Essay: Steve Gleason, Rape Jokes, and Towards a Unified Theory of What’s “Offensive”

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Jim Norton and Lindy West debate rape jokes

Jim Norton and Lindy West debate rape jokes

If you were anywhere near a sports blog on Monday or Tuesday, you probably heard about the Steve Gleason incident, which cost three Atlanta radio hosts their jobs.

Some background: Steve Gleason is a former NFL player for the New Orleans Saints, best known for contributing to one of the greatest moments in franchise history. Gleason, after retiring, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and despite his deteriorating condition has been heavily involved in ALS-related charity efforts.

On Monday morning, Gleason guest-wrote Peter King’s popular “Monday Morning Quarterback” column on Sports Illustrated’s website, in which he told his story and detailed some of those efforts. And by “wrote,” I mean Gleason, who no longer has use of his hands, typed the more than 4,000-word column using a special software program that tracks movement in his eyes.

That’s where “Mayhem in the AM” comes in. The morning show, on Atlanta’s third-tier sports radio station 790 The Zone, broadcast a “comedy” segment in which the hosts interviewed a man imitating Gleason, supposedly speaking through a machine. In case you’re interested in hearing the slow-motion self-immolation of three peoples’ careers in real time, here’s the audio, courtesy of Deadspin:

For this viciously mean-spirited “humor” segment, which consisted in part of knock-knock jokes about Gleason wanting to kill himself, the three hosts – Steak Shapiro, Chris Dimino, and Nick Cellini- were immediately suspended and, by the end of the day, fired. I have no objection to that firing, and judging by a quick scan of Twitter and sports blogs, neither does just about anyone else.

But then I got to thinking- isn’t that rampant political correctness? Isn’t it censorship? Haven’t Shapiro, Dimino and Cellini been “silenced”? Isn’t there a “chill” on their free speech that should scare every other radio host in America? And whatever happened to the First Amendment?

This is a question that’s arisen a lot lately, most notably in the long debate that’s recently been taking place about the propriety- or lack thereof- of rape jokes. Where is the line between merely un-P.C. behavior and, as someone in a recent televised debate said, “being a dick”? And when people suffer the consequences of their controversial speech, how severe should those consequences be?

In the case of the fired Atlanta hosts, it’s pretty open-and-shut, as far as these things go. It’s not in any way a First Amendment issue. They did something that was not only beyond-the-pale objectionable, but it wasn’t funny and worst of all, they made a joke at the expense of a man who is bravely battling a deadly disease. And it’s not like this is one of those left/right “double standards” issues; I don’t think anyone anywhere on the political spectrum is invested ideologically in the mockery of people with ALS.

The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to host a radio show, or the right to have no professional consequences for what you do and say. If the government had somehow forced the cancellation of the show, that would be censorship. This was the boss of a radio station looking at an unforgivable act by employees – one that greatly embarrassed the station- by firing them. I can’t imagine any general manager of any radio station in the country not making that same decision.

The rape joke debate isn’t quite so open-and-shut. After months of heated online debate, starting with last year’s Daniel Tosh incident, the issue was brought to the forefront by a much-viewed segment a few weeks ago on FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. Comedian Jim Norton debated the subject with writer Lindy West of the feminist website Jezebel:

On the show, the segment was billed as “the comedian vs. the feminist,” but then the categories of “comedian” and feminist” aren’t exactly mutually exclusive- West, after all, is the author of what’s generally considered, in film criticism circles, the funniest movie review of the past ten years. But on the Bell show, the two ended up agreeing on more than you’d think, and when a bunch of idiots on Twitter reacted with everything from fat jokes to rape threats directed towards West, Norton, to his credit, condemned it strongly.

This topic has been much debated and written about; Patton Oswalt’s essay, published on his website earlier this week, is way too good and relevant to even be excerpted here.

My take, as both a non-female and non-comedian? I don’t think rape jokes should be banned, or that anyone should be prevented from working as a comedian if they make them. But… Lindy West doesn’t think so either.  She believes that comedians should think before they tell rape jokes. That may not be an opinion with which you agree, but that’s the debate that’s being had here.

My friend Jordan Rockwell- who later discussed the issue on his podcast– objected to West’s position, believing that in arguing for a taboo against rape jokes, she was “secretly hoping for censorship.” Now I don’t know if that’s true of West- she was pretty clear in the clip above that censorship isn’t what she’s calling for- but pretend for a moment that she was. There’s a pretty thick line between “secretly hoping” for censorship and pushing for it, and an even thicker line than that between pushing for censorship and achieving it.

Lindy West isn’t the police. She isn’t the government. She isn’t in any position to ban certain jokes, shut down comedy clubs, or get anyone fired. Nor has she called for any of those things. Even if she’s “putting a chill” into comedians, that’s not the same thing as censorship, or anything close to it. She’s criticized people, and… that’s it. No one has been silenced. And with all the uproar about the Tosh rape joke last year, he still has his TV show and lucrative standup career, and if anything came out of the episode, it’s that he has more fame and notoriety than before.

Jim Norton, at one point in the Bell debate said, “I’m not defending bad comedy.” And the Atlanta segment, even beyond the mean-spirited viciousness, was bad comedy. There are awful radio shows like that in just about every city, on sports stations and not, where the bar of what’s funny is set so low that’s it’s practically cringe-inducing, whether it crosses any lines of offensiveness or not.

I’m not exactly a fan of “Opie and Anthony,” the nationally syndicated show with which Norton is associated, but compared to some of these lazy, bottom-feeding local shows, it’s in the upper tier. However, I’m not calling for any of those hosts to be silenced. They have a right to suck at what they do, and I have a right to say they suck.

Once again, the issue isn’t what one can or can’t joke about. No one who’s heard George Carlin’s old joke about Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd can honestly say rape jokes are never funny. One takeaway I had from the recent American Masters documentary about Mel Brooks is that the guy’s been making jokes about Hitler for about five decades. The key is, it’s Hitler he’s making fun of, not the people Hitler killed. Jokes about rape, AIDS and 9/11 made up the bulk of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up material for the first 15 years of her career.

The key questions are, is what you’re doing funny, and who’s the butt of the joke? A whole lot of jokes are on the line of offensive and not, and that’s the way it should be. But it’s pretty clear, if you ask me, that sneering mockery of a man with late-stage ALS is on the pretty far side of the line.

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