Wonderful fights between narcissism and worthlessness

True Freedom of Speech

on October 2, 2012

[Trigger warning: Rape as an act is mentioned in my post; it becomes unavoidable in using the Tosh incident as a jumping-off point. I try straying from specifics to keep this as general reading, but there are mention of Tosh and links to more triggering material.]

I was keeping up a great pace of every 2-3 days for awhile there, but life’s been hectic and I’ve been in a very bad and sad mood that’s sapped my motivation and made my thoughts all negative, which is no headspace (for me) to write in. I have two ideas for blog posts that I need to develop, so hopefully this week will be better. One is the intersectionality of the assumed nature of people and the words they say (which I’ve written about before) and the other is about pop country music that I have to get around to researching. I have most of my thoughts, but I want to get all concrete with examples and shit, and that means reading a bunch of country song lyrics (spoilers it may not be the most flattering of pop country!). Soon, hopefully; I’d actually love to get back to having a few blog posts mostly written and waiting the next weekend I get free.

But I do have a topic to cover today. As always, fuck Daniel Tosh is a great way to start a blog post. Nothing new that I’ve heard about him; in fact, it’s back to the rape “joke”(I airquote because I have never seen a joke structure in what he said) incident. In the aftermath of the audience member’s story breaking, there was a lot of vocal support for Tosh, and while there were plenty of people happy to get vitriolic and agree with Tosh’s harassment and make further threats, most (that I saw) were making this the time to defend free speech by defending Tosh’s right to say what he had said. And I am about to write paragraphs on this and the complexities of it, but I feel that many people, who had differing comfort levels with jokes about rape, genuinely wanted to defend free speech primarily, and not just use that argument to fawn over Tosh or support his ideas on women and consent. If the argument is that comedians should be allowed to say what Tosh said and that Freedom of Speech is near-sacred, then, BASICALLY (again, about to get way into this), I agree.

No, really. I agree with that argument as it is often worded. I staunchly oppose censorship, and the first amendment is sacrosanct to me. The answer isn’t to start banning words or phrases, or topics, or limit what a comedian can say. So, I very much agree with that sentiment. But in the Tosh incident and others that have occurred lately where people being dissected and taken to task for saying reprehensible things are defended under the banner of free speech, I never see a speaker having their rights restricted or fought; most incidents prove they have intact freedom of speech. What I do see are supporters, either of freedom of all speech or the person who said some shit, coming together to bully and silence, to take away the freedom of speech from those on the other side raising objections and criticizing. Freedom of speech applies to points AND counterpoints.

When I use words like bully and accuse people of silencing tactics, I want to be very clear: I don’t assume malicious intent for most vocal critics. There are obviously hateful bullies telling someone who can’t take a joke to kill themselves or leave the Internet permanently, but that feels like a minority, and I trust most more than that. But the effect of treating criticism as a suppression tactic is to then suppress criticizing speech. I think many people view criticism itself, especially negative criticism, as inherently attacking someone’s freedom to speak, but I disagree completely. I’m defining criticism to exclude criticisms like, “Die.” or “This fucking sucked.” I’m defining it as critique of certain aspects or the whole of something. It can be insightful, it can miss the mark by a mile, but if there’s some actual critique, I love it.

I think there’s also confusion that being able to talk about anything and putting no topics off-limits (which I agree with and support) means supporting every instance of discussing race, sexism, QUILTBAG folk, etc. Which it doesn’t, and shouldn’t. In the discussion that followed Tosh’s harassing “joke,” there were plenty of examples brought up of triggering, violent and bad jokes on sexual assault, but also articles from people, including feminists, defending free speech, giving examples of jokes about rape they thought were good, and still lambasting Tosh as an enforcer of rape culture, as a prime example of how, in a rape culture, this can be brought up, and often, and made a joke, and still be bad and wrong and Tosh can just be a particularly aggressive, triggering example, not a lone case or still needing to work on the material.

True freedom of speech is a lie, and for very good reason; in the same way I am not allowed to do certain things, like stab people who make me angry, I am not allowed to say certain things, like fire in a crowded theater, because my freedoms don’t supersede theirs and there can be severe consequences to certain words. And this can get unbelievably grey, which is why we have a system of courts and not a bunch of separate judges to cover cases and make one judgment for each they handle, but it’s pretty easy to think up a few examples of something you could say that would offend someone. There’s a rise in people taking pride in being “off-color,” “Non-politically-correct,” even straight out saying they don’t care if they offend someone and will say anything, but I’m confident there’s certain things they wouldn’t say a certain way to certain people. I purposely used certain three times there; there’s a huge difference between discussing some perceived neglect of the grandkids with your mother-in-law gently but honestly, and opening up a dialogue with, “You’re a horrible grandma. Hey, I’ll say anything to anyone!”

Comedians also wield unique power on stage. Humans want to laugh, and agree with a crowd, and these are both powerful tools a comedian can leverage in making a social point. As importantly, in most comedy shows, the comedian is the only voice that”s heard; there’s no rebuttal from another comedian, and no one stands up to speak out if they disagree with a conclusion or conceit the comedian makes. Emphasis on MOST comedy shows. It’s why social comedians are a class; in this environment, a joke about discrimination in the work place and women being bad drivers can often end up with the same power as each other, especially depending on societal norms. Social comedians can use these unique circumstances of a comedy show to discuss topics that people would otherwise tune out for, or not want to think about, and the guards that drop when people are looking to be entertained make it easier for ideas to be seeded and take root and grow into great big idea trees that are pretty hard to change, no matter how incorrect or regressive they are.

And remember, Glenn Beck is as much a social comedian (I think? I hear shit, I’m not digging further than the recounting of A Christmas Sweater I heard) when making jokes as any comedian laying into Republicans. That power serves whoever wields it equally; victim and victimizer, privileged and oppressed.

This is further complicated by the fact that some people just don’t get a joke that’s otherwise not -ist (blanket term for -isms that are horrifying). Sometimes the idea is right but the words aren’t and who the joke is targeting gets confusing. Comedians can invent a character that says racist or sexist or Islamophobic shit straight, and hopefully it is setup in such a way that the crowd understands we’re making fun of the character holding such views. Because it’s not always self-evident; having someone say the earth is flat or using a redneck accent is going to be understood as mocking that belief by more people than having a fratboy say he would never rape a girl, but getting a girl drunk is just foreplay. Another tremendously important question to ask for any joke that is about a sensitive topic is: who’s the target? Comedy’s a powerful tool to attack the privileged in society, but it can just as easily be used to attack victims, and this is often at the heart of why rape jokes don’t work; a joke that treats someone getting sexually assaulted as a punchline or as such a zany thing to say that no one would expect (when in actuality it’s a go-to joke turn) is on par with pointing at an old man who says he fears hes becoming obsolete and laughing. No metaphor, no greater point or addressing of the situation, just “Ha ha, old!”

Society’s conventions are so important to this and how much care is needed in talking about a subject. What society treats as acceptable is tantamount to these discussions; the United States’ rape culture makes it easy for people to defend Tosh while the state of race relations and what society will deem as racist saw Michael Richards defended far less and turned into a punchline with no career. It would be harder to find people saying Michael Richards’ voice was censored, yet if Tosh’s show was taken off the air there would be a vocal backlash against Comedy Central. And while I don’t know that it’d be wrong, I don’t think I’d want to see Tosh’s show taken off the air for his “joke” (given the time that’s passed and his new season and brand new show on the network, I’m sure this is SUCH a possibility), although a few clips from Tosh.0 were posted in the aftermath that make me question how this is just now becoming an issue. I’d rather see society grow less accepting of Tosh’s othering brand of humor and being a shock comic by attacking victims and making jokes about sensitive subjects because they’re sensitive, dropping his ratings to the point Comedy Central lets him go.

I got to interact with Patton Oswalt over this incident, actually, who was tweeting and re-tweeting in support of Tosh initially, but as his Facebook page and Twitter feed was flooded with people’s thoughts from both sides, there was a great, nuanced discussion of freedom of speech, Tosh’s comments and rape culture. Patton took the viewpoints of people disagreeing with his defense into account (which is seemingly rare and also doesn’t mean agreeing with dissenters). One of the best points of that discussion was Patton’s insight that this incident, Tosh’s words, were a pretty bad motivator of the conversation about free speech and limits on comics that was occurring, and I could not agree more. There’s a larger discussion about taping of comedians and internet backlashes going on that political correctness and offended crowd members are unilaterally lumped in with, and it’s interconnected for sure, but I think privilege and stereotyping is coming into play as these discussions continue to occur, and where a case-by-case approach is needed, people are relying on their assumptions and generalities and being further supported by societal norms. People with valid criticisms are lumped in with trolls and haters, and a woman standing up to say rape isn’t funny is lumped in with drunk people wooing. Discussions about how rape is joked about become rape is always funny, or never funny, or you should be able to make any joke about it ever forever and no one gets to say anything back or its censorship.

So often I don’t think people truly take into account what being offended can mean in reality and conjure up the image of a Christian grandma getting offended that Daniel Tosh talks about sex and swears. They don’t think about victims, or friends and families of victims, or people with a particular amount of empathy, or people who don’t want to hear yet another joke where rape’s the punchline (or about how gay men do it IN THE BUTT. Isn’t that weird? Or about the myriad of stereotypes of black people, asian people, transsexuals, and on and on). Comedy can be a great way to deal with otherwise unassailable topics, and rape can be one of these topics to be dealt with through comedy. Some people don’t want to hear any rape jokes, at all. It’s why trigger warnings are amazing online; they allow people to deal with topics on their terms, when and if they’re ready, and avoid them if not. And some people still view this as a form of censorship; anyone should be able to say anything and it’s ALL up to YOU to deal with it! This works for the internet as well as changing the channel or leaving the theater works in real life. It’s far more difficult to work around with a live comedy show; maybe you came for one comedian and find yourself getting triggered by another. Maybe you do get up to leave and get booed anyway, and jeered, and told you’re being too sensitive. There are people who view booing or a crowd’s negative reaction as something wrong and stifling of freedom of speech, interrupting the comedian’s performance as much as a heckler. But I view them as criticism, albeit simple, unfocused criticism. And booing can certainly be used as a heckle. But criticism’s great. It’s not censorship as a class of response to art, and it challenges the art to stand and weather it if wrong, or change for the better if right. And it is just as valid an expression of free speech as the art it addresses.


With regards to empathy for the offended, this post-Toshbacle post is a great read and touches on a lot of what I have in this post, but there’s a particularly great sarcastic breakdown of a fictional thought process that covers censorship, doubts of victims in a rape culture, and much more: http://austin.culturemap.com/newsdetail/07-12-12-14-37-the-best-response-weve-heard-to-daniel-toshs-misquoted-rape-jokes/


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