Sunday, September 7, 2014

a defense of insensitivity

so this is probably the touchiest thing I'll ever write. I'm not a person who much enjoys shock humor, or humor that is based solely on offending people. Mostly because I just don't find that sort of thing funny, and I think it's a lazy and uninteresting way to write jokes. But what I do find interesting, from time to time, is the way people can react to touchy jokes. I can find it interesting in passing, but sometimes it can also launch me into a Beautiful Mind-like argument with myself that lasts for days. A few times recently, I've seen people put their foot down on jokes regarding rape. Cue argument.

To know what that feels like, run until you're tired. Then find out you're not allowed to stop. 

The articles below from and got my attention a while back, causing me to write about half of this article. It's come up more recently in conversations I've overheard, which re-sparked my interest and got me to finish writing it.

"The Problem with PAX"
"4 Offensive Jokes That Could Have Easily Been Fixed" (Item #4)

The above articles were written by people who saw fit to write against the use of rape jokes. They didn't go so far as to want to ban anything, but without taking too much liberty, I feel there's a general consensus on roughly 2 points:

(1) Rape is never funny
(2) You should never joke about it

I get what might compel a person to say that -- I wouldn't really argue against the first point; without giving it too much thought I feel like I'm in agreement. But the word "never" is also a big philosophical red flag to me, as it applies to the second point. Add to that the fact that I'm the type who loves to study the anatomy of jokes, and has found humor in my own darkest places, and ... I have a hard time agreeing 100% on that second point. I do think there's some wiggle room to debate. It's not something I've ever had an absolute opinion on, but my experience says just about any joke can endure scrutiny as long as it is honestly funny, and not expressly meant to hurt. Read the comic below; it's written by  PennyArcade, and it's going to be our Exhibit A. The jist of the comic is that, in MMO games, your character is tasked with helping only a certain quota of people to complete your goal. The rest, as far as the game's story goes, are just kind of forgotten once you reach that quota and get your reward.

Click to enlarge

As a mechanic of the joke, the peasants' plight needs to be horrible, for the hero to walk away in the punchline. Consistent with their history of colorful and attention-getting language, PennyArcade's authors went with "raped to sleep by the dickwolves". The joke was made into T-shirts for sale at their popular convention called PAX, which made some people uncomfortable with attending. One of the authors responded in a less than receptive way, and the rest is history.  I'm a longtime fan of the thrice-weekly strip and I can tell you that this type of humor is pretty much par for the course. You name it, they've probably done it. But PennyArcade's humor has never offended me proper, and this comic is ... really no exception. Most of the people who didn't like this comic were longtime fans as well, which kind of segways into the next point. Just about every comic they make is going to offend somebody. But rape is by far the topic where people are most quick and deliberate to not only draw the line, but try to incite shame on the writer. As the games industry becomes more socially conscious, I'm also seeing this come up more and more. These parts of the reaction is what get my attention, and it strikes me as a tad alarming. Longtime fans were okay with just about every other horrible joke PA was willing to throw at them for roughly ten years, but many agree that this was where they went too far. 

I can understand it a little bit, for simple fact that rape is sort of the "top-shelf" item when it comes to sensitivity for most. But the large response still strikes me as odd, and (as a person who is always ready with a dick pun) I've got some worries about what this means for joke-telling in the future. Do I really think we'll see bans on that sort of thing? No. But it's as though I'm now meant to think PA have done something unquestionably wrong by writing that comic. Was I supposed to be mad when I read it? Offended? Nauseated? Because I wasn't. Am I in the wrong if I wasn't? If so, why? It doesn't seem like a balanced approach; why does this topic have that kind of treatment when other topics don't? I (and probably you) have enjoyed jokes about other sensitive topics, without feeling like I was on the "bad" side of the morality fence. Tons of topics. I've heard jokes that are either about the following topics, or that at least use them in some way. And most of those jokes were funny.  

*Pedophilia *Bestiality *War *Terrorism *Necrophilia *Parkinson's *Death *The Holocaust *AIDS *Racism / Stereotypes *Homelessness *Misogyny *Cancer *Physical disabilities *Slavery *Mental retardation *Insanity *Suicide

And if I'm able to say that I've heard funny jokes about those decidedly un-funny topics (some with guilt, some without), I have a hard time understanding what grants the precedent to rape. It's not like I'm saying it isn't a terrible, traumatic thing. It is. Few, if any, things are worse. I'm also not saying you're wrong to be offended if you are, for that exact reason. I've also heard some sound reasons for the distinction; like that rape is still actually happening (when compared to, say, The Holocaust), or that it affects more people (when compared to, say, Parkinson's). Those are interesting points that may grant it some extra precedence, but I still don't think a single topic should be exempt from humor because it doesn't have the passage of time to soften it, or because it's affected a larger percentage of people. All of those topics will above become aged at some point, and there's no accounting for how many people something should affect before it is put off-limits.  

Let's actually take a look at that for a second, because it brings us to an interesting area. If your'e going to say one topic is so sensitive that it should never be joked about, but another is not, then we're saying that this sort of thing can actually be ranked. That immediately strikes me as problematic. Way problematic. In simplified terms, you're saying you could assign each of these topics a numerical value for how sensitive they are, put them on a number line, and separate them into "okay" and "not okay". How could we ever decide where that line of decency actually is, especially when everyone is going to see these topics differently? 

Item #523: Police Brutality. All in favor, say aye...

Even if we could find that line, let's ask another complicated question: Does a lack of decency dictate that a joke should be off-limits? I personally don't think so. I probably wouldn't find a joke funny if it was on the wrong side of that line, but that shouldn't matter. There's a big difference between it not being in good taste, and me thinking it shouldn't be allowed. That's an important distinction. The joke could be the most mean-spirited, hateful thing imaginable, and I could personally find it disgusting. But at the end of the day ... people should be free to tell jokes like that. Everyone's personal comfort, with every subject, is going to be different. Managing everyone's comfort with these topics, and making sure everyone's okay with everything, would be a complete nightmare. We would probably never arrive at a fair solution for everyone. So the best thing we can do, as far as I can tell, is to allow everything. Sometimes you won't like it, and sometimes I won't.

There exist topics that I am uniquely sensitive to or simply do not find funny, and if I had it my way, maybe people wouldn't joke about them. For example, Amy Schumer is a pretty popular comedian, but the first time I saw her on TV, she joked about the death of Ryan Dunn (of Jackass fame), right to  Steve-O's face. It was not long after he had passed. I didn't think the joke was funny at all, and so I have deliberately not watched her in anything else since. It was a choice I made, based on my own sensitivity to the subject. I did the same thing when Norm MacDonald made fun of Steve Irwin's death. But I would never actually say they don't have the right to make jokes that I don't like. Even if I knew most people would agree with me, and I could use popular opinion to get the jokes pulled from TV, I wouldn't do that. If you watch a Comedy Central roast, someone might say something that will offend you. And getting offended is something you have to expect if you want to watch offensive comedy. If we removed a joke every time someone was personally upset, the show would be 2 minutes long.

"How's everyone doing? ... Thank you, goodnight!"

I can't agree with thinking there should be rules about what comedians can say. You're right in saying rape is one of the least funny things you can talk about. Please don't think I'm trying to say we should be able to verbally abuse people and disguise it as comedy; that's not it at all. If you walk away from this thinking "he thinks rape is funny", you're both wrong and missing the point entirely. I can get how it can be disturbing to hear jokes about something you're sensitive to, and I'm not unsympathetic to that. I just also don't think comfort levels should affect what other people are allowed to joke about. I'm the type who would let 100 criminals go free to ensure we never executed an innocent man. Much the same way, I think 1 honest comedian should be allowed to say what they want, even if 100 douchebags would take advantage of that freedom. I'm a huge believer in the benefit of the doubt, and I think everyone deserves it. 

That's my two cents anyway. Seacrest out. 

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