Recently the two of us had a conversation with someone about the Tosh issue and thought we'd post some of it here--especially because it covers a lot of topics that might typically come up in discussions of "offensive" humor. Hopefully it's useful to some readers out there!
"Not all good comedy is inoffensive and that not all offensive comedy is unfunny."
J: That isn't a fact; that's opinion. For some people, if comedy offends them, it's not funny. Rape jokes can do more than offend; for survivors, it can make them relive their trauma and feel humiliated, like this horrible thing that happened to them is just something for people to laugh at. Few comedians seem to factor that rape survivors might be in the audience or listening at home and instead treat rape as some remote, abstract concept, ripe with shock culture potential they're itching to exploit. But it's not actually that shocking or subversive to minimize rape in this culture; it's done all the time, and if a rape joke adds to that, we should try to recognize it. Most feminist commentary online has said that telling a good, funny rape joke is possible ; it just should be well-thought out, critical of the rapist, rape culture, and/or rape apologia, not further mocking the victim. Then there are a few feminists who believe that no rape joke is funny because they all normalize rape.
C: A big part of this argument turns on the usage of the word "offensive"—I think people aren’t often on the same wavelength regarding its definition. If you tell a joke insulting someone's hometown, they may be offended, but it's not unreasonable to believe they might also find the joke funny. But if you tell a joke about rape, depending on what you say, and at whose expense, you may make a member of the audience feel ashamed and hurt. That's not the same thing as feeling offended and those feelings are much more viscerally incompatible with laughter and feeling good. Additionally, it's about the content of the joke—myself and most feminist bloggers are not arguing rape jokes are off-limits, just that telling rape jokes in which rape victims are the butt of the joke, rather than rapists, can be cruel and a dick-move overall--and THAT’S the issue here. A joke at the expense of rapists in qualitatively different than a joke at the expense of rape victims--especially coming from a dude who has never and most likely will never have to deal with the threat of rape as a reality.
"This is just the PC movement trying to silence comedians!"
J: I don't know that I buy that there's a "PC Movement" per se, or that whatever you're referring to should be given that name. There's a difference between some knee-jerk, prudish, FCC-motivated offense at something and being angry or upset from a personal, empathetic, or socially-conscious standpoint, and it seems like you're conflating the two. When it comes to a rape joke, most people are not criticizing it because it offends their delicate sensibilities, but because they believe it supports rapists, minimizes the gravity of rape, and mocks rape victims. In the case of Daniel Tosh, he wasn't just making rape jokes (not the "good" kind described above either) but also lashing out at the woman who stood up to him and using the threat of rape to put her in her place.
C: The idea of a “PC movement” has got to be one of the worst mischaracterizations of this kind of criticism—on top of it being a terrible misnomer. I could dissect the concept in greater depth in a later post if you want, but for now I’m just going to focus at the issue at hand: rape jokes. I don’t think I’ve ever read an objection of them that claims that the actual language and terminology used is arbitrarily out-of-bounds. It’s not some knee-jerk, schoolmarm-like reaction of “You can’t say that! It’s inappropriate!” which is what people tend to be invoking when they talk about political correctness. In this case, it’s not about the words and terminology being used—it’s not about the word rape being thrown around—it’s the content of the jokes, it’s the subtext. As I mentioned earlier, there is a big difference between a joke in which the subtext is “aren’t rapists terrible people?” and “it’s funny when drunk girls get raped, they’re really asking for it anyway.”
"But what about free speech? This is censorship!"
J: Free speech means you CAN say anything you want, not that you SHOULD, or that you can say anything and no one can give you shit for it. Likewise, any criticism for a joke is also free speech, but you don't hear that one thrown around as often.
And I'm curious, in terms of free speech supporters--- why do you think someone's right to tell some joke is more important than causing someone pain? This isn't a matter of "anyone who's offended needs to stop being so sensitive, it's their own fault for feeling that way", because again, for rape survivors, it's not a choice so much as being triggered into the memory of trauma. As for having everything on comedy on the table; it should be, but again, both the comedian and the audience should examine what the joke supports and perpetuates. Comedy at its best criticizes the powerful and supports the powerless, or makes unique, cogent, subversive observations. This isn't a matter of "hurt feelings" or making the world a "perfect" place, but being aware of existing power dynamics. A joke told at the expense of a rapist is not equivalent to a joke told at the expense of a victim; they function very differently.
There are few people that can say anything with impunity, especially while on the job. Why should a stand-up comic be any different? If anything, their job is MORE dependent than most on making everyone feel like they're having a great time. I love to laugh and I've watched a shit-ton of stand-up throughout my life, but I'm not willing to let them say anything they want with impunity. And it's not like all we do is laugh at comedians; they're telling stories, making observations about society, and further shaping our perceptions.
C: Free speech and censorship issues are straw men arguments. I haven’t come across anyone advocating that comedians should be thrown in jail or censored. Even if there are critics that have argued that, let me be clear: that is not my argument. Anyone is free to make whatever joke they want, just as I am free to criticize them for the implications of their jokes. Anyone is free to continue making fun of rape victims, just as I am free to consider them an unempathetic, uncritical asshole for doing so.
One more reason free speech is a red herring: free speech, as a constitutionally protected right, does not govern certain relationships between individuals. A comedian can tell his jokes without the threat of being jailed, that’s true, and that’s already his situation. Does he have a constitutionally protected right to be on stage doing stand-up? No, it’s a privilege. People can boo him off the stage, the event coordinator can cancel his show, etc. etc. These aren’t free speech or censorship issues, so let’s not distort the term by calling them that. He *can* say whatever he wants. Is he constitutionally guaranteed a nation-wide platform to distribute it? No, that's a privilege.
"But it's comedy! Everything is and should be fair game!"
C: Yeah, everything is fair game for a comedian to joke about, that doesn’t mean that if they say something really uncritical and unempathetic that no one is allowed to criticize them for it. It’s not as if comedy is divorced from society and language. Words have meaning. Words about social phenomena have meaning. It's not as if tacking on a punch-line at the end magically makes that meaning and social relevance disappear. Comedy is part of an ongoing discussion and exchange over how to talk about and represent a host of different issues—and sometimes, comedians (as fallible humans sometimes tend to do) get it wrong. This is especially important because lot of the jokes in question don’t just hurt people, they also shore up damaging ideas that shape our culture and society. At most, I just want comedians to understand and own up to that. If they see it and just don’t care, that’s one thing, but when they deny that their words can have such an impact at all, it’s pretty grating.
"But this would be too hard on comedians!"
C: I guess the ideas I’ve expressed would be “hard on comedians” if you agree that thinking critically and being empathetic and intellectually honest is somehow difficult. But I hold everyone to that standard, no matter how difficult it might be for them, and comedians don’t get a free pass on that. Also, other comedians have done it no problem: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Wanda Sykes tackled rape in a way that embodies that standard. In all honesty, all I want is for comedians to be aware of the social and individual impact their words can have, and either own up to their own indifference or try to actively change it.