There’s a minor brouhaha over a story that Daniel Tosh was heckled during a set by a woman who didn’t think his views on the merit of rape jokes were valid. He shot back, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” The brouhaha isn’t terribly interesting for what Tosh said or what the woman said; the meat of it is in how this story is playing out on the Internet. Alyssa Rosenberg was disgusted by Tosh and by his defenders.
I think there is a case to be made that rape jokes that make fun of perpetrators can be very funny. Tosh didn’t go there, though. He just took the quickest route to run his heckler out of the club, and in using an image of her getting raped to mock and intimidate her, kind of made her point instead of his own. If rape was just hilarious and uproarious and trivial, it wouldn’t be a very effective rhetorical or literal weapon.
Instead let’s focus on the “ritual” of heckling, something one of the posters above described as “legitimate part of” a standup act before being set straight by people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about. Here’s the thing about heckling: If you do it, you are going to get destroyed by the person you’re heckling. That’s part of the ritual.
Twitter and Tumblr are alight with reactions. Here’s a list of comedians rallying to Tosh’s defense. A helpful protip:
if the funniest thing you can come up with is the worst moment of 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men’s lives you aren’t very funny bro
Naturally, there are those who disagree, such as this delightful Navy reservist:
This girl is a twat. It’s a fucking comedy show. If you don’t like it leave. You’re the cunt for interrupting a performance. Tosh is fucking hilarious and just because you’re too closed minded to have a laugh at some rather touchy issues doesn’t mean you need to ruin it for the rest of the (actually intelligent) world. People like you are fucking annoying. Acting like you’re the only one in the world with a cause you care about. Grow the fuck up.
Can rape jokes be funny? Sure. I guess. I’m sort of on board with Rosenberg on that score. It may not be classy, but this one did make me laugh:
calm down about rape jokes everyone’s been raped at least once by george lucas
Here’s what I know about Daniel Tosh. I watched clips from two episodes of his Comedy Central show, Tosh.0. The Internet videos were funny; his jokes were not. That’s the sum total of my previous experience of this gentleman. Was it wise of that audience member to heckle him? No. Obviously not. Heckling comedians is foolish, as Bunch says. By the same token, doing the right thing is not always wise if your goal is to emerge from any given situation unscathed. Standing up for what you believe is right takes courage, and the consequences for doing the right thing are often damaging. Was Tosh literally advocating that his heckler be sexually assaulted? No. So the woman wasn’t facing any physical repercussion for speaking out, and I don’t personally see her as a victim, per se.
However, the joke itself is the nexus of cultural attitudes that are, at heart, about doing damage and victimizing others. Again, not in the literal, physical sense, but in spirit. I daresay that most of us know someone who has been the victim of a literal sexual assault. Maybe that person hasn’t told you about it, but it is statistically unlikely that an American adult has gone his or her entire life and never formed an acquaintance with an assault survivor. As the woman is quoted as saying about her own motives:
I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.
To me, this seems perfectly valid and reasonable. Some people are more sensitive about this issue than others. It’s not the job of a comedian to be sensitive to others’ sensitivity, but seriously — what the hell is wrong with someone who asks if it would be funny if that particular girl got gang raped right now? Who finds that to be funny? Oh, that’s right, a Navy reservist who can’t comment on this incident without immediately labeling the woman a fucking annoying, unintelligent twat-cunt who needs to grow the fuck up. We live in a culture where responses like this are defended and aggressively promoted. Let that sink in.
I’d never wish to censor these jackasses. But I can argue that we should not be the kind of culture that indulges jackassery simply because it’s legal. Nor should we be the kind of culture that doubles down on jackassery as a misguided way of preserving the spirit of free expression. Nobody has a right not to be offended, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right to be offensive. Was the woman who interrupted Tosh’s performance foolish? Yup. And I’m sure that a clever comedian could have laid into her in dozens of different ways without ever rhetorically asking his audience how hilarious it would be if a bunch of predators violently fucked her right there in the crowd. Apparently, though, Tosh doesn’t do clever.
Bunch has characterized the heckle-and-response as a kind of ritual. That sounds about right. This is a ritual, too. That is to say, when a jackass does something jackassy, it’s common for folks to hash it over, discuss what’s happened, and debate what lessons we can draw from it. The lesson I’m drawing from this is that jackasses like Tosh attract other jackasses. They may even cause people who aren’t ordinarily jackasses to allow their jackass facets to surface, in a kind of perverse, cross-continental jackass mind meld. The incident itself, all told, probably isn’t that big of a deal, but the illumination the responses to it provide does carry greater significance. Bearing in mind Burke’s axiom, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing,” I’m ashamed to see that so many people — most of whom being very good people — are happy to excuse or validate Tosh’s jackassery and the jackassery it encourages. But I’m very gratified to see that so many more good people have put a balance weight on the other side, simply by identifying the jackassery where they see it and denouncing it unreservedly. Public discourse, in other words, is working the way it’s supposed to work. This is the kind of ritual that I find to be faith-affirming.☕