In December, as part of Slate's series on outrage, Willa Paskin offered a nuanced take on identity-based criticism: “Auditing cultural products for their treatment—or lack of treatment—of marginalized groups of people can seem like an antiseptic way of consuming culture, more head than heart. Instead of taking in a story in its totality, a viewer (or tweeter) breaks it down into its component, offending parts.” She concluded, though, that this approach “has forced TV providers to think not only about who they put on screen and behind the camera, but who is off screen, on the couch—women and people of color and of different sexual and gender orientations who might like to see, on occasion, themselves.”
But Paskin never quite defines who, in her mind, is responsible for the outrage. The approach to cultural consumption that she describes has undoubtedly impacted criticism, but criticism is public. Do people who aren't in the criticism business actually audit what they're watching, reading, and listening to? I'm not so sure—especially when the cultural product in question is comedy.
Considering the controversy surrounding new “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah’s edgier (sexist, anti-Semitic, etc.) tweets last week, comedian Patton Oswalt offered a 53-tweet defense of provocative humor that began with a simple and non-controversial joke, then subjected each word of the joke to an exaggerated-for-comic-effect version of the privilege critique. Several tweets just contained the words “privilege” and “problematic.” Near the end of the rant, Oswalt made clear the view he saw himself as up against:
This courageous stand against the P.C. police won Oswalt praise in the Weekly Standard and beyond, but also more skeptical responses. Alexandra Petri accused him of speaking out against a humorless strawman. At Reason, in an attempt to prove that “Hyper-partisan cultural commentators are on auto-pilot,” Robby Soave rounded up a bunch of outraged responses that, on closer inspection, were mainly news items about the negative reception Oswalt's tweets had gotten on Twitter—items written by journalists who didn’t seem particularly offended but were given headlines that suggest otherwise. (The only outrage Soave found in the Slate piece he mentions wasn’t even in the piece itself: “Note the URL, ‘offensive-yes-but-also.’”) But some on Twitter were evidently upset, and the piece Soave found in Vox does indeed consist of calling out Noah for various –isms.
If anything is to be learned from the comedy discussion of the past week, it’s this: The ability to take a joke has become (or perhaps always was) a political act, a performance. And there’s widespread conflation of one's sense of humor—a personal trait—with the stances people take publicly about humor.
Allow me to (briefly) revisit the Dunham debacle. People who might have privately laughed at Lena Dunham’s “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?” quiz might still feel moved to post on Facebook about the unacceptability of Jew-dog comparisons. Conversely, a public declaration that one has found whichever non-P.C. comedy hilarious is a way of taking a position in the culture wars far more than it's a comment about whether whichever joke actually made them laugh. Saying you didn’t find a controversial joke, movie, or stand-up routine funny automatically elicits accusations of thin skin. Thus, the impulse—as Jessica Winter did in Slate in her response to the Trevor Noah controversy, and as I did in reference to Dunham—is to quickly make clear that the problem with an allegedly comedic work isn’t that it’s left you traumatized.
We might look at all this stance-taking cynically and call it signaling. Or we might view it sympathetically, as noble political efforts in favor of battling bigotry and defending free speech, respectively. Either way, what’s clear is that stance-taking of this kind offers no indication of who does and does not have a sense of humor.
The conversation about joke-taking has ignored that actual joke-consumption happens outside the realm of culture-war responses. It happens in private, offline. Alone or with close friends. Just because it’s now the thing to pick a team in the comedy culture wars doesn’t mean these absolutes relate to how anyone actually responds to a sitcom in the privacy of their own home. It’s possible to laugh and squirm—or to laugh and disapprove—at the same time.
And I’m not saying that in private, the people calling out “Girls” for its monochrome casting are secretly guffawing at minstrel shows, or that those complaining about trigger-warnings hysteria are privately sobbing over something Cartman said on “South Park.” But there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between what’s going to actually make us laugh and what we’re going to publicly endorse. This is all the more true when it comes to returning to comedy you loved growing up. Whatever it is, it will almost certainly be “problematic” by today’s standards. Sometimes so much so that the show is ruined for you (I have a Britcom or two in mind), but not always.
What people actually laugh at is similar to the question of what actually turns people on, sexually, in that it may not be politically correct (or, less contentiously, in keeping with that individual's values). We don’t—or shouldn’t—think the world would be a better place if everyone, for full transparency’s sake, announced their erotic preferences at work or on Twitter. Similarly, we should accept that there’s a sphere where people laugh at what actually amuses them, rather than according to their principles. Tastes of all kinds are formed in the culture that actually exists. There’s nothing hypocritical about enjoying life in the world you live in while also speaking out in order to change that world for the better.