David Cole wrote a piece last week about the growing problem developing on the right with humor. This time, it’s pedophilia.
The subject of his piece was James Gunn, the writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy. It turns out that Gunn attempted to make some jokes several years back about pedophilia, and the claim is that this is part of the push to make pedophilia more acceptable.
When there are movements to make grotesque things more acceptable — as there appears to be with pedophilia — it is natural to be wary whenever the subject is mentioned in any terms other than absolute rejection. Comedy, by its nature, is never absolute in anything. Even the definition of comedy is not absolute. Many believe it to be undefinable. So now we are faced with new variations of some very old questions: Can pedophilia jokes be funny? If a pedophilia joke is not funny, is the comedian revealing his own sexually-deviant nature? Should we ban the mention of, or joking about, pedophilia?
I just finished the book Fight Club last night, which led me to revisit a few scenes from the movie. One of the lines from the book was cut by a producer because it was “too offensive.” The line was Marla telling Tyler that she wanted to “have his abortion.” The director said fine, he’d cut it, but only so long as he was allowed to replace it with another line. The producer said sure, anything, just not that.
So the director replaced it with this line instead:
I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.
A few observations about this line:
One, it is likely about pedophilia. The prime fucking of her life was likely not at the hands of a grade-school boy who’s just now learning what a penis is. The details are tastefully left for the listener’s subconscious to puzzle together, but logically, the sexual partner is likely a teacher or a perverted uncle.
Two, it is funny. It is surprising, it is shocking, and it makes the audience chortle. At least it did in the test screenings.
Three, it is not defending pedophilia. Marla is a train-wreck of a person, and the allusion to childhood sexual abuse is triply amusing precisely because it is assumed to be so damaging. First, the viewer’s response is either “holy shit that’s fucked up” or the shocked kind of laugh indicating the same sentiment. Second, it helps explain why Marla is such a damaged person. This also implies the evil of child sexual abuse. And finally — and perhaps most disturbingly — the fact that she seems to recollect the memory fondly seems to imply a kind of permanent injury to her sexual psyche.
According to the moral crusaders, observations one and two should not be able to coexist, nor should one and three. And yet here they are.
Perhaps most importantly in all of this, the coexistence of two and three reveal something deep about the importance of humor. It has become common to hear the argument that “X is too serious to joke about.” Perhaps the most recent example has been from left-wing feminists saying that rape or domestic abuse are beyond the comedic pale. But the fact that a genuinely funny joke can reference a horrific act without defending it (it is actually very difficult to find genuinely funny jokes which defend horror) shows that finding humor isn’t about changing or modifying moral norms. Very often, joking serves a therapeutic purpose, helping us overcome emotionally difficult subjects. This is why the best comedians often suffer from depression and come from horrific childhoods; they have to have a good sense of humor just to stay sane. As a species, we will never get rid of tragedy, loss, sadness, and despair, but at least we will have humor to help us cope and carry on.
A fourth observation is that the nature of these allegations are almost exactly the same as those leveled against PewDiePie and Count Dankula: “person making joke about X is X.” The only difference is that they filled in the blank with “Nazi” rather than “pedophile.” Make joke at expense of Nazis; get called a Nazi by people who are so driven to attack Nazis that they create them where they don’t exist.
I understand why conservatives want to hold liberals’ feet to the fire on this. Liberals have been doing this to conservatives for decades now, and it is both strategic and just to hold them to their own standards, especially if the allegations of pedophilia are groundless. It makes the schadenfreude sweeter.
But the distinction between punishing a tactic by universalizing it and actually going on a monster-hunt is subtle. It is one thing to accuse a left-wing comedian of inappropriate humor as if they were pedophiles, based upon the standards they themselves helped establish (and cheer on when it was about racism or homophobia), knowing full-well that they are almost certainly not pedophiles themselves. It is quite another to convince yourself that someone is likely a pedophile because they make a joke (even a bad one) on the subject. The former attitude retains some conceptual understanding of what’s going on, and allows for reconciliation. The latter attitude is a blind foe-generation process. It is a mirror of the social justice mindset, which works by association, rather than by conceptual understanding.
Would this associative steamroll stop with humor? One of the greatest works of literature in the English language is Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita. It is a masterpiece of prose and narration, but also — as Martin Amis has pointed out — a moral masterpiece. The narrator is a pedophilic monster, but anyone who reads Lolita and interprets it as an advocacy for or defense of pedophilia is missing the point as dramatically as a reader who, after getting through Orwell’s 1984, concludes he has just finished reading an apologia for totalitarianism, rather than a powerful criticism.
Unfortunately, the sorts of people who might come to such a conclusion are always the ones championing censorship, of jokes, or of speech generally. In fact, recent research indicates that people with language difficulty and discerning the meaning of arguments and ideas are more censorious than they are bad in school, despite being the very last people one would want in charge of the redactor’s pen even if one was inclined to censor speech.
Some pedophile jokes are funny. Most are not. Then again, most jokes of any kind aren’t funny. Humor is hard. I’m no comedian, but from the outside, the world of comedy appears to be a twisted and frustrating world of constant experimentation. Most of those experiments bomb, no matter the subject matter. But the goal is not advocacy for anything in particular (the comedians who attempt advocacy usually fail miserably). The goal is laughter, and presumptions about the ulterior motives of comedians — amateur or professional — bear a very high burden of justification before they warrant reprisal. Without this high standard, we threaten comedy itself.
And for what benefit? Cultures of language policing hardly stop the intended targets. If the #MeToo movement has shown nothing else, it is that predators can hide better and hurt more people in a language-policing culture, because good behavior is judged by what is said, rather than by how they act. People will let their guard down more if you simply say the right words, and how hard is that?
I’m a feminist, and I support women’s rights.
I really care about diversity.
I just LOVE children.
I’m all for punishing people for double-standards. Returning to David Cole’s piece mentioned in the opening of this post, Cole lists four categories of censors: 1. Pizzagaters, 2. Moralists, 3. Schadenfreuders, and 4. David Cole. I am firmly in camp three. So far as I’m concerned, Sarah Silverman, James Gunn, JK Rowling, and any other left-wingers who would happily ban, deplatform, boycott, and destroy people for being “Nazis” or “racists” should be treated exactly as they would have treated others over edgy jokes.
You will never get a society with free speech if negative incentives don’t exist for would-be censors.
But it is a slippery-spiral once people get into locked into a purity-policing mindset. Sliding onto it makes you dumber and less free, and for this sacrifice, you are awarded only with the semblance of success in purging the pedophiles. Not the real thing.
In short, it’s better not to crush comedy by purging it of impure subjects, one overreaction at a time. I believe in the long-run, it will make for a better, more livable society with less cover for actual predators, be they rapists or pedophiles or whatever. But in the short run, and maybe more crucially, it will give us more to laugh about.