When it comes to rape jokes, ‘free speech’ is a lazy defence
I admit it: I’m a liberal stereotype. I have no sense of humour. Or at least, there’s obviously something wrong with it.
You see, according to comedy club Laugh Factory, everyone in the room laughed at Daniel Tosh’s rape joke. Only one person was offended by it. Am I the only one who doesn’t actually understand it?
Here’s what the woman says happened: when she called out during his show that rape jokes aren’t funny, Daniel Tosh (pictured, right) decided to shut her up with: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her.”
I can’t say I’m offended; I just don’t get it. What’s the premise of the joke? It can’t be literal. 280 people weren’t laughing at the idea of a woman being gang raped. I’m clearly missing something between the lines.
Neither does the Laugh Factory’s version of events make it funnier. Laugh Factory owner Jame Masada seems to have defended him.
According to BuzzFeed:
Masada says Tosh asked the audience, “What you guys want to talk about?” After someone in the front said “rape,” a woman in the audience started screaming, “No, rape is painful, don’t talk about it.” Then, Masada says, “Daniel came in, and he said, ‘Well it sounds like she’s been raped by five guys’ — something like that. I really didn’t hear properly.”
Leaving aside the deliberate inclusion of a rather convenient disclaimer, (“Something like that. I really didn’t hear properly”), how is this better? Daniel Tosh walked on to a stage with an audience made up of people demanding to be entertained with rape jokes and one person “screaming” – either a hyperbolical exaggeration to undermine this woman by portraying her as hysterical, or a sign that the woman was distressed – that it was painful. He could have made a joke about the people who were begging for rape jokes, and their motives. Surely that’s a much “darker” joke, if making “dark” jokes is important? He could have made a joke about rapists being terrified of women. He chose to make a joke about the woman in distress, and not only that, but a joke based on the premise that sounding as if you are being or have been raped is funny. I know, I know. I’m just having a humour failure. There’s obviously something hilarious about a woman “screaming” in distress and sounding “like she’s been raped by five guys” which just goes over my head.
So Tosh’s own defense – that it’s possible to make good jokes about dark subjects – is tiresome. The problem for most isn’t the joke’s topic. The problem is the joke’s target.
Comedians can make dark jokes, and they can make jokes with no deep meaning. But they can’t expect zero backlash when they make lazy jokes with a regressive premise, then defend them, with spectacular cognitive dissonance, on the grounds that the jokes are boundary-pushing on a tough subject, but also just jokes, just banter, not to be taken seriously.
When you make a joke, it matters who you’re laughing at. Some of the cruelest acts within human capability are committed to get a laugh. Sometimes rapists even use their violence in this way. If you make an insensitive comment about rape, what kind of justification is it that you did it to make people laugh, if you’re making them laugh at rape survivors?
Once you’ve used the image of someone being raped as a way to humiliate them into silence, it’s too late to tell people not to take your jokes seriously, or not to bring politics into it, or not to make it personal. You chose to make your joke provocative. You don’t get to frame the debate you intentionally provoked on your own terms, with rape jokes being the social norm, and challenging them as being anti-social. You don’t get to define what is personal and what is political. Rape is both.
And anyway, bullying audiences into laughing at your jokes by accusing them of infringing on your free speech if they don’t is a cowardly way of getting laughs. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes of comedy. People laugh to prove they are not politically correct. A point comes where the audience isn’t laughing at the joke; they are laughing at the fact the joke is potentially offensive to others.
Too many comedians nurse their egos with the delusion that people aren’t ready for their outrageous wit when the reality is more akin to boredom; they are just churning out the same old-fashioned cracker box jokes that have been made for hundreds of years.
It’s not just comedians. Being offensive then getting offended when people are offended by your deliberate offensiveness has become a career path.
Jeremy Clarkson, Rod Liddle, David Starkey – privileged people can be good at conflating criticism with an inverse moral panic about censorship. This needs to be called out for what it is because it has more serious consequences than producing boring comedy. It actively shames people out of standing up for themselves. Even when Cardinal Keith O’Brien is blessed with a megaphone to express his opinion that gay marriage is morally equivalent to slavery, while representatives of his organisation get automatic seats in parliament, he, along with groups like the Coalition for Marriage, still manage to argue their position from a place of victimhood.
Using faux-victimhood to deny the right to call a racist a racist, call a homophobe a homophobe, or call misogyny misogyny, that’s the real free speech challenge, and it’s much more linguistically oppressive than saying rape isn’t funny. It invalidates dissent. It perpetuates a cultural othering which allows only society’s dominant members to judge not only how they are allowed to treat people, but how everyone else is legitimately permitted to feel about it.
Where does it end? The panicky privileged are never happy. Even when an historian like David Starkey can go on Newsnight and blame black people for the riots, even when he follows it up with articles in national papers, the racists whine that they can’t talk about race. Even when the country’s biggest news outlets churn out fiercely anti-Islamic stories every day, the Islamophobes howl that no-one can criticise Islam.
What more do these people want? It is becoming increasingly clear they won’t be happy until they have a great deal more than just free speech; they won’t be happy until the rest of us shut up. Well, we shouldn’t. We should always challenge that mentality. And it starts with the very thing at the heart of the arguments over Daniel Tosh: this nonsense idea that there is something wrong with asking people in a position of privilege to treat everybody else with the most basic levels of decency and respect.Tagged in: censorship, comedy, controversy, David Starkey, free speech, Jeremy Clarkson, misogyny, rape
Recent Posts on Arts
- Introducing Axes: Exclusive Album Stream
- The Xcerts Exclusive Album Stream and Interview: “We definitely feel like it’s our time. We want to step out of the shadow of other bands.”
- Friday Book Design Blog: Collier Books - great paperback design... and some of the worst Narnia covers I've seen
- Pulled Apart By Horses' European tour diary
- Friday Book Design Blog: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter