially face termination.
Now, here's an interesting one. A new friend of mine, a minority, one who I don't have years and years of having her back. We joke, we let our guard down, but there's no essential unspoken understanding. One time we're talking about this and I say, "Is it really that big a deal if I tell a joke about minorities?" And this is where she got me really thinking. She said, "Maybe not. Maybe it doesn't bug me. But maybe it does. Maybe you say something that really bugs me. Then what? Then if I don't laugh along, I become the bad sport. Even though you put me in that position. So what are you going to do? Are you going to put me in that position?"
That really struck me and stuck with me. And I could get into how words have power and insults become problematic (sorry, Patton) when there's a power differential. But that's fodder enough for a whole other blog post, if not books and books and libraries and libraries. But when you cut right to the heart of it, the answer is I don't know. I know context is important and I know polite behavior is an ever shifting amalgam of individual personality and what society thinks, and society's outlook is shifting now faster than ever.
So what do you think, dear reader? Are there jokes that simply shouldn't be uttered? Is comedy sacrosanct, an outgrowth, perhaps the last bastion even, of our freedom of speech? Or is it all contextual? And if it is contextual, was Trevor Noah in the right or the wrong context? I'd be fascinated to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to chime in in the comments below.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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