The Tosh “Rape Joke” Incident – Is it Truly About “Offense”?by Don Lacey on Jul. 19, 2012, under Art & Culture, Atheism, Christianity, Critical Thinking, Ethics, Freethought, Language, Logic, Question of the Day!, Reason, Religion, That's Life!
You may have heard of a recent viral event involving comedian Daniel Tosh (of Tosh.0 fame) and his comments at a recent comedy show. This typifies a modern, internet-age phenomenon that is practically a cliché – a blog-event gone viral followed by a massively-interactive reactathon. I like to refer to this type of event as a “kerfuffle,” a term that references both its large scale and it’s chaotic nature, as ideas bounce around the Internet in a tangled web of repetitive cultural memes and an over-abundance of surprisingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) unproductive discourse. That said, this kerfuffle, like many before it, can teach us a few lessons, and if you dig a bit deeper, it can yield a more satisfying and rewarding debate.
So the blog post that set of this kerfuffle related the story of a customer of the comedy club. This unnamed woman was at a Tosh stand-up performance where the comedian, as a part of his set, asked the audience what they wanted him to joke about. When one man yelled “rape,” the woman in question apparently responded with a statement something like “No, rape isn’t funny.” Tosh heard this statement and responded with something like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she were raped right now by, like, 5 guys.” The woman’s friend related the incident on Tumblr. Neither Tosh nor the club’s owner disputes the veracity of this tale, although they beg to differ on the specifics. Phase one of kerfuffle complete.
So then this story went viral, with some bloggers and commentators opining that Tosh shouldn’t have said that, that he crossed a line in antagonizing a patron, that comedians should consider the impact of their words, and that comedy should not be immune from criticism. In response, others defended Tosh and suggested that the woman was essentially asking to be insulted by “heckling” a performer, that offense is actually the fault of the offended, and that comedians should be given license to explore all topics freely.
To Tosh’s credit, he apologized (a conditional apology, but an apology none the less), and, in part because of this, the particulars of the story are sort of beside the point. The ideas expressed in reaction quickly surpassed anything Tosh could have uttered, both in terms of impact and relevance to the larger culture—Classic kerfuffle. It is in this reaction stage that, I think, we can gain the most from analysis and discussion of the ideas involved. As people blog, re-blog, tweet, share information, and reactions regarding the initial event, the kerfuffle reflects the underlying unresolved cultural issues. This is where a kerfuffle could, potentially, become something more. It could resemble a discussion, or a reasoned debate.
Unfortunately, on the Internet we can’t have anything nice, and reasoned debate is often drowned-out by the repetition of mindless cultural memes. Exhibit A would be the claim, lobbed at anyone who is perceived as an advocate of “political correctness,” that “if you are offended, that’s your fault.” This sentiment is particularly prevalent in the Tosh “rape joke” incident, but it is expressed over and over again in blogs and comments every time a wondrous internet kerfuffle occurs. It gives lurkers in the comments section a neatly canned and labeled argument. It lends false confidence to those who may know little about the issues at hand (in this case: feminism, the particulars of rape culture, the subtleties of humor, and the experiences of rape victims). The “if you are offended” mantra is a convenient, short-hand philosophy that makes people feel both enlightened and tough on BS.
Of course, the “if you’re offended, it’s your fault” argument carries no water. It implies that, should one feel “offended,” one should keep quiet about it. As such, it employs the same silencing technique that it purports to reject. It negates the legitimacy of negative emotional reactions to speech, in the name of protecting the initial speaker from criticism, regardless of the emotional motivation, content or context of their speech action. According to this axiom, one could say something intended to offend, like, for example, “you’re a worthless slob!” and then object when the target of one’s verbal barrage responds, “why would you throw such a meaningless insult at me?” If you are entitled to offend immune from criticism, then why are you not also entitled to retort immune from criticism? If you are offended by my taking offense, is that your fault or mine?
If you ask the “if you’re offended” folks for an elaboration on their philosophy, they’ll likely argue that they are complaining about something that is worthy of complaint, namely, that people are too sensitive, too thin-skinned, and this is upsetting – even, gasp, offensive – because hearing objections from thin-skinned individuals is “annoying.” Yet this is truly a matter of taste – perhaps some people take offense too easily, perhaps someone out there is annoyed in response, but maybe I am more annoyed by people who get off by telling complainants, in not so many words, to shove it. Maybe they are deeply concerned that our society is breeding a hoard of whiners, but then maybe I’m deeply concerned that it is breeding a hoard of jerks. The “if you are offended” assertion is presented as some sort of axial truth, some sort of unbiased cultural trump card, yet it only makes sense when employed from the perspective of the individual wielding the phrase. The facile illusion of enlightenment breaks down when the principle is applied equally to both the initial speaker and the respondent.
Not only that, but the whole idea of “offense,” and what are the culturally-granted “rights” or obligations of the offended vs. the offender, while on occasion a worthy a topic of debate, tends to drown out a more nuanced and equally important point. In a kerfuffle, the “thin-skinned” complainants are most often identified as out-spoken women or feminists, racial minorities or anti-racists, people in the LGBTQ community and activists – in general, the more out-spoken members and allies of less-privileged societal sub-groups. This is to whom commentators often refer when they say, “people these days are too sensitive.”
In truth, these “thin-skinned” folks rarely expend the time and effort blogging on a topic solely because it offends their personal sensibilities (of course, detractors would make you think otherwise). In fact, if they are actively fighting bigotry, they are likely accustomed to hearing about such incidents (and reading subsequent disparaging comments) and are not thin-skinned at all. (Incidentally, anti-bigotry and equal-rights activists receive a fair share of haterade from the larger culture, including hate mail and harassment. In that sense, they are similar to Atheists and Skeptics, who are often maligned for speaking out against religion).
But getting back to the point, no, for the “offended” parties and their allies, the meat of the argument lies not in the topics of offense and “political correctness,” but rather in the role of speech in shaping culture. Speech is recognized by social science as a tool that affects culture through its influence on shared attitudes and beliefs. Activists attempt to further their cause by making us aware of this, and by using the power of speech to change culture themselves.
This is why, when addressing the Tosh incident, the majority of mainstream feminists and anti-rape-culture activists agree with Tosh when he tweets, “there are awful things in the world, but you can still make jokes about them.” In fact, several prominent feminists, as well as many amateur bloggers, have compiled videos of comedians telling “rape jokes” which ridicule rapists, satirize the all-too-common vilification of rape victims, or poke fun at the comedians themselves. The key, as ever, is to craft a joke that upends expectations, rather than merely reinforcing entrenched ideas. That’s what makes jokes funny, after all, and many comics have successfully employed subversive humor to tackle rape, murder, race and injustice, among other things. They’ve brought their audience to tears while pointing a verbal middle finger at the status-quo.
Obviously no social movement is a monolith, but in general the consensus in the more-nuanced blogosphere is that comedy is important, and fun, and jokes about rape can in fact help us reject bigoted attitudes. Or at the very least, such jokes can make us laugh, and maybe that’s enough. Of course, comedy, like any cultural tool, can be wielded for bad as well as for good. Comedians sometimes use the stage to spread misinformation or to perpetuate damaging myths and stereotypes. This isn’t always intentional, and of course it is relevant to discuss intent as well as effect, but that’s beside the point. If a comment or a routine is seen as a blow, however significant or insignificant, to the progress of culture – if it perpetuates attitudes and sentiments more at home in the 19th century, then activists may rightly feel obligated to respond with truth. They aren’t “censoring” anyone, they aren’t out enforcing “political correctness,” they aren’t talking about hurt feelings – no, they’re simply fighting ideas with ideas, attitudes with attitudes, in an attempt to change the culture from within. They are doing what Atheists and Freethinkers do – taking a stand against misinformation.
That is the kind of conversation we could be having. We could be talking about ideas. In fact, that is the conversation many people DO have when a kerfuffle goes down, in their limited corner of the blogosphere. It’s a fascinating line of thought gone unnoticed by the majority of kerfuffle-participants because GROW UP WILL YOU, IT WAS JUST A JOKE!!!
Examine your arguments and unlock the next level of debate.