Monday, January 11, 2016

When Does Humor Cross the Line? Can it? (In Defense of Ricky Gervais)


I follow the fascinating and beautiful transgender woman Kat Blaque, a YouTube personality who is sharper than Occam's razor and who fights for trans-people's rights. I watch her videos and read her Facebook posts, but tend to lurk in the shadows. Until recently. Recently I felt I needed to comment on something she had posted, although I'm entirely aware that my comments may be unpopular if not controversial. Allow me to explain.

Kat recently posted outrage over the comedian Ricky Gervais's offensive seven minute opening monologue to the 2016 Golden Globe award show (video below). But she wasn't the only one.

The Huffington Post, in an op-ed, also cited that Ricky Gervais offended with transphobic jokes about Caitlyn Jenner at the Golden Globes.

Now, I'm not denying the jokes were offensive. They certainly were. But it seems to me that half the people outraged are outraged because they got the joke, while the other half -- the half that didn't get the joke -- are simply outraged because others are outraged. Which I find amusing. 

The Huff piece is a perfect example of a person not getting the punchline of the joke.

I don't know. It seems many might not be clear as to the fact that the joke is about the thing the person did, not about the person (FYI, Caitlyn Jenner accidentally killed someone in a fatal car accident). Ricky Gervais, the comedian hosting the Golden Globes, made a joke that Caitlyn Jenner, as a trans woman, does women everywhere no favors. That's the context of the joke.

In the Huff piece, they go through lengths to quote mine Gervais's past comments, mostly from joke related Tweets, to make him sound like a transphobic, anti-feminist, chauvinistic prick. The comment backlash seems to confirm that many feel the same way about Gervais, especially after his Golden Globe jokes about Caitlyn Jenner. But doth they protest too much?

Personally, I thought that was a bit of an overreaction to an otherwise well crafted joke.

In an online discussion on Kat's Facebook page I mentioned that

The joke was actually aimed at something Caitlyn Jenner did, playing on the old sexist stereotype about CIS women being bad drivers. Yes. It's offensive sure. It's also a pretty smart joke. He was able to make it both offensive to trans and cis women at the same time. Such is the nature of epater humor. Something most Americans don't quite get and blurt outrage and indignation at without fully understanding why the joke works -- even as it is still completely offensive. But feel free to be offended. That's your right, just as it is his to offend.

It was mentioned  to me that Ricky Gervais wasn't merely offensive for making a sexist joke, but that the greater offense lay in the fact that he had "dead named" a trans woman in the set up of the joke. 

Now, what "dead naming" means is that he used Caitlyn Jenner's birth name. In the trans community this is a huge taboo. It's viewed as disrespectful because you're challenging their very identity by not accepting how they feel on the inside -- by not accepting them for who they are after they've been brave enough to come out to the world. This dismissal of their personal identity, in effect completely ignoring their transition while only adhering to the antiquated notion that there are only two genders or sexes, and calling them by their former name and not the new name they select for themselves -- is highly disrespectful. It can also be a dangerous form of outing if nobody knew they were trans until they were deadnamed. This, I was told, was the real offense. 

I understand why it was offensive. Some might even say inappropriate. I'm not defending the joke to say it wasn't offensive -- I'm saying it was offensive. But that's why it works. Allow me to clarify what I mean an offense working for the sake of the joke.

In terms of the jokes target, the joke is no less offensive to trans women than it is cis women. It might even be more offensive. It's certainly not progressive. And it is, regrettably, hardbitten. The joke relies on a style of epater les bourgeois -- a type of humor which, by design, is intended to be offensive. It's the humor of the celebrity roast. It's demeaning, disheartening, and always controversial. Again, I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying it gets a laugh. There's a difference.

Additionally, we have to keep in mind that Caitlyn Jenner is only famous because of who she was in the past. There's simply NO OTHER reason for her fame. So to ignore her past persona is to miss the point that this person cannot be dead-named in quite the same manner because they were ALREADY famous, and then famously made a public transformation, and was famously open about it. If Caitlyn Jenner was anybody else prior to her transformation, then yes, dead-naming her would be a terrible thing to do. But everyone knows who she was already. The only thing dead-naming her could to is be offensive to Caitlyn Jenner. 

Now before you jump down my throat and say I'm defending the act of dead-naming, again, that's not what I'm doing. If you think I am, then you'll have to answer a very straight forward question for me. Who is Caitlyn Jenner and why should I care? And you cannot refer to her past persona or the fact she's trans. Now tell me again who she is and why I should care?

That's what I thought. Crickets.


So the set up is necessary. And since Gervais was going after Jenner, and only Jenner, and he was getting paid to roast her to the full extent of his British wit, that's exactly what he did.

Well, wait. Maybe he's set a bad example? Possibly. But I doubt it. The context is a celebrity roast. You can only say he's setting a bad example by taking what he did out of context. I was told that other people who admire Ricky might think it's okay to dead-name trans people because he did so on national television. But if that's what you think then my point above was probably not clear enough. He didn't dead-name other trans people -- he did it to Caitlyn Jenner. He's not after the trans community as so many have said in their irrationally driven emotional knee jerk to his offensiveness. He's after Caitlyn Jenner, period. And everyone else gets to be equally offended, because Gervais is an equal opportunity offender. If you don't get that. I'm sorry.

So why is this not a defense for his dead-naming her you might ask? After several paragraphs of explaining why it made sense, how can I still say with a straight face that I'm not defending what he did or saying it is acceptable? Because I'm not making a moral argument for what he did. Period. I'm saying what Gervais did carries a different weight and a different meaning because it was in a different context with different rules. And this needs to be taken into consideration, otherwise all you have are appeals to emotion and thus no case -- because as I said, you have every right to be offended. 

But, admittedly, I laughed for mainly a different reason, because although my own shock at having heard it was enough to illicit a nervous chuckle, one of those  'that's not funny bad humor' chortles, the thing that actually amused me was when everyone in the room, all of those glamorous, rich, and famous elite of society seized up in fearful tension because they had just been accosted by a joke that shocked people out of their conventional attitudes of what is socially acceptable and their complacent views about what is politically correct decorum at an awards show.

And that's why the joke works! We are glad to watch other people suffer the indignities of it. In displeasure of the thing, there is pleasure. This is something Voltaire pointed out in his famous satirical work Candide (no less controversial, mind you) over two centuries ago. And it's just as true today as it was then.

A proponent for transgender rights, Kat Blaque mentioned on her site that

"There are so many Caitlyn Jenner jokes you can make without dead naming her or attacking her because she's trans."

Well, yes and no.

Gervais could have made a hundred different Caitlyn Jenner jokes, sure. And while I cannot defend him dead naming her on moral grounds, nor would I want to, I can see why he used her masculine birth name so that American audiences unfamiliar with who she is and with the terms transgender or transwoman would be quicker to get to the crux of the joke -- and then be offended by it. Or not. As I said, humor is entirely subjective. Most people do not even know what dead naming is, or that it's even a thing, so most probably don't think anything of it. That's not Gervais's fault. 

The question is: does Gervais's humor actively disparage the transgender community and, if it does, was it done intentionally to hurt trans people or was it done unintentionally -- one might say accidentally? Is there a difference? I think Caitlyn Jenner might say there is. After all, there has to be a difference between accidental manslaughter via fatal reckless driving and accidental death by vehicular accident, otherwise she'd be in jail for killing someone. So trust me when I say, there's a difference.

Then again, maybe Gervais is equally ignorant. That doesn't make what he did any less offensive, but it certainly helps put everything into context. Yet as I have tried to emphasize, distinguishing where the comedian's personality ends and the comedy begins is not always so clear cut as to say -- that guy is transphobic because he made a transphobic joke. I'm afraid it's never as easy as that whenever the varieties of humor and comedy are concerned. You see, humor is a complicated thing.

And this Golden Globes debacle is complicated precisely because Gervais is a comedian. If he was anything else, if he was a xenophobic, racist, hate spewing politician like Donald Trump, for example, then it would be easier to pinpoint his personal ideologies and say -- here is a despicable human being. But comedians are less transparent precisely because they use risque and controversial material all of the time, to subvert, challenge, provoke, offend, and challenge us. They make into punchlines that which would come off as extraordinarily unacceptable in any other context. 

Except we know the context in this case -- it's a comedian lambasting the rich and famous. Some might say, the more offensive the joke the better. We can laugh at their pain as their egos get deflated because it makes them human and brings them down to our level. Sure, it's a little bit mean. But if you don't like a good roast -- avoid watching it. Nobody is forcing you to have to enjoy the anguish of the embarrassed elite and relish it like a fine pastry. 

But maybe Ricky Gervais simply has no right to dead name any transgender person -- even at the sake of telling a more economic joke. Maybe it will prove to be the case that only trans people can dead name other trans people in the same way that it seems that only black people can call another black person a "nigger" and get away with it. As if it doesn't matter. As if there was no double standard at play. Like I said, it's complicated. Humor ties itself up with public opinion and plays societal stereotypes against one another. It upturns cultural norms and knocks the legs out from under politically correct opinions. Good comedians can make it work. Bad ones will fail miserably. And sometimes even good comedians fuck up a joke. Maybe that's what happened here. Maybe not. But whose to decide what limits comedy should have?

And, well, if you were offended by Gervais's joke, that's fine. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to feel about an offensive joke. But what I don't agree with are those saying that Ricky Gervais shouldn't have a right to use offensive material or, likewise, the right to offend others. You see, that's not how freedom of speech works.

By all means, feel free to be offended. That's your right, just as Ricky has the right to offend (you, you, and, yes, even you). If you don't like Ricky Gervais or his style of humor, don't watch his comedy. It really is quite that simple.

After all is said and done, we need to come to terms with the fact that the content of a joke and the nature of the comedian are not always directly relatable. 

Case in point, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., once made a joke about letting people rape his dead corpse. I'm sure some were offended by the very notion of it. Others were probably disgusted. They'd have every right to be. But it didn't prevent people from laughing. Of course, this controversial joke doesn't imply that Louis C.K. is into necrophilia or that he supports rape in any form. He's a comedian. It's a joke. Everyone laughed. 

Likewise, Gervais told a transphobic joke. But let's not pretend that Gervais is a transphobe simply because he told a transphobic joke that one time when he was dishing it out to a trans who has actually killed someone, anymore than we'd think Louis C.K. is a sexual deviant with disgusting fetishes because he made a joke about it once.

The debate about what material comedians should be limited too is a useless and counter productive one. It seeks to limit the freedom of speech to only things which do not offend. It's politically correct, puritan, bullshit to suggest comedy, an entire genre of expression and speech, should be restricted to things that aren't offensive. Keep your Newspeak to yourself, thank you.

I suppose humor, and comedy, being subjective as they are have always been tied up with controversy. Consider the comedic genre of satire. 

Satire, mind you, is also offensive, for many of the same reasons. Satire can also play to the same vulgar or shocking content that epater les bourgeouis humor does and, assuredly, it's no less controversial. And unless you are prepared to censor all satire, then there really is no way you can censor epater les bourgeouis humor, or any other form of offensive humor, from the low brow to the high. 

The reason is, nobody has the right to dictate what you can or cannot say in a society that protects and regards, as an inalienable right, the freedom of speech.

When Voltaire wrote his satirical work Candide, he was exiled upon the threat of death. He had offended all the great politicians of his day, the king, as well as the Pope. Even Voltaire's language was considered vulgar, especially when he wrote things such as:

“I should like to know which is worse: to be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fe, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley -- in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered -- or simply to sit here and do nothing?'
That is a hard question,' said Candide.” 

Even by today's standards his language is pretty graphic and risque. Some may even find it offensive. And that's fine. But it doesn't make the joke any less funny. Or consider this line;

"A lady of honor may be raped once, but it strengthens her virtue." (Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 7)


Yes. Even rape jokes were not off limits to Voltaire. And those may be the hardest to pull off. 

Some might say, well, that joke crossed a line. Or that comedian crossed a line in saying what he or she did. But in the realm of comedy, I do not believe such boundaries exist.

That's what makes humor, and comedy, universal. These have no boundaries.

If you laugh at any of the jokes in Candide, it does not necessarily mean you agree with Voltaire's point of view about the world. It doesn't mean that you are putting others down by going along with the comedian and laughing at the bit. Sometimes our laughter is nervous laughter, sometimes it's an appreciation of the craft, and sometimes the joke is just genuinely funny while simultaneously being outrageous, offensive, or absurd.

Like right and wrong, humor and comedy are much more complex than just things that are or aren't funny. Humor is not black or white. Comedy utilizes well established formulas. There are genres of comedy. Comedy is scripted. It's a work of fiction, not so unlike a play, a movie, or a novel is. As a novelist, I write about murders. That doesn't mean I support murder. If a comic makes a transphobic or homophobic joke, it doesn't mean he supports transphobia or homophobia, necessarily speaking. That's an important distinction which it seems the entire Internet threw out the window along with the baby and the bath water after Ricky Gervais's controversial monologue at the Golden Globe awards.

Good comedians seem to be able to pull off even risque or controversial material well. Our taste in humor, our opinion of whether or not we found the joke particularly funny, is strictly a subjective exercise. In the end, we all have to make a judgement of whether or not the joke offends us. But if it does, so what? Who really cares other than the handful of people who just didn't get the joke? 

As the stand up comedian Louis C.K. says, if you didn't appreciate something he said during his act, what you can do is write down the reason why you didn't like it on a piece of paper, put the paper into your pocket, and then go home and kill yourself (yes, I always laugh at that bit). His point being, unless the joke is actually about you, it's not actually about you. The entire comedic routine is, as he says, a rhetorical exercise. 

So, think what you will about Ricky Gervais and his use of epater humor as he stood before the rich and famous and roasted a trans woman who was one of their own, but as a comedian I think he nailed it. I laughed, and I'm not transphobic, sexist, or anti-pay equality. In fact, I want universal acceptance and equal rights for the whole LGBT community as well as equal and fair treatment of women. I am a feminist writer and have written numerous articles defending women's rights and the feminist movement. To say I am against these things because I laughed at a joke that is in conflict with these things is simply to employ fallacious reasoning. 

What we should all try to do, I think, is try and be fair and realize that along with the complexity of humor there is a variety of tastes, tastes which are entirely subjective, and we may not necessarily be laughing at a joke for the same reasons. Our reasons are our own. And that's no reason to make a personal, moral judgement about anyone else other than ourselves. 

So you found Ricky Gervais offensive? Good for you. You didn't like his joke about Caitlyn Jenner. Fine.

Pushing back against the common place, conventional, and complacent views and attitudes of the general populace is a good thing. In my opinion, humor works best when it challenges us. And I find it can only do that when it pushes the boundaries of what society has set for itself as acceptable. It can push us to be better, or make us uncomfortable knowing we have utterly failed to be better, but either way -- such humor will always be necessary. It will always be a conversation starter.

The only people who don't get this, of course, are those without a sense of humor. In which case, I suppose the joke is on them.






**UPDATE**

Kat Blaque had me shamed off her FB page for making a rational argument of why there might be exceptions to "dead-naming" when it comes to high profile celebrities that were famous prior to their conversion to trans person.

I made the conscious decision to unfollow Kat Blaque. She's smart, but also angry. Perhaps too angry, since all she does is rant, and rant, and rant. And, I get it. She has a lot to be angry about. Life is unfair. And particularly, life is more unfair to a select group of minorities than others.

But one thing I cannot tolerate is rudeness. And Kat Blaque is rude. Condescending. And she would rather call you a transphobe then put an inkling of rational thought behind what you're saying. Don't get me wrong. She's smart and eloquent. But I think she gives herself too much credit.

Maybe we all do.

At any rate, I made the choice to unfollow her -- as I was tired of all the negativity and everyone who doesn't agree with her automatically falling into the camp of enemy -- which I have no time for.

That said, I was able to make 3 new trans friends from the exchanges I've had on there and who are all excellent, fun, and interesting people who I hope to get to know better in the coming days. So it wasn't all for not -- and that's a good thing.






Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist