The Age of Outrage: Jim Norton vs. Lindy West

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Here’s something that I think deserves to be seen far and wide.

Last week on FX’s Totally Biased, host W. Kamau Bell kicked off a new segment on the show that will, as he puts it, pit comics against feminists. While anyone who’s read my stuff over the past year or so knows that the subject of call-out culture and the social media “outrage machine,” especially as it applies to comedy, is one that’s pretty dear to my heart, right off the bat the implication that feminism and comedy are natural enemies bugs me. True, the humorless feminist is a well-worn cliché, and it’s not hard to find plenty of examples of it, but even in the wake of one comic or another being raked over the coals for saying something purportedly anti-women, I’ve been careful not to lump all feminists together. I think there’s a feminist media community that’s as much an industry as any other political or social media complex these days; it seeks out things to comment on, to be angry over, and to milk manufactured indignation from which draws attention and page-views. I’m not questioning the sincerity of its umbrage, but I do believe that it’s a culture that feeds off of itself.

As it turns out, though, W. Kamau Bell did in fact call upon one of the most vocal members of this community — this very specific brand of feminist — to fulfill the generic “feminist” role in his first televised death-match. And so, for more than 15-minutes, what you had last week was Jezebel’s Lindy West going at it with very good, very outspoken comic Jim Norton. If you’re unfamiliar with West, I mentioned her as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when she injected herself into the thoroughly ridiculous fray spawned by a piece in Salon that targeted Patton Oswalt and accused him of being part of the problem of “rape culture” simply by not speaking out against it. West wrote a column aimed right at what she believed was the heart of the problem; in other words, it was called “An Open Letter To White Male Comics.” She also famously wrote the most widely circulated of the many insufferable pieces in the wake of the Daniel Tosh rape-joke controversy from last year that lectured comics on “how to make a rape joke” and was behind an essay called, “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You,” so I don’t think it’s an unfair characterization to say that Lindy West thinks quite a bit of herself and her self-appointed role as the arbiter of what is and isn’t funny. What’s of course interesting — and unfortunate — about what you’re going to notice as you watch this, is that, yes, for a good portion of the discussion, Lindy West seems to embody the cliché of the self-righteous generic feminist perfectly, therefore I get the impression that, no, she’s not funnier than just about anyone (men or otherwise).

The debate Norton and West have is a good and respectful one but I have to admit that I’m firmly in one camp on this. There’s absolutely a discussion to be had over whether the destigmatization of rape as a general concept — and by that I mean the handling of it by certain gifted comics in a way that’s not meant to demean or dehumanize — can contribute to a culture where it’s not taken as deadly seriously as it should be. But Norton’s assertion that when it comes to comedy it either all has to be on the table or none of it can be is right on the money. No one wants to hurt or victimize someone who’s already been hurt or victimized, but a comic simply can’t keep in his or her mind the many potential discomforts or grievances of each and every member of the audience — who might get offended over what joke — otherwise he or she can’t do the job. Comedy has to be all about intent, and the intent is always about making people laugh. Sure, a comedian may mine his or her own suffering — or even the suffering of others — in the name of the catharsis provided by laughter, but the intention is never to cause suffering.

Take some time out of your day to watch this and see what you think.

Now, Lindy West has written a follow-up to this discussion over at Jezebel today in which she runs down some of the admittedly hostile reaction she’s gotten to her appearance and her opinions. Not surprisingly, because a lot of people are assholes and the internet gives them ample room to act likes ones with impunity, quite a bit of that reaction is aimed squarely at her appearance and not at all at her opinions (at least not in the sense that it attempts to refute them). I may not be a fan of West’s views on the whole, but I’ve never stooped to insulting, say, her looks nor would I ever suggest that she get raped or pushed down a flight of stairs. That kind of thing is just fucking inexcusable and I honestly can’t fathom what would lead anyone to say it or anything like it. What’s worse is that some of the more vicious and contemptible responses she’s getting are coming, she says, from local male comics, which of course does nothing but help prove her claim that comedy has a “women problem.”

I’m not a comic so I can’t comment on the ins and outs of the business, whether there’s institutional misogyny and a culture of open hostility toward women, but I have no trouble at all believing that there are plenty of male comics who are threatened by female comedians or who believe them to be interlopers in a man’s domain. A good number of comedians are debilitatingly insecure psychological disasters whose own lack of ability to function within the constraints of polite society is what led them to become comics in the first place. That’s no excuse, though, to behave like a fucking Neanderthal toward Lindy West or any other woman simply because she’s a woman. And what separates the shots aimed at West and the kind of ball-busting comedians love to do to each other is one word: intent. Norton brings it up; the late Patrice O’Neal used to bring it up; I bring it up all the time: Common sense is pretty helpful when it comes to judging the intent of someone making a potentially incendiary statement. Is it said in anger? Is the goal to legitimately subjugate and dehumanize? Sure, there will always be people who fall back on the tried and true “can’t you take a joke?” excuse, but it’s not tough to tell whether somebody really is joking. Comedy requires very thick skin and a willingness to suspend any notion of political correctness, but that doesn’t give sanction for anyone to be truly abusive. Also, it’s probably the only profession that allows someone to give as much crap as he or she takes.

There’s no doubt that much of the venom aimed at Lindy West is in fact anything but a joke. But I hope we can keep in mind that not every male comedian is a misogynist shithead the same way not every feminist is a joyless harridan. It’s wrong to generalize regardless of whom you’re generalizing about. When it comes to West being unfairly attacked, I wouldn’t apologize on behalf of all men for the simple reason that I don’t speak for all men, the same way Lindy West doesn’t speak — and can’t speak — for all women. As Norton has said more than once recently, I refuse to take the blame for my entire gender and however some members of it may have failed in the past and may still be failing the same way I won’t take credit for the many accomplishments of other members of my gender. I’m not them; they’re not me. No one owes a generalized debt for what came before or apart from them. It’s fair to acknowledge the sins of the past and even the present without actually being punished for something you didn’t personally do.

Those guys attacking Lindy West’s looks and issuing veiled and not-so-veiled threats against her just because she spoke out for what she believes in are rotten assholes. But not all guys are. And just because a comic, male or female, says something that upsets or angers you doesn’t mean he or she intended to upset or anger you. Not all of them are assholes, either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

    Just so you know, the “joke” that “feminists have no sense of humor” was made by a journalist at Susan Brownmiller’s press conference for her book “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape”. She opened that book with a popular joke at that time— the caveman hitting a cavewoman over the head with a club and then dragging her to his cave. She admitted that she used to laugh at that joke, but that after doing research for her book (which included interviewing a lot of women who had been raped) she realized that the “joke” actually portrayed rape. She used that “joke” to illustrate myths about rape and to challenge them.

    Susan Brownmiller, at the press conference for a book that had a profound effect on our nation’s attitudes about rape said, “Rape isn’t funny.” And thus was born, “Feminists have no sense of humor.”

  • drunkmosquito

    What’s so offensive about the idea that people should have the freedom of speech to call out things they believe trivialize rape and pressure rape victims to stay silent?

    • http://twitter.com/chezpazienza Chez Pazienza

      Did you actually watch the clip posted above or are you just knee-jerk reacting? I’m betting it’s the latter.

      • drunkmosquito

        Actually, I’ve been following this debate and the aftermath for a while. You’ll notice Lindy West says multiple times she’s not arguing for censorship, just for being able to call out people who say shitty things. And yet people are trying to shut *her* down completely, because her ideas offend them.

        The irony of this is it’s spawned a reaction of people telling her to shut up in the name of freedom of speech.

        • drunkmosquito

          In Lindy West’s own words–(Excerpted from her article “How to Make a Rape Joke” about rape jokes that mock the rapist or the culture rather than the victim: http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke)

          “In case this isn’t perfectly clear yet: You can say whatever you want.

          You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want.

          You can say whatever you want.

          That said, a comedy club is not some sacred space. It’s a guy with a microphone standing on a stage that’s only one foot above the ground. And the flip-side of that awesome microphone power you have—wow, you can seriously say whatever you want!—is that audiences get to react to your words however we want. [...]This is the feedback you asked for.

          If people don’t want to be offended, they shouldn’t go to comedy clubs? Maybe. But if you don’t want people to react to your jokes, you shouldn’t get on stage and tell your jokes to people.”

          • Alex0001

            Except that a comedy show is not a discussion panel. This sacred ground thing is clearly taking it in a ridiculous direction. Where in the world she gets the idea that a comedian is asking for “feedback” is beyond me. You’re there to watch the show. Not engage in it and be a part of the act. You don’t go to a movie or a play and start shouting down the screening or the actors because a scene affected you negatively. You probably don’t seek out the manager and give them a piece of your mind. You probably don’t track down so-and-so director’s address and mail him about your slight. No. You most likely either keep watching or you walk out. If you do so it’s pretty reasonable to expect to appear foolish.

          • drunkmosquito

            She gets that idea from fellow Seattle comedians. Sure, no one wants people to shout out during the act. But I don’t get where people are getting this idea that if someone writes a blog post about how your joke sucked and was racist/sexist/homophobic they’re somehow oppressing you.

            Freedom of speech means other people are free to criticize you.

          • Alex0001

            Well I think it comes from the fact that, at least in the Tosh case, people were pretty much out for his head afterward. It’s one thing to voice your opinion, it’s another when your out for blood on top of it.

          • drunkmosquito

            Agreed…it really is tragic what happened to Daniel Tosh. How he was murdered violently because of what he said.

            …Wait, what’s that? He wasn’t murdered, people just complained about him on the internet? Oh.

          • Alex0001

            And thank you for completely missing my point…

          • drunkmosquito

            Well, unless you give some concrete difference between “angry” and “out for blood” you get sarcasm.

          • drunkmosquito

            My point is all that happened to Daniel Tosh , in concrete terms, is people criticized him, and some of them used harsh language. And they had every right to.

          • Alex0001

            You’re right it’s my fault, I didn’t expect you to misunderstand the phrase and take it literally…

          • drunkmosquito

            Seriously? That’s what you’re taking away from this?

          • Alex0001

            No I got it just fine but if you insist on having two different sides of this conversation (one of you playing dumb and the other actually making a point) then I’m not sure what you expect.

            (And I’m going to go ahead a put a period on this since this discussion has clearly been exhausted, so good day)

          • drunkmosquito

            Guess I expected a discussion? But if you don’t have any way to respond to my points, I guess I’ll have to accept you’re taking your ball and going home.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663669914 Sean Richardson

    ” Comedy has to be all about intent, and the intent is always about making people laugh. Sure, a comedian may mine his or her own suffering — or even the suffering of others — in the name of the catharsis provided by laughter, but the intention is never to cause suffering.”

    That’s kind of a bogus argument. That’s an excuse for telling the first rape joke, but it is not an excuse for continuing to tell rape jokes when somebody is telling you to your face how the jokes make them suffer.

    • http://twitter.com/chezpazienza Chez Pazienza

      When exactly did you hear a comic continue to make rape jokes to someone’s face as she sits there telling him (or her) that’s it’s hurting her? I feel like you’re setting up a hypothetical that almost never happens in real life.

      Just in case you’re referring to Tosh, by the way, I shouldn’t need to remind you that the time to tell a comedian that you’re offended by something he or she says isn’t when that person is in the middle of his or her act. That’s their time; they have the floor and people paid to see them. If you intrude on that by basically saying, as Mary Beth Williams brilliantly stated in Salon today, “Well, what I want is more important than what everyone else here wants so I’m going to make my grievances known,” then guess what? You open yourself up for that person onstage to knock you down, sometimes viciously, because that’s what comics often do and you should know that. They do it not only because you’re interrupting their act with your concerns but because it usually appeals to the roomful of people who paid to see them.

      A comedian can’t take a poll before his or her act to find out what offends whom and then avoid those subjects, which is why, quite frankly, it’s your responsibility to know the kind of ride you’re on before you get on it and if it’s not what you want, then leave quietly. Now, if it really is that one-in-a-million one-on-one case where a comic is personally telling jokes he knows is hurting a specific person who’s right there, then maybe there’s room to call that person an asshole. Otherwise, sorry, but this is how comedy — particularly stand-up — works.

      • C Hendricks

        Really, Chez? So, do you also defend Michael Richards’ knock-down? That’s just the way comedy works, right?

  • Lady Willpower

    I wonder what Lindy West would think if some man wrote an article called “Attention Women: I’m Smarter Than You.” It probably wouldn’t go over so well, especially if that man was to smarts as Lindy West is to funny.
    Cripes, lady. I’m not very funny at all and I’m still funnier than you are.

  • stephen

    That was very interesting. Norton wasn’t as crass as I thought he would be, but his parting shot annoyed her and got laughs from the audience. I’d give him a +1 just for that. Unfortunately I’m left with the same feeling that she’s about as unlikely to seriously digest the points he was making as Norton and comedians of his ilk are to sanitize their material in consideration of anyone’s personal objections.