Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Daniel and the Fear Factory

I've been thinking about fear lately.  It's kind of scary.

For one, it's an election year, which means that the fear factory is working overtime delivering gallons and gallons of fresh fear to the nation's doorsteps each day.   Thanks to your elected representatives (or those aspiring to be), it turns out there is a LOT to be afraid of all around you.  Just because you didn't see all those glowing, beady eyes when you looked out into the night doesn't mean they weren't there.  With a little help, you'll see that gay people want to get married, the government wants to ensure that every American has access to health care, and menacing environmental types want you to stop guzzling gasoline like lemonade on a hot day just because some stupid ice cap somewhere is fixin' to melt.

Fuck the ice caps if they can't take a joke, am I right?

On top of that, it's been conclusively proven that your President is an Islamic, socialist from Kenya AND Van Halen recently canceled the last 30 dates of their tour.  Talk about the signs of the apocalypse.

And even if you somehow managed to run that gauntlet of fear and emerge on the other side, you might find yourself shopping at Costco one day and encounter this:

Something big must be about to go down if they're hawking giant buckets with 203 food servings and a 20-year shelf life.  Fire and water filtration are also included.  I hear it's the "ultimate 4-person, 72-hour kit!" In fact, I bet it's "[m]ore than just food storage . . . it's delicious peace of mind."  So, when those healthy, married, gay fuckers come and storm Shreveport on the icebergs they rode down from the North Pole (and up the Red River -- it could happen), you'll be able to wait them out until VH gets the tour back together and you can show everybody that guys with big hair and tight pants are what America's really all about.

(And I'm no dude, but I thought you were supposed to pick a side -- left or right.  Looks like Eddie's slicing that python right down the middle.)


Since we have so many fears, it's helpful to index and categorize them.  Give them long names and Greek origins: phobias.  There's even a website called phobialist.com where you can find them all, though personally I like realfears.com better because it's searchable and they have a fun button labeled, "Get another random fear!"

We deem some fears rational and some irrational, though I maintain that fear of snakes is just being smart.

Here's a couple for you: fear of laughter is called geliophobia and fear of bad comedy routines is called Tosh.ophobia.  Which brings me, ever so deftly, up to the topic that I have been inching steadily towards since the beginning.  Yes.  I'm going to go there.  The Daniel Tosh rape "joke" melee.

If you don't know about the Daniel Tosh rape "joke" debacle, then that just means that you are a stable and intelligent human being who has better things to do than waste time watching the virtual bullets and daggers fly on Twitter.  Luckily for you, I, apparently, don't meet those criteria and I happen to like a good Twitter kerfuffle, so I'll catch you up on the plot before we proceed any further.

First, there's a comedian named Daniel Tosh.  He has a television show called Tosh.O.  That's not really all that important, except that most people who might decide to go to a comedy club would probably have heard of Mr. Tosh.  In this story, a real person and her friend did decide to go to a comedy club (The Laugh Factory in L.A.) and Mr. Tosh was on the bill, though they had no idea who he was or what to expect from him.  I'll let our comedy patron take-up the story from here in her own words from her blog:

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape. 

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “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…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

And cue Twitter explosion.  Because after her Tumblr post went viral, it became controversial.  Huge names in comedy like Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. came out in Mr. Tosh's defense.  Why?  Because a comedian's right to free speech is sacred and should never be challenged.   They must be allowed to make "jokes" about any subject.  Heckling, apparently, is a capital offense.  (I must have missed that in law school.)

The early quips and snarks then spawned deeper analysis of  "What is a rape joke anyway?"  and tutelage about "How to make a rape joke."  CNN even got into the game with a home page (for a few hours, anyway) opinion piece under the headline, "When rape jokes aren't funny."

Tosh eventually tweeted an apology as follows: "All the out of context misquotes aside, I'd like to sincerely apologize."  He then added, "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"

So the debate became about whether rape jokes are funny or whether rape is an appropriate topic for comedy. 

But here's the part that I don't get: why did everyone assume that what was said was best characterized as a "joke?"  If you ask me, the problem with the Tosh incident is that it wasn't a joke.  It was a threat.  Mr. Tosh wasn't joking about rape in an abstract or absurd way, he was on the edge of inciting an act against a specific woman present in the audience.  He "joked" that she should be raped.  Isn't that exactly like a thug with a gun "joking" that he's going to blow your head off?  Is the threat diminished because the threatener and his defenders label it a "joke"?  Don't we all recognize the archetypal bully who, when caught bullying, claims he was "only joking"?

1.  something said or done to provoke laughter or cause amusement, as a witticism, a short and amusing anecdote, or a prankish act: He tells very funny jokes.  She played a joke on him.
2.  something that is amusing or ridiculous, especially because of being ludicrously inadequate or a sham; a thing, situation, or person laughed at rather than taken seriously; farce: Their pretense of generosity is a joke.  An officer with no ability to command is a joke.
3.   a matter that need not be taken very seriously; trifling matter: The loss was no joke.
4.  something that does not present the expected challenge; something very easy: The test was a joke for the whole class.
1.  a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment, injury, etc., in retaliation for, or conditionally upon, some action or course; menace: He confessed under the threat of imprisonment.
2.  an indication or warning of probable trouble: The threat of a storm was in the air.
3.  a person or thing that threatens.
I bet most women, even just reading the written account in the post (which, by the way, neither Tosh nor anyone else credibly contested), can imagine how that woman felt and why she left.  Because what she felt wasn't just the absence of humor or the offending of sensibilities.  It wasn't just a difference in politics or a lack of insight.  It wasn't even disappointment in the product her entertainment dollars had purchased.  What she felt was fear.  The man with a microphone on stage at the front of the room with everyone's attention and the power of celebrity stated that it would be "funny if that girl got raped, by like, 5 guys right now.  Like right now."

So, Tosh-defender-guys and apparently hugely ignorant stand-up comics, let's play a little game.  It's called Being Female.  There are lots of different ways to play this game, but the part of the game we're going to focus on here is called "not getting raped."  It goes like this.  Every time you park your car, you think about whether it is in a "safe" area.  Every time you walk alone to or from [anywhere] you think about whether you are in a visible area or whether you could get attacked.  When you travel for work or find yourself alone in your own home or go jogging on less traveled trails, you are vigilant against rapists.  You don't go to bars by yourself or walk home by yourself or basically ever have a day in your adult life when some thought of self-defense doesn't cross your mind.  You have likely taken self-defense classes and know how to hold your car keys between your fingers for maximum infliction of damage, how to slam the butt of you hand upwards into an attackers nose in order to break it and how to jam the heel of your shoes (even and especially high-heeled shoes) into the top of the arch of an attacker's foot in order to break that body part and escape.  Friends will forward you alerts about recent attacks in parking garages or other nearby areas and urban legends will persist about attackers hiding in the back seat of your car or in your closet or under your bed.  Home security companies will prey on your fear and indisputable vulnerability and run ads showing masked men breaking into your home in broad daylight.

And we're not done yet.  Guys will pull up in their cars next to you if you are driving alone and show you what they are hanging on to in their lap.

You will have friends who have been raped. 

You will have friends who have been groped and harassed.  And threatened.  Just this week, a female attorney whom I know very well received a call on her cell phone while at work at 10:00 a.m.   She answered it and encountered a strange male voice yelling and shouting at her to "stop calling" and repeatedly screaming that he would "rip her tits off" if she called him again.  To repeat, this happened just days ago, in a professional office building in downtown Minneapolis in the middle of regular business hours.   Perhaps the caller was "just joking," but fear is what she experienced.  Threatened was how she felt.  What should she do?  Get rid of her phone?  Call the police?  Was she safe leaving the office?  Did the man know her or was it a wrong number?  (The number registered as too many digits for a conventional phone number, so it seems it was deliberately cloaked and re-routed.)   Had she been specifically targeted somehow or was her number just randomly selected for this hilarious prank?  (And give some thought to the possibility that it was a wrong number and the threat was real, but some other woman was meant to receive it.)

And we're still not done yet.  Your boyfriend, brother, husband, father, and male co-workers and acquaintances will offer to walk you home or insist that you not leave the office, court house or restaurant by yourself.  Why?  Well, because, you're female and you could get attacked anywhere at anytime.  Indeed, the most fear-inducing piece of all is the oft-cited statistic that 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted. 

When rape is everywhere, it's not at all clear that it won't find you at The Laugh Factory and follow you home.

To be sure, men incur threats of violence as well.  The risk of being mugged and robbed is not a phantom one, and yet, well, let's conduct a poll.  First, we'll clearly define our choices: 

(a) mugging/assault and battery: likely to involve getting punched and bloodied in the head and face, possibly involving a broken nose or teeth, as well as punching or kicking in the abdomen, including broken ribs; may also include getting kicked or kneed in the groin; numerous bruises and lacerations will result; may incur the pointing of a gun or knife at your body; finally, your wallet, watch and other valuables on your person will be forcibly removed and taken.

(b) rape:  likely to incur being beaten about the head and choked; likely to include forcible ripping or removal of clothing; will include violent sexual penetration (vaginal and/or anal) by a penis or other object that results in tearing and bleeding; numerous bruises and lacerations will result; may involve penetration by more than one assailant;  may involve ejaculate by more than one assailant in or on your person; afterwards, the victim may report the attack to police and be subjected to physical examination and the collection of forensic evidence (hair, bite marks, semen); will later need to be tested for exposure to STDs and pregnancy; may involve abortion or pregnancy and the carrying of a child to term.  Finally, you will feel shame and endure social stigma for the rest of your life.

O.k. You get to chose between (a) and (b).  You have to pick one or the other.  All those in favor of (a), raise your hands.  . . .  Keep them up.  . . .  40, 41, 42 . . .  O.k.  Thanks.

All those in favor of (b), raise your hands. . . . .  . . . 

Again, all those in favor of (b), raise your hands . . . . . .




And I have to think that if 1 in 5 men were getting mugged and beaten, well someone would have to do something about that, don't you think?  I mean, that's like, 20%!


So, what do we do with Mr. Tosh.  Hang him by his testicles in the town square?  I don't think that's necessary.  And actually, I fault him less than those who, with time for thoughtful analysis and deliberation, threw their weight on the side of "comic's rights."  Because Mr. Tosh was in the heat of the moment.  He was surprised and perhaps flustered or irritated.  He lashed-out without time to think through (one hopes) the implications of what he was doing and saying.  He may have been rightfully irritated by a heckler, but a better response would have been to go into 10 minutes of actual rape jokes that are actually funny and thereby prove his point. (And such a thing is possible.  I offer this that I came up with all by myself:  "Every morning I find my boyfriend in the kitchen with his penis in the box of Wheaties.  I think he's a cereal rapist.")  Instead, he threatened and bullied and intimidated.  He invoked the subtext of fear and violence that, for women, is always just a heartbeat away.  He used his power -- both the inherent, societally conferred power of being male and the situationally conferred power of the comedian's microphone -- to make sure that woman was shut-up and put in her place. 

He made a mistake. 

And who among us hasn't done or said something ignorant or stupid or ill-considered in the moment that we later regretted?  (My hand is up on this one.)

But his defenders?  They had time to review the setting and the circumstances.  To reflect on what was said and how it was experienced.  And they missed it.  They missed the distinction between the subject of rape and the threat of rape.  "He's a comedian.  He was just joking," the analysis goes.  And once you've decided that this was just a "joke", well, then too bad for you, audience woman, if you can't take it.  It's your fault, not his.  Next time be more careful about where you go and what you do and who you talk to.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it. 

It's interesting to play that out.  So, let's assume that instead of leaving, our audience member and her friend stay and stick it out for the remainder of the show.  Maybe Tosh circles back around a few times to get another jab in and remind everyone that there is a particular woman still in the audience that would generate great laughter and entertainment value if she were to be gang-raped right then and there; because, after all, he's a comedian and rape is hilarious.  Finally, the show ends.  The woman and her friend retreat to a nearby bar and commiserate about what an asshole Tosh is and how scary that was and how hard it was to stay for the rest of the show.  What they don't know, is that some guys are in the bar who were also at the show.  They know who the woman is, but she, of course, has no idea who everyone else in attendance was. 

The next day the story breaks about how a woman was gang-raped in a car not far from The Laugh Factory.  Apparently, the story goes, she was at a show and there was some back and forth about rape jokes and the suggestion that gang-raping her would be funny.  Her friend was beaten, but not raped, while a bunch of drunk guys raped the woman just to see how hilarious it would be.

And what's the reaction to that story?  She should have left the show!  Why did she stay after that clear threat?  She must have been looking for trouble to stick around and wait to get raped!!  How stupid can you be!!!  

No one is going to claim that it was "just a joke" with the benefit of hindsight.  No one will think that the woman shouldn't have expected anything to happen to her and that it was perfectly reasonable for her to stay for the duration and then go to a bar afterwards.  No.  It will fall on her shoulders to have sorted through the risk and identified it properly.  She, after all, is the one who got herself raped.

It's easy to get hysterical.  And I've gone further than I would like to in making the case that it is a horribly scary world out there and women need to really be careful.   And perpetually afraid.  Because, in my experience, fear is an emotion easily manipulated and, therefore, not to be trusted.  It's used to rush important facts and details past your more careful filters of reasoned analysis. It is the engine that drives bigotry and discrimination and hatred. It allows you to be preyed upon and taken advantage of.  Or marginalized.  Worst of all, the more you give in to it, and the tighter and tighter you draw your self-imposed circle of "safety" the more you have just installed yourself in a prison of your own making.

But women's fear of rape and violence is not unfounded or imagined.  While I consciously try to identify and push back on fear as much as possible, I have to admit that this one is with me all the time.  In fact, women are so accustomed to the "what I should do to not get raped" thought process that it's nearly automatic. Reflexive.  We just build it into our daily existence like any other part of the routine. I'm not sure most men really get that.

Adam Carolla complains that women aren't funny.  Leaving that assertion aside for the moment (and let's acknowledge, please, what a Herculean effort is required for me to do that), let's consider what it takes to become a successful stand-up comic and why I'm bringing Mr. Carolla into this at all.  I'm guessing it takes a lot of long, late nights at obscure clubs all across the country.  Driving around in an old car or van.  Maybe sleeping in the car if times are tight.  Taking gigs in dicey areas for little pay and lots of hassle.  When you're not on stage doing comedy, you're probably working as a waiter or bartender trying to earn enough money to pay the rent in the cheap part of town.  I'd suggest that the same is true for young bands trying to break-out and make it. Touring, gigging, traveling and sleeping wherever you can find some peace and quiet.  (I did read Bob Mould's autobiography, after all, so I'm practically an expert on this subject.)

Now imagine that your 18 year-old daughter tells you she wants to be a comic.  Or tour with her band.  What's your reaction?  Great!!  Definitely go do that.  I can't think of any reason to worry or be concerned or try to dissuade you from doing that.  Because the world is a pretty low-risk place for 18 year-old girls wandering around late at night in strange cities trying to make it.  Probably not.  And while you might also be concerned if your 18 year-old son came to you with the same proposal, I bet the concerns aren't the same.

So, fellas, I know it's kind of a drag, but this stuff actually matters.  Because half of us are female and whether you can distinguish between a joke and a threat will make a big difference in how much fear you put out into the world, and that just might make a difference in how many new jokes get told and how much new music gets made. 

Plus, I think we can all agree that those iceberg riding, married gays under the command of our Islamic-socialist President are plenty enough to be scared about for now.  That and whatever's in Eddie Van Halen's pants.  Maybe you should pick-up two of those food bins, just to be safe.