The Age of Outrage: Jim Norton vs. Lindy West
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.
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.