Resolving conflict between stand-up culture and anti-oppression culture
[content warning: discussion of rape jokes – suicide jokes about daniel tosh]
You may have heard about a recent rape joke controversy that has exploded on Tumblr. I’ve seen a lot of my friends up in arms about it, and I feel the need to take a provocative stance and defend the comedian who is now being attacked by the internet community. But first: Women are more often the victims of assault, and men are more often the dispensers of rape jokes. This disparity is the focus of a lot of the outrage, and I want to acknowledge entirely that the disparity exists. I don’t want to defend rape culture. I want to defend Daniel Tosh, who is a scared little baby, and suggest a course of action that can minimize conflict in the future.
In context, Daniel Tosh was arguing how horrible things can be joked about. There are certainly contexts in which rape jokes are inappropriate, and that is probably even most contexts. There is a time and place for everything, and if there is any time and place for rape jokes, it is at a comedy club in an 18+ show as part of a block of raunchy comedians.
The woman interrupted his set from the audience, which makes her a heckler. This may sound like a minor point to someone who has never done stand up comedy, but it’s important to understand the full context. Doing stand-up is hard. It’s nerve-wracking, and you are vulnerable. In stand-up culture, comedians are judged by their ability to quickly disarm hecklers. The woman in question was making an ideological rebuttal to his comedy act, that she felt that rape jokes could never ever be funny. It’s a fair opinion to have (as long as you are aware that people are going to disagree with you) but shouting it in the middle of his comedy set was not an effective way to start a meaningful discussion. She interrupted his flow of jokes, and put him on the defensive. He lashed back with a joke that was tied to the subject matter. It was probably a kneejerk reaction.
Was it disrespectful for Tosh to say what he did? Yes. But in stand-up culture, being disrespectful to Hecklers is how to earn kudos. Blame the clash of stand-up culture and anti-oppression culture, not the fallible but relatively innocent Tosh.
Was it disrespectful for the individual to interrupt his set? Yes. But in anti-oppression culture, “calling out” the enablers of rape culture is how to earn kudos. In that same sense I don’t think it is appropriate to blame the individual here. Comedy culture and anti-oppression culture are going to eventually come to some sort of mutually beneficial agreement, or this problem will persist. I suggest some solutions at the end of this post.
This isn’t to say that call-outs and heckler-bashing are equitable, only that they are in conflict when a ‘heckler’ is doing a call-out.
Daniel Tosh apologized for accidentally causing harm. His intention was not specifically to harm an individual, his intention was to get a laugh, which it seems he did. After the controversy erupted, he took to Twitter to apologize for any offense he may have caused. Some people have said his apology was disingenuous, but I disagree. Even the most heartless comedians are very rarely looking to legitimately hurt people, even hecklers. Comedy is an outlet that attracts people who have been hurt themselves, it is a coping mechanism. Tosh has probably been teased his whole life for being obnoxious, ugly, stupid, and his various social problems. I bet he feels legitimate empathy for the people that he has hurt, because comedy is a way of coping with his own pain.
Tosh and this blogger have brought an important discussion. This is not a defense of Tosh’s or the Blogger’s actions specifically, but a description of the situation that has arisen from our ability to freely express ourselves throughout this ordeal. Thousands of people who otherwise would not have are now reading feminist blogs, and beginning to understand oppression better than they have before. Today I read an extremely convincing article about rape jokes that shook my understanding of my role in enabling rape. I highly recommend reading it too. If Tosh had not said that mean thing, I would not have read this article today. The same is true for a lot of people and a lot of articles. A thoughtful rebuttal is infinitely preferable to censorship.
Suggested courses of action:
To Comedy Club Owners:
Perhaps there should be some sort of distinction made by comedy club owners between ‘adult comedy’ and ‘totally outrageous, offensive, and potentially triggering comedy.’ There is a big difference between saying “fuck” and implicitly supporting rape. Both should be allowed on stage, no comedy should be forbidden, but we should give sensitive people the ability to voluntarily not participate in comedy that could hurt them.
Perhaps we should say, instead of “Rape jokes are never funny”— “Your rape jokes are never funny Daniel Tosh, you are much funnier when you are not making rape jokes” – Comedians are likely to build a wall between them and someone who displays a broad declarative opinion they disagree with, but they are sensitive to criticism because they are whiny babies. Instead of yelling from the audience, talk to them after the show, or write them a letter. Talk to them as a human being. The heckler-comedian dynamic brings out the ego in everyone and is not conducive to results.
You should strive to be classy, and funny. Rape jokes generally aren’t classy, or funny. If you rely on shock comedy to get a laugh, you probably suck.