If the internet has a down side for anyone, it’s that it makes it much harder for casual sexists and racists to tell jokes among friends. (And yes, Chris Lee, it’s also made it harder for casual adulterers, but that’s last week’s story.)
It would be tough for me to claim that this week’s top political comedy story was anything other than the joke that went awry: journalist Nir Rosen’s poorly conceived tweet belittling CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s sexual assault while covering the revolution in Egypt. As Tom Scocca of Slate rightly points out, it’s foolish and ill-advised for me (or most anyone, but particularly men) to say anything about the story, because, my god, it was just a horrible thing to happen (and for Rosen to say), and what’s more, it only opens up the risk of me sounding as insensitive as the worst commentators, with little foreseeable benefit to be gained from wading in at all.
So here goes.
Rosen’s joke was more than just in bad taste. It was a particular brand of comedy killer: one that provokes swift, universal outrage. But even the outrage-provoking joke has a function in society, of a sort. Since our reaction to them is often swift, automatic, and unthinking, they are paradoxically the most secure way we have of demonstrating that we still share a universal morality. Which is something that we can often forget we even have. It’s easy to profess to different beliefs, or to no beliefs, and not mean it, but repulsion is an unconscious act, and that gives it an uncalculated honesty. It might seem obvious, but when we all recoil together, it tells us about our shared beliefs. We get preachy as individuals, but we are offended as a community.
That’s the positive side of it, but horribly offensive jokes have their bad side too. Rosen apologized for his joke, to his credit, and resigned his NYU fellowship. But not right away. His first reaction on twitter was to tell everyone to lighten up (exact words, “all these people with no sense of humor”). And this immediate “lighten up” reaction is telling, even if the jokester sees his mistake and returns to sanity and decency. “Can’t you take a joke?” is what’s said when someone outside your core group overhears the insanely insensitive thing your group all thinks is funny. It marks someone as a partisan.
This was the common reaction online in early 2009, when conservative politicians kept getting caught saying racist things about Obama on Twitter. Like Rosen, they didn’t seem to understand that other people could read what they were saying. They were used to telling these jokes to people who share their beliefs. What’s sad is these jokes uncover a wide gap between what most Americans accept and the truly extremist views partisan thinkers like Rosen and the #tcot group hold. They don’t just disagree with us about issues. They think differently about people.
I know it does not sound like much to say that we all oppose jokes about sexual assault. That should be the least we can agree on. But the wording of his tweets actually reveal a subtle line between the acceptable and unacceptable. The offending comment was “Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal,” and it was followed up by a defensive semi-non-apology, “Yes yes its wrong what happened to her. Of course. I don’t support that. But, it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too.” He’s referring, of course, to the attacks on Anderson Cooper during his own coverage of the Egyptian uprising. As opposed to the Logan joke, Cooper’s attack was widely accepted as material for comedy, even funny in itself. It might be harder than you think to explain why Anderson Cooper was fair game, but intuitively, it was.
Neither is sexual assault an off-limits topic when handled correctly. The topic of “forcible rape” was at the forefront of discussion just two weeks ago, when Republicans tried to redefine the term in a debate over abortion funding. Not only did comedians tackle the subject directly, it was an example where many believe that the humorous take itself — in this case Kristen Schaal’s Daily Show commentary — was heavily influential in the abandonment of the bill.
It’s possible that the air of acceptance surrounding Anderson Cooper’s injuries as comic fodder lulled Rosen into thinking a Lara Logan joke would be okay. But that’s the thing about comedy killers and our values. The lines look blurry, and then suddenly they’re sharp.
So our advice to sexist and racist journalists and politicians is the same we would give to politician-adulterers: just don’t use the internet. (Alternatively, stop being sexist, racists, and/or adulterers.) Technology has a way of torpedoing offensive comedy. It feels counterintuitive, but the internet might actually be making us more moral, as these jokes have become less acceptable. Since his resignation, Rosen has continued to explain himself into a hole, admitting “Twitter is no place for nuance.” Well yes, duh, but this argument is just as hollow as the “lighten up” one the offensive joke teller always makes. Is it now our fault we didn’t catch his nuance, a nuance that would have been there if the technology weren’t so new? We’ve heard these defenses before. It’s the intolerant asking for the benefit of context. It’s kind of laughable.
Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.