Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don Imus, John Henry Faulk, Chris Rock, and Offensiveness

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week good brother Hanno asked "So where is John Henry Faulk in the pantheon of comic saints? And ought comics get more leeway when it comes to tolerating offensive behavior?" The question was asked in the context of the Imus firing. We can, therefore, take with these a second question with two parts, one ethical and the other theological -- is Don Imus a Comedist martyr, fired for trying to get a laugh, or was he a wayward sheep having lost the path?

John Henry Faulk is indeed a great saint. It was his lawsuit that started the unravelling of the blacklist in Hollywood that kept much wonderful talent from finding work. He started as a radio personality, but ended up working for years on the television program Hee Haw. Indeed, this week saw the seventh anniversary of his death.

If the work of Faulk -- who was blacklisted more for his union work than his entertainment work -- and those others who were blacklisted was offensive to McCarthyist sentiments of the red scare times, is the heroic stance he took any different from Imus' remark which was offensive to contemporary sentiments? Yeah, there's a difference and it goes beyond "offensiveness we like is ok, but offensiveness we don't like isn't."

The reason that comics ought and ought not get more leeway when it comes to being offensive is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being offensive. One of the unfortunate elements of the period of political correctness is that the immorality of the use of language as a weapon to reinforce unfair social structures somehow got translated into a false claim about the immorality of offending people. There is nothing wrong with being offensive. The most important and awe-inspiring contributions in every human endeavor were considered offensive by some, sometimes by many. As every good philosophy teacher knows, we need to be offended, it shocks us out of our usual state of intellectual complacency and forces us to examine beliefs we thought impervious to challenge or indeed beliefs so dear and basic that we never even thought to formulate them. Offensiveness is not problematic, we need gadflies if we are to make any progress.

This holds for intellectual endeavors and social issues. There is nothing wrong with being offensive about issues of gender and race. These are questions that we need to be provoked into discussion about. We do give comics more leeway because they provoke us in a way that seems on the surface safe. I think comics play a special role, like the fool in King Lear, often it is only the comic who speaks the truth, who can see things from a perspective free of the biases of those around him or her and express it in a way that is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. I don't think it is an accident that the only television interviewer who asks actual questions of today's newsmakers is Jon Stewart. Watch his interview with John Bolton and see if you can keep yourself from asking why no one else on the "serious" news programs, you know like Katie Couric, pushed him on the failures of policy.

Does this mean that Imus was just doing his job as a gadfly and should be applauded? Wasn't he goading us into talking about things that need to be talked about? Well, yes and no...but the no here is crucial. Imus certainly was being provocative and there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But Imus played a unique role in our popular discourse. Not only was he offensive, he had unique access to the mostt powerful of our decision-makers and to the elite pundits like David Brooks and Tom Oliphant.

He was a powerful man for the use of his comedy. That power comes with a responsibility -- to care about justice. What Imus did with the power his place and his humor afforded him was not to be offensive in the name of starting conversations we are not having, but should...rather he was using his power and humor to keep them from happening. What he did was to insult African-Amercian women in a way that makes them sure that they know their place which is inferior. The conversation was not problematic because it was offensive to women in general and African-American women in particular, but because it was designed to reinforce the structure in which these groups are held to be inferior and therefore not worth considering fully human. They were discussing these young athletes as pieces of meat and the conversation clearly labeled them not onnly as inferior for being female and therefore nothing more than eye candy, but as bad eye candy, completely dehumanizing them and making them the equivalent of untouchables in the American caste system. Imus was using his comedy to be a bully. It was the bullying, not the offensiveness that was his crime.

I have heard many conversations where people defending Imus say something along the lines of "Black comedians use language like that. If a black comedian had said it, it would have been ok. Isn't that unfair?" No, it isn't. What Chris Rock does is not to reinforce a social structure where minority groups know they have less power, to the contrary, when he uses it, it is designed to begin to give voice to the hard questions of race that we are not discussing. Now, Chris Rock is extremely funny. I think he does offer insightful critiques of the approach of the older generation of civil rights activists in today's world. At the same time, he does make some overly simplistic claims, but he forces us to formulate clearly why things are more complicated than that. He does the job of the offensive comic well in really getting the issues out there that had been swept under the rug because they make many people uncomfortable.

"But he uses the 'n' word. That's worse. Why does he get to stay on tv?" Yeah, Chris Rock can say things that Chris Matthews can't. Is that unfair? Well, maybe, but it only comes about because of the historical legacy of much larger unfairness. The "n" word was a weapon used to keep black folks down, in the 60s, comedians Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor tried to blunt the force of the weapon by appropriating it. If they could use it with a different sense of meaning that wasn't violent, then maybe it wouldn't beat the sword into a plowshare, but at least it would dull the edge so it could no longer be an effective weapon. It worked...almost. Turns out it is a double-edged sword and this only blunted one edge. It still cuts when used from those outside the community, but no longer does inside the community. This should not strike us as strange, of course, words mean different things when used in different contexts. When a waitress in east Baltimore calls me "hon," it just means I'm human -- they call everyone hon. When my wife calls me "hon," it means she loves me, that I'm a special person and if she were to call someone else hon, we'd have to have a talk because that means something where hearing the waitress also call the woman at the next table hon does not.

Humor is powerful as a weapon. It can be used for good or for evil. Imus' crime was not that he offended people, nothing wrong there. Offensive humor is a means, the real question is what is it a means to. In Chris Rock's case, the humor is geared towards opening up a conversation that includes more voices. For Imus, the power broker, his offensive humor was designed to keep the conversation limited to his little cohort over which he ruled. He didn't invite black women's perspectives in or offer a scathing critique of a standard view heard from black women, he made sure they were seen as inferior based on harmful stereotypes. He was a bully with humor, and that was his ethical transgression and his Comedist sin.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve