“I Was Just Kidding!”: Offensive Humor and the Benefit of the Doubt
Last week, BuzzFeed reported that Jace Connors, the man who supposedly crashed his car on the way to terrorize feminist video game developer Brianna Wu as part of “GamerGate”, was really a “sketch comedian” who was playing a “character” and the whole thing was, in fact, a long, involved “joke.”
First of all, if you don’t know what GamerGate is, it’s probably better that way. Just go home and hug your kids and teach them to be nice. It is/was an online campaign that quickly turned into thousands of anonymous internet trolls sending death threats to women online. And more to the point, the Jace Connors case is the latest and maybe most high-profile example in a trend of people making news for doing controversial stuff and then saying, “But I was just kidding.”
The “I’m just kidding” defense I’m sure dates back to the earliest use of language, but I first became aware of it when people would accuse Jon Stewart of trying to make serious political points in Daily Show interviews and then hide behind the “but I’m just a comedian!” thing. In this case, of course, the issue is less whether he’s guilty of doing that (which he obviously is) and more a question of whether those means are justified by the end result of influencing political culture (which they are).
And of course there are many more controversial instances where the morality isn’t so cut and dried, like Bill Maher’s attitude towards Islam, or Charlie Hebdo’s practice of deliberately being offensive just because legally they can. There is a very real consideration in cases like these about where their motivation lies on the spectrum from “honorably using the art of satire to support free expression” to “assholes who actively incite hatred toward Muslims.”
Or when Michael Che posts on Facebook about catcalling: is his motivation purely “using jokes to point out women aren’t the only ones who get harassed in public” or is it, as critics would have you believe, more toward the “insensitive” end of the scale?
And where are Jace Connor’s motivations on the spectrum between “I was doing an avant garde comedy project to call out toxic misogynist hate online” and “oh shit, I got caught committing a terrible hate crime, maybe I can get out of this if I say I was kidding.”
All of these examples can also be expressed as: am I going to take this message on good faith or do I think they’re using bad faith to manipulate me. Once you notice this kind of judgment scale you can’t stop noticing it. And when we’re evaluating how we feel about a joke, these issues of good faith are tied up in another quality that’s not talked about much because it’s so hard to pin down and define: credibility.
If jokes are arithmetic and someone’s comedic “voice” or “character” is algebra, then credibility is like calculus. It hugely influences a joke’s message, but it’s also really subtle and hard to exactly define. Credibility as a comic is what you earn over a long career of proving yourself and showing people that they can trust you. It’s why Richard Pryor could talk so frankly about freebasing cocaine and his struggles with racism and fame on stage. He’s not just some guy. He’s a famous comic who everyone knows has been criticized for these various things, almost died because of drugs, and went to Africa to get in touch with his heritage. That ability to not start from zero with people whenever you open your mouth is what allows standup to sometime reach the heights of his bits about how “there are no ni**gers in Africa,” and how we’re all one family who impose these differences on each other arbitrarily out of ignorance. A lot of that stuff isn’t even jokes, it’s just very profound. It’s like how Louis C.K. can get away with tons of dirtier shit because everyone knows in the back of their head that he’s a loving father of two daughters. Even how, like, Rob Delaney is able to get away with saying insane fucked up shit on Twitter, because everyone knows at the end of the day he’s a devoted family man who would never actually eat his neighbor Karen’s ass or whatever.
The difference in those three examples above is that Bill Maher, Charlie Hebdo, and Michael Che have, like it or not, a huge amount of credibility when it comes to kidding around. And that’s hard-won credibility that should mean something. Of course, that doesn’t mean they should always be taken on their word. But it does mean it’s not fucking insulting for them to say “I was just kidding” if people take something as offensive. Jace Connors, on the other hand, can go fuck himself. He shouldn’t be taken seriously, he shouldn’t expect to be, and he’s not going to be. Why? But if this case is useful at all, it’s as a referendum on this kind of the benefit of the doubt. You don’t get to claim the credibility required to be “just kidding” if you’re just some fucking guy.
Now this all brings up a lot of questions about how to evaluate someone’s character in cases where their jokes cross some kind of line. Whether it’s in a real court, or the court of public opinion, is it enough to take on good faith that someone was “just kidding” when they said or did something that crossed a line? How much credibility, exactly, does it require to expect the “I’m just kidding” defense to work? Who has it? And how do you get it? These questions are all a pretty big, complicated discussion.
But there is also another, much shorter discussion: you don’t have that credibility. And neither do I. Jace Connors sure as a motherfucker doesn’t. Neither does Guiliana Rancic, the TV Person who last week got in trouble for saying that a black actress’s dreadlocks “looked like they smell like patchouli and weed.” Neither does Killer Mike, who a few weeks ago caused a minor stir on Twitter by saying women are all narcissistic and “complain constantly” and then claimed “I’m just kidding.” Mike, you’re obviously not kidding. Neither does a truck driver who gets fired for tweeting “American Sniper makes me wanna kill ragheads” then wants to sue because he was actually “making fun of ignorance” or anyone on this blog of racist shit people said online “as a joke.” Neither does the probably 20 new cases that will pop up in the next month. Nobody has any reason to give you the benefit of the doubt, so why would they?
And yeah, maybe that’s kind of a hard truth to accept. I get it. Comedy in a lot of ways is about pushing boundaries. But think about it: if everyone had the credibility to get away with shit like that, wouldn’t it devalue the whole enterprise? If anyone could say the fucked up, wrong things Bill Burr says on stage, it wouldn’t be cool when he does it anymore. If everyone was a magician, then magic tricks wouldn’t be impressive anymore. If everyone was a hot woman, nobody would be, ya know? You gotta respect the game.
There’s definitely a certain economy of credibility that’s both undeniable and necessary. But hey, what if call-out culture and the blogosphere sometimes doesn’t respect that and one of my favorite comics gets in trouble!!?? Who’s gonna do something about it!!?? Well I’ll tell you who’s not gonna do something about it: you. Please take this moment to unburden yourself of that responsibility right now. It is bad for your blood pressure and it probably gives you wrinkles.
So because of all this, I’d like to propose a handy rule of thumb for anytime you’re thinking you can maybe get out of something by saying it was a joke. The “How the fuck am I supposed to take this?” Test. Whenever you’re thinking of saying or doing something controversial involving strangers “as a joke,” EVEN IF YOU ARE DOING IT JUST AS A JOKE, ask yourself: how the fuck are they supposed to take this? Does anyone have any reason to believe my tweet about how I want to kill them was “just joshin’”? No. It might genuinely be funny, but you could also really make a bad mistake. Don’t be a fucking idiot.