When it comes to rape jokes, ‘free speech’ is a lazy defence

Louise McCudden
Tosh 300x225 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.

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  • Darren Anderson

    lol ref the dentist. I have no issue with disagreeing on what is funny! (wasn’t there a Python sketch around this?…) Indeed, most folks prefer (the Brilliant)Pete & Dud in the non-vulgar 60’s guise (Not Only but Also from BBC?) and not the later Derek & Clive alter egos, which were foul mouthed to the extreme & utterly distasteful- yet, to me, far more creative and just more belly-laugh funny. But then I also love Radio4 comedy, Eric Sykes, Milligan, Sellers…just as much as the Chris Morris, Gervais and Stanhopes of this world. Given this is not my stand-up gig, I apologise for any offence taken- though not for my opinions.

  • Darren Anderson

    Fair enough, apols- it does look like I am misrepresenting you, which is not what I intended. However….I disagree (still) that the denial of free speech has not led people to take up arms, and more importantly, would say it’s a fine reason- not to drop an A bomb, but to resist forces who seeek to impose such a restriction. Many wars have arisen for worse reasons:are we back to Iraq?

  • icarus_69

    It was an unofficial (I think) Derek and Clive tape. They were certainly very drunk. It was funny. Sykes, Milligan, Sellers, yes, and Gervais. (Don’t know the others. I also used to find Hancock funny, though seeing replays after 50 years it seems less so, but you can see what grew from it later. Don’t worry about offence; none was taken.

  • icarus_69

    I fully agree that most reasons for going to war are bad.

  • Darren Anderson

    we are in severe danger of a widespread agreement breaking out…be interested to hear what you make of Doug Stanhope…very raw, often disgusting, but again (imo), creative, intelligent, insightful, brave (as far as comedy/performing goes) and FUNNY- oh, but there’s a price- he will Definitely hit a ’sore point’ or 5 and you will question laughing previously. One recording I heard of a Stanhope gig begins, “…So I blew a speaker in my car on the way to the gig tonight- He was a motivational speaker, left a bad taste but I feel pretty good about myself”.
    Hancock, yes, it’s all there (and is brilliant in many ways)but can’t say I can sit through it these days…ah, how jaded we have become. Still enjoy a dollop of Steptoe & Son if it comes around. Derek & Clive: the Live album is great, but I would recommend (not for the faint hearted) Ad Nauseam and Come Again albums. Full of filthy wordsmithery and minty topics- but I have never cried with laughter as I have with this stuff.

  • Lee Coye

    If it’s genuine incitement, it’s already covered under the laws. Forget social justice, there’s a system in place. Now, the only way to call this incitement is to somehow provide evidence/documentation that Tosh, or any comedian, both intended to incite said violence, and would be afforded the reasonable expectation of success. That, however, just isn’t in evidence, so it doesn’t fall under incitement, so it ISN’T analogous to incitement against minorities.

  • mypipsranout

    Brilliant article. I’m so tired of so called ‘edgy’ white privileged male comedians dragging us back to the days of Bernard Manning and re-affirming the status quo under their anti p.c anti establishment guise.

  • Ben Sier

    I think freedom of speech is paramount (let’s face…lots of people don’t have this right) but it should come with some responsibility and if you are “rolling” with a controversial topic then fine…but at least be very funny…Tosh attempt at humour was cheap, pathetic and lacked intelligence…does anyone really think the majority of the crowd thought his “joke” was actually funny? I don’t think so…he just used the power of the mike, knowing that his “sheep” audience would say nothing back in fear. It seems there is a lack of power balance between comedian & crowd? Maybe we should go back to the ye olde days of the audience taking some old fruit and just throwing it when the comedian has delivered “poor” performance…that would sharpen their skills and maybe they would think twice if they had to buy a new shirt every time they delivered cheap lines.

  • Ben Sier

    I agree

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