Monday, March 04, 2013
The Oscars, Bad Jokes and Bully Culture
Whenever the media catches someone making an offensive joke, saying something stupid, or doing something insensitive (all three of which were on display at the recent Academy Awards), the same questions get asked, over and over again:
“Was that really offensive, or is everyone just overreacting? Are we too sensitive?”
“Isn’t it the job of artists and comedians to push buttons and shake things up?”
“It was just a joke. Why are people so caught up on this little thing, when there are real problems out there?”
These are the wrong questions, and it’s time we stopped asking them. Here are three better ones:
Who’s making the joke, who’s laughing, and who’s being laughed at?
When the Onion calls 9 year-old Quvenzhané Wallis a c***, I know they don’t really mean it. But I also know that the “joke” taps into a long, painful history of young women of color being dehumanized, devalued and abused. The “humor” is entirely contingent on people either not knowing or not caring about that.
And this isn’t about free speech. Everyone is free to say whatever they want. This is about the choices we have as both creators and consumers of culture. The battle here is not pro-censorship vs. anti-censorship, or the uptight PC police vs. the badass artistic rebels; it’s “insensitive bullies saying hurtful things about historically and institutionally oppressed people for cheap shock value” vs. “people with standards.” Which side are you on?
What is the larger point being made with the joke/statement? Is there one?
If you absolutely have to offend someone in order to make some grand philosophical statement about the nature of human existence, fine. But when Lisa Lampanelli uses the n-word to refer to her friend Lena Dunham, or when Daniel Tosh laughs about the idea of a woman in his audience being raped, or when Eminem raps about murdering gay people, or when a NYC assemblyman (or St. Paul police officer, for that matter) wears blackface makeup—what’s the reason?
999 times out of a thousand, there isn’t one. Even when it’s not overtly malicious, it’s a tired joke. It’s a lazy attempt to come off as edgy when you’re not talented enough to actually say something edgy. It’s the unholy union of the willfully ignorant and the gleefully privileged, and it adds nothing new or interesting to the larger conversation.
What is the relationship between these so-called “little things” and the “real problems” of the world?
Every time a rapper says the word “bitch,” even if they’re not using it in an explicitly misogynistic way; every time a college student dresses up in a Halloween costume that is a caricature of someone else’s culture; every time some hipster says something racist to prove how “beyond race” they are; every time you post a Facebook status talking about how a particularly tough video game is “raping” you—none of these things alone represent the end of the world. It’s about the cumulative effect.
Language impacts thought; thought impacts action. And when our language is so casually cruel, when it normalizes what should be offensive, when it sacrifices empathy and critical thought for the cheap sugar rush of breaking taboos or getting a chuckle out of your audience—that affects the real world. That hurts people. That is the bullshit that fertilizes the ground from which oppression, inequality, bigotry, and hate grow.
Imagine you’re in high school. Every day, you witness a classmate subjected to a hundred “little things” from other students: a light shove in the hallway, a name-called in the lunchroom, hateful graffiti on a locker, taunting over Facebook, spitballs in the back of the head, etc. Any of those things by themselves might be manageable. But all of them, together, day after day after day—they add up.
And sure, you could tell the student to “get over himself” and “stop being so sensitive.” Or you could stand with him, as an ally, and refuse to be yet another bully. The choice is yours.