Being an Artist Doesn’t Give You Carte Blanche to Be an Asshole
Imagine you are sitting in a crowded comedy club. You are purposefully not sitting in the front. You are there to have a good time.
Then the comedian makes a joke. A bad joke. Maybe it’s a joke about murdering a baby. Or killing someone. Or somebody blowing something up. Let’s say he starts ranting about how it’s always funny to make a joke about a kid getting murdered. (I think we can all agree that’s pretty frakked up.)
It gives you goosebumps, but not the good kind.
Maybe you know someone whose child was murdered. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just watched a story unfold on the news. Maybe you just have a heart and a sense of right/wrong. The comedian keeps talking and talking about it, until you’re too uncomfortable to stay. But you want to say SOMETHING. So, taking a deep breath, you do the only thing you can think of – you heckle. Actually jokes about murdering a child aren’t funny.
After a pause, the comedian quips, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she were murdered right now? Or her kid? I mean, wouldn’t that be fucking hilarious?”
You’re in a crowded room. People snicker and laugh, nervously or otherwise. What do you do? You continue to leave, because you were uncomfortable to begin with – but now? You’ve just been threatened.
Yesterday, a story came to light about comedian Daniel Tosh. Apparently, at the Laugh Factory, part of his routine was to go on and on about rape jokes. When a female in the crowd (who found his material offensive) yelled that such jokes weren’t funny (because she felt that she had to say SOMETHING), he pressed on, singling her out – saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
As someone who’s never been raped, I find that offensive. I find that offensive as a woman and human being. I find it unacceptable, because I have friends who have been raped and abused. And honestly? That just isn’t funny. None of it is. Rape is a serious crime. To diminish and undercut the severity of it, especially in this society where the first reaction is usually to lay blame at the feet of the victim (oh, she was asking for it, look at how she dressed, why wasn’t she more careful?) – it is reprehensible.
It reminded of the other week, when I was in a convenience store. A guy got a ticket for his order, and it was 911. He, apparently, was from NY. He asked the girl making the sandwiches if she could just call his name or something else, because the number really bothered him. She agreed, and then mocked him while he went to the register to pay. Her behavior wasn’t threatening, but it was disrespectful and ripe with blatant disregard for humanity. While the situation is completely different, the principle is very much the same: some things just aren’t funny.
The Tosh situation was disturbing enough, until I found out that there are people out there defending the comedian. The argument, basically, is that he’s an artist. It’s free speech. Art gives you license to be offensive.
My response would be: yes, if you are an asshole. (Eloquent, right?) I’m all for art being everything from beautiful to disturbing. But I also do not think that being an artist means you have carte blanche to act like a jerk, to threaten other people, or cross all lines. Yes, there are lines. Sometimes, it’s tough to figure out where they are. Sometimes, one misstep can cost you a lot. See, Gilbert Gottfried and the joke he made after the tsunami. That cost money and respect. Yes, you can argue similarly to Tosh, that Gottfried is a comedian, and he was just trying to be funny. But what the hell was funny about what he said? Nothing. The same goes for Tosh, except some people don’t quite see that.
At point one, I saw a man arguing that Tosh has a right to say whatever he wants. He has free speech. And that’s true. He does. But he also cannot yell FIRE in the middle of a crowded movie theater, unless there is actually a fucking fire. Free speech does, indeed, have decency limits. All things cannot be excused with a shrug, mumbling, “Well, he’s an artist.” You know who else was an artist? Hitler. That didn’t make him anything less than a mass-murdering megalomaniac of epically horrible proportions. I’m pretty sure the Louvre didn’t hang up any of his painting, excusing his tendency toward genocide, because he’s an artist.
*ahem* Back to the point. Another argument was that if you find Tosh offensive, the answer is simple: don’t go to his shows. And yes, that’s a valid point. After this whole debacle, I’m 100% certain that I’d never choose to see him perform live, even if accompanied by Muppets. However, avoiding him doesn’t remove meaning from Tosh’s words (this suggestion was made, verbatim: you, as the consumer, need to educate yourself on who you pay attention to, in order to avoid being offended.). *blinks* What’s this now? In order to avoid things that might be offensive, I have to smart enough to know what to avoid? The condescending attitude aside, what the frak? Avoiding something doesn’t invalidate another person’s actions/statements in the least. What Tosh did, and said, is still very wrong – regardless of whether or not I plunked down money to attend one of his shows. Consider Mel Gibson’s anti-semiotic rant that most of us either read or heard about. None of us were there. We didn’t choose to hear it. We didn’t walk up to Gibson and say, “Gee, Mel, what ARE your feelings on Jewish people?” But what he said was still what he said. Not being there, personally, is irrelevant. Actions and words, especially of a public figure, are a measure of who we are. If something is said, it’s put out into the world – and in the case of a celebrity, it’s pretty much there for all eternity. Gibson’s oeuvre is still impressive; he’s got Braveheart and The Patriot. But he also is that guy who got sloshed and spewed hate speech.
Also, there is the suggestion that Tosh regularly employs black humor. Great. Awesome. I like black humor. There is a wide-spectrum of humors that I appreciate it. But I’ll say it again: threatening someone, like Tosh did, is never frakkin’ funny. What if that person was your sister? Your cousin? Your mother? Your friend? Your wife? That shouldn’t need to be personally contextualized to matter, but let’s do that, anyway. What if that girl who stood up in the club was someone you cared about?
Someone pointed out that she should’ve kept her mouth shut. That the woman should’ve known better than the heckle a guy who is famous for his “black humor.” (Are rape jokes really black humor? I don’t know.) “I definitely wouldn’t heckle someone who has gotten famous off of black humor if I was easily offended by the topic of his bit.” Basically, this insinuates that the woman is to blame, that she brought it on herself, and that if she had only kept her mouth shut, things would’ve been fine. She was, essentially, an idiot. But I’d argue that she was brave, as every person is who takes a stand against something or someone that’s wrong. The kid who stands up for someone getting picked up. The person who helps someone up after they’ve fallen. The woman who puts her foot down and says, enough, this is wrong. All brave things. Because if you stand by and let something slide, it makes you culpable, in a way, for knowing it’s wrong and ignoring it.
Being an artist doesn’t give someone a license to be a total asshat. It doesn’t mean that he can say whatever he wants without consequences. Yes, Tosh has freedom of speech – but you cannot blame people for finding what he said/did offensive. No one is arguing that comedians should be censored by some kind of Oversight of Humor section of the government. But it is important to acknowledge that what he did was awful and that chalking it up to art is nothing more than a shameful cop-out, a misdirection of wrongdoing and responsibility.