No joking matter: why we shouldn’t ‘lighten up’ when jokes are harmful

By Katie Reyzis

Daniel Tosh, seen here performing during his Comedy Central series

Image from CNN Article, Courtesy of Comedy Central

Daniel Tosh’s recent controversial joke has been all the rage in the media, and very rightly so. For those that haven’t heard, Tosh’s recent stand-up performance at the Hollywood Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, CA spawned a furious debate over the First Amendment, censorship, and the social norms surrounding acceptable humor.

The story boils down to one female audience member who spoke up during Tosh’s show, the content of which allegedly eluded to the comedic nature of jokes about rape, and said that ‘Rape jokes are never funny,’ to which Tosh responded: “’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…’. A full account from the female audience member of the incident can be found here.

Tosh claims that he was misquoted, but there is a bigger issue to discuss here: the social tolerance of detrimental material, such as this joke and others that are in the grey area between offensive-but-acceptable and downright harmful.

This incident reminded me of a personal experience I encountered in the fall of 2009, when I was studying abroad in Strasbourg, France. Surprisingly, my most memorable culture shock came from a fellow American student who made a joke about the Holocaust. I don’t recall the joke verbatim, but it was a metaphor about the hot temperature of the room being equivalent to the ovens that burned Jews in Nazi concentration camps.  Seeing my outrage at his remark, the student’s response was that I should ‘lighten up’ because after all, the genocide he was so carelessly mocking ‘happened so long ago!’

I should note here that the jokester did not know that I happened to be Jewish, but I hoped to convey to him that his joke was offensive regardless of my personal background or beliefs.

What made my jaw drop even lower was that the other students in my program were surprised that I had never heard a joke about the Holocaust.  Like the woman who found Tosh’s joke offensive, I was the odd woman out in an environment that seemed so blatantly unethical to me. Standing alone in such circumstances is extraordinarily difficult, and I greatly admire this woman for speaking up in front of a crowd at Tosh’s show and shedding light on a much larger issue: society’s acceptance of harmful humor.

While humor can be an important coping mechanism in our lives, there is a very fine line where humor can cross from funny to offensive, and from offensive to unacceptable. We can and should laugh at ourselves, and every person has the right to an individual sense of humor.  For instance, I don’t watch South Park because I don’t think it’s funny most of the time, but that doesn’t mean South Park isn’t funny to everyone or that it should be taken off television. (That episode about redheads was a good chance for me to laugh at and commiserate with my fellow gingers, so no argument there.) That said, Tosh’s joke crosses into that unacceptable territory that I simple can’t tolerate. What makes it cross the line?

Let’s look at the facts: Multiple government and non-profit reports indicate that rape and sexual assault are much more common than police reports show, with statistics as horrific as 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Due to how often sexual violence goes unreported, these statistics may not be exact, but according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Networks (RAINN), “97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.”. RAINN also suggests that victims of sexual assault are, after all, three times more likely to suffer from depression and six times more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With the odds of even one audience member being a victim of such a tragedy being as high as they are, I don’t think the laughs of those ‘lightened up’ folks who thought the joke was funny are worth the trauma that joke may cause.

Just like me being Jewish had nothing to do with me being offended by the Holocaust joke made by my peer, my logic for this article follows a similar line of thinking – I can accept a joke about a carrot-top or a jab at Hitler’s mustache, but blatantly insinuating gang-rape makes me physically uncomfortable and is therefore harmful to my well-being, and that of many others in the audience.

As someone who is well known in the comedic world and in the entertainment industry, I expect better quality from Tosh’s material. Certainly, there is no doubt in my mind that Tosh ever wished any harm toward the woman who spoke up against his joke, which is evident in his somewhat vague apology, which states, “All the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize,”. This particular instance, however, was too far below the belt for me.

I’m not mad – I’m disappointed.

Let’s step back in time for a second – it’s like a ‘Yo Mamma’ joke gone bad on the playground, when you actually take a stab at the real ailment of someone’s mamma, you can rightfully expect a reaction, if not a slap in the face, or at least on the wrist. The same rules apply on the big kid playground – Tosh took a stab at a really serious issue that crossed the line, and he should be prepared to deal with the backlash.

Despite my discontent with Tosh’s joke, this argument has a flip side. Numerous comedians have taken Tosh’s side and cited their right to freedom of speech and the widespread acceptance of other offensive humor in our society, namely mainstream shows on Comedy Central and all over YouTube. Generally speaking, articles like this one illustrate that the consensus seems to be that stand-up comedy is inherently offensive by definition, and anyone who can’t roll with the punches shouldn’t enter the ring.

By all means, I have no qualms with the Freedom of Speech of comedians. Doing so would be hypocritical since I am a refugee whose family moved to this country from an oppressive one that restricted this freedom, among other things (to put it lightly).  I am, however, arguing about the morality of this joke and, as an advocate for victims of human trafficking and sexual violence, I’m arguing that this joke, and acceptance of such jokes in society, is detrimental to my work and victims of these crimes who already have a hard enough time coping with their trauma.

Essentially, humor that desensitizes the public perception of violence – whether it’s rape, genocide, or something else along these lines – is harmful not only to individuals who may have been affected in the audience, but to the general cultural norm that accepts such material. A skilled comedian should not have to resort to cheap shots, especially on such a sensitive topic and widespread crime, unless the joke clearly renders the act intolerable.

So, what is the solution? Banning offensive jokes is certainly not the answer, but regulating our tolerance of them is.  I am not referring to government censorship, but rather to social morality. If society stops laughing when a comedian crosses the line, the comedian will have no choice but to find other means to elicit the same response, wherein lies the skill of a quality performer.

Surely, Tosh is not the first and (sadly) not the last to make a joke about rape, especially not after this incident. Yet, the Debbie Downer in me says that just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should do it too.  A skilled comedian should know better.

The good news is that Tosh’s incident ignited such an overwhelming social response on both ends of the argument, which sheds lights on such an important and prevalent topic in our world. One way or the other, the candidness of such a debate is what makes us a free people. As Americans, we are extremely lucky to live in a society that allows us to publicly voice our opinions about issues that affect us. Anyone who has seen the front page of the New York Times even once in the past decade should know that not everyone in the world is as lucky, and many are severely persecuted for voicing dissent.

The purpose of discussing this topic is that we should not be laughing when jokes go too far, and we should not be ridiculed for failing to ‘lighten up.’ Perhaps instead of ‘lightening up’ our response to morally detrimental humor, we, as individuals, parents, children, and members of our communities, should toughen up our intolerance of all types of discriminatory and violent humor in the first place.


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Filed under Pop Culture, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

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