Given the storm of controversy surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh’s joke about rape, my friend Luis Villa points out that it’s not only comedians who think jokes of this sort are acceptable:
A rape joke from everyone’s “favorite” Slovenian, Slavoj Žižek. [image via]
You can also watch Žižek tell the joke to a cheering crowd at Marxism 2009 (in a debate for the topic “What does it mean to be a revolutionary today?”) and then attempt to explain why he used a rape joke to make fun of progressives.
To this I say, surely there must be a better way.
Tosh’s Twitter apology took the same form as Žižek’s defense of his decision to repeatedly tell a joke about rape: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies”
Tosh is attempting to excuse himself based on his profession: Comedians are supposed to make jokes about everything. If things are off limits, the best comedians will go out of their way to joke about those things. If you don’t appreciate this fact, or if you’re someone who’s likely to be offended by every little thing, then maybe you shouldn’t go to a comedy club. Maybe some people will find this a compelling defense; I personally do not.
Now Žižek isn’t a comedian — no matter how often I call him a philosopher-clown — and so he tries to make a sort of political and psychological point: Making jokes about the most awful things that happen to people, he claims, helps those people. You can find this claim by Žižek after the 3:00 mark in the YouTube video to which Villa links above.
This, of course, is a claim that can be adjudicated, as evidence could be marshalled to test whether or not Žižek is right about the healing power of laughter. But this is something that Žižek almost certainly isn’t interested in doing; he decided to publish the joke and then to tell it (to wild applause) because he knows a few people who have survived terrible violence and who think the way he does about rape jokes.
But I too know a few people. And they are not amused, nor are they assisted in healing from trauma, by listening to jokes involving rape. But this isn’t just about the people I know or that Žižek knows. Indeed, if we take the temperature of the internet this week, I think the evidence is damning: Žižek is wrong about the healing power of these jokes and Tosh is wrong that a few people just don’t “get” comedy. Over and over and over again, women — a great many of them rape survivors — have come forward to say not only that jokes involving rape aren’t funny but that they cause fresh emotional damage to rape survivors.
On this question, those are the people to whom I think I’ll listen … not professional jokers like Tosh and Žižek.