Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Owning the Subtext: Thoughts on Humor and Satire

[CN: Rape, rape culture]

I've been planning to make a post on shock-humor and effective satire and irony, especially in light of similar discussions and debacles, most recently this incident involving Daniel Tosh.

I should start off by saying that I recognize what an incredibly powerful tool humor can be, especially irony and satire. It's one of the reasons I love the Daily Show and the Colbert Report so much--which is not to say I agree with every view or every joke ever made on those shows*--but rather that I appreciate the way they're utilizing humor. Their coverage of current events can be more memorable, engaging and overt in a way that conventional news programs can't replicate. For instance, when news programs reported on the House Oversight Committee hearing on birth control back in February, you might have simply heard an anchor say flatly "There were no female participants at the conference." Jon Stewart, on the other hand, is able to belabor the
absurdity of the fact in a way that sticks and has a greater emotional impact. And this kind of engagement has an impact: there are more young people politically informed and engaged because of these programs who might otherwise have been uninterested in politics.

Despite the fact that not all humor is necessarily social or political commentary, there is one thing that almost all jokes share: subtext. If we take Stephen Colbert's brand of satire as an example, the subtext is the absurdity of conservative tv pundits--it's the butt of all the jokes, it's the punchline we're all in on. And because it's satire, Colbert's rhetoric itself is insincere--the literal meaning of his words is the exact opposite of the intended message. But although we're not supposed to take his actual rhetoric seriously, we are most certainly supposed to take the subtext seriously.

While the subtext in The Colbert Report is intentionally and skillfully crafted, the subtext in other jokes is not well thought-out or intentional--but unfortunately, it's still there, whether the joke-teller likes it or not. And sometimes that subtext offends or worse, actually hurts people. In those cases, joke-tellers have three options: 1) stand by the original subtext and attempt to justify it; 2) engage with people's complaints, clarify the intended subtext (while still admitting to the flawed execution) and/or apologize; 3) derail and deflect by claiming things like "you're not supposed to take it seriously, can't you take a joke?" and/or "quit trying to censor me!" or denying that jokes have subtext in the first place.

So now that we have a framework for evaluating jokes, let's take a closer look at Tosh's rape joke fiasco. What's the subtext? It's pretty simple and hackish: there is something funny about the idea of someone being raped (and that even if it is horrible, it is also funny). Note the specificity here-- the butt of the Tosh's joke is rape
victims, not rapists and not rape culture. This has been covered by others before, that what separates a "good" rape joke from a "bad" one is that the former invokes the horror of rape at the expense of rapists and rape culture, while the latter is at the expense of rape victims by seemingly mocking and belittling their pain and trauma, as if it was an amusing sport.

To say that mocking and belittling trauma "offends" people is a gross understatement--in fact, I resent that word being used, because it's not even accurate. If you insult someone's favorite sports team, they may be merely offended. If you make someone relive a traumatic experience, make them remember all the hurt and fear and shame, except this time in a room where everyone is laughing at the very idea of their experience--then they are not offended, they are experiencing something painful. Even if the listener has not experienced rape, if they have ever felt anxiety or fear over it, can imagine how horrible it would be, or even simply feel empathy--that joke doesn't simply offend, it is unsettling and still painful. That is not the same as feeling offense and indignation. And it's no longer about "political correctness."

Let's take a look at Tosh's response: 

"All the out of context misquotes aside, i'd like to sincerely apologize,”

While I'll give him credit for attempting to apologize, it is pretty irksome that he simultaneously writes some throwaway line about "out of context misquotes" without actually ever specifying what was misquoted or taken out of context. I suspect he didn't specify anything because, assuming it even existed, it didn't actually change the subtext of the joke. 

He then followed up with this gem: 
"The point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies."

As noted earlier, there is a difference between making a joke that illustrates how horrible rape is and making one that makes light of it. Tosh did the latter. If he were trying to do the former, he failed. If he wants to do better in the future, he needs to be cognizant of the subtext of his jokes and actively change it. Somehow, I doubt this is going to happen.

I'm not saying that it's not possible for critics to ever misinterpret the subtext of a joke. That certainly happens, especially in cases with jokes less simplistic and hackish than Tosh's "joke." But what I am saying is that the conversation should at least revolve around both the joke-teller and the listener agreeing that jokes have a subtext, and from there they can discuss the intended meaning and whether it was executed properly. That is a much better conversation to have than denying that subtext exists at all, that it can hurt people and that it matters.  
For an example of a comedian genuinely engaging with the subtext of his joke, see Jason Alexander's statement here. It's not impossible. It's not even difficult. It just takes some thoughtfulness and empathy.

One last point I want to discuss is a response to hurtful jokes I mentioned earlier: 
derail and deflect by claiming things like "you're not supposed to take it seriously, can't you take a joke?" and/or "quit trying to censor me!" or denying that the subtext exists in the first place. This is the tact that the bulk of Tosh's supporters took when defending him. 

Regarding the claim that jokes "shouldn't be taken seriously": I think this is ultimately a poorly constructed phrase (similar to "offended") that obscures what critics of hurtful jokes are really trying to say. It's not that they've lost sight of the fact that it's a joke and are trying to interpret the words literally. In Jason Alexander's case, it's not as if they thought he was literally saying only gay men played cricket, or that he was giving a serious appraisal of the sport. But what they did take seriously was the inescapable subtext: that men acting "effeminately" is worthy of ridicule. They took this seriously because it's a serious problem in our society that has serious consequences: homophobic discrimination, bullying and killing.

There is no space where you can make commentary about society and have it be divorced from social issues, no matter how subtle the commentary might be. Comedy is not a space that can be free from social criticism so long as it is full of individuals talking about society. Words have meaning. Words about social phenomena have meaning. It's not as if tacking on a punchline at the end magically makes that meaning and social relevance disappear.

We understand this about comedy perfectly well in some contexts. We understand that when a little boy bullies another boy he considers effeminate by jokingly calling him a girl that the bully doesn't actually believe he's a girl. But we also understand that his bullying is serious--both in terms of it being a serious problem and the bully's serious intention to inflict pain. We also understand that it's wrong. Would it magically not be a serious problem if suddenly the bully had a microphone and was in front of a crowd? Would it suddenly not be wrong? 

This brings me to the next point: censorship. This is a particularly frustrating straw man. Not one critic that I've come across has advocated that Tosh should be thrown in jail, or should be prevented from ever making these kinds of jokes. Even if there are critics that have argued that, let me be clear: that is not my argument. Tosh is free to make whatever joke he wants, just as I am free to criticize him for the implications of his jokes. He is free to continue making fun of rape victims, just as I am free to consider him an unempathetic, uncritical asshole for doing so.  

And more importantly: he is free to make jokes about rape all he wants. He will simply be a more decent human being if he actually thinks a bit about what he is saying, and whether it's the rape victims or rapists he's laughing at. 


*EDIT: For instance, I'm not happy with this at all...

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