Recently Patton Oswalt tweeted a bunch of jokes that ignited a very divisive Twitter feud. Here are the tweets.
I spend way too much time thinking about this stuff, but I found the tweets to be fascinating, and I’ve turned it over and over in my head. In this series of Borgesian tweets, there is a comedian named “Patton Oswalt,” a hack who makes easy, offensive jokes that he feels he must subsequently apologize for. The humor, for me at least, lies in the fact that “Patton” is alluding to terrible things, which is reflective on the faux-comedian himself. I took it as making fun of stupid comedy and inevitable half-assed apology. “I thought 12 YEARS A SLAVE and THE BUTLER were brilliant” is directly mocking those who might use the “I have a black friend, therefore I’m not a racist” bullshit we see all the time. The apologies, and the mindset that these non-existent jokes would land and then didn’t, is the humor. The casual, completely disingenuous tone taken in the “apologies” is funny because, when we learn the jokes “content,” that casual, “jeez, sorry guys” tone is subverted. It’s essentially what makes humor work, period. Right?
Maybe. The true brilliance of the joke is in its ability to act as a mirror for the reader. It produced strong reactions among a large contingent of Twitter users, most of them coming forward with the very valid defense that it’s not okay to mock the survivors of rape, or trans* people, or other minorities. This stance is completely solid in most cases, because humor works at its best when it’s making our brains work, and that’s never easy. Mocking minorities is chuckling at one’s own station in life, and how awesome it is that they aren’t someone else. I once heard that laughing developed because way back in the day, when we were hunting tigers in tribes and shit, a laugh was a signal that the scout up ahead was actually just eaten by a tiger, so it’s time to retreat. And thus it has evolved in a way to become a response of relief, that it isn’t us to whom something bad is happening. That’s why people slipping and falling is naturally funny. I’d argue, though, that it’s moved a bit beyond that, and has become more of a reaction of surprise, of having a worldview that goes one way, and then seeing it in a new light. Which, to bring it full circle, is why the joke works so well.
Back to that mirror, though. Oswalt (very) probably didn’t consciously decide to do this, but I think it goes beyond “trolling.” There are several people who thought that the point of the joke was to mock those who might coerce and demand an apology out of anything they might find offensive. So, there’s an apology for something that didn’t happen. It could be understood that the very lack of an actual offensive joke is indicating that the act of apologizing is absurd. In treating the joke like a ghost, it is highlighting the outcries for apology and the apologist himself, and therefore making both of them the butt of a joke.
I didn’t see it that way. But a lot of people did. And what’s so fascinating about that, in our current online era of outrage, is that it highlights an ugly truth: the tenets and belief systems of those who fight against oppression often use those beliefs in order to maintain a castle in their own mind, where they sit at the very top of the tallest turret.
None of their beliefs are incorrect, in my opinion. There is a very real problem with racism, sexism, etc. in this country. I lot of heteronormative white people are incredibly ignorant. But the problem arises when these beliefs and argumentative techniques calcify in a person’s brain. It happens to a lot of people: my grandmother thinks that God exists, and if you don’t it’s because the devil has tricked you. There is literally no way to convince her otherwise. She’s created a steel structure in her head that is infallible, and circular. She does this because it creates the very essence of her being. Without God, how is she who she is? In the same way, those who might oppose something like what Oswalt did here have a belief structure that is built to last.
The problem is, that the system they’ve put into place, though it is correct, bounces dissent off of it like arrows to a castle. There are firm counters to every argument someone might make. If you hear a keyword, respond as such. It’s like a Watchtower pamphlet. The problem is that every situation is not susceptible to these catch all counters, and instead of pondering or adjusting as needed, they employ their defense and sleep soundly knowing that everyone is stupid except for them and theirs. And that is just as problematic as a fundamentalist Christian doing the exact same thing.
They heard this joke, saw the keywords, and immediately took offense. This was an attack on them, and they know that because that was their first reaction. Never retreat. Instead of sitting back and thinking about it, using it as an opportunity to ask themselves some deep questions, they reacted. They poured the scalding oil. They raised the drawbridge.
And, of course, to be fair, Oswalt’s idiot fans called them “cunts” and generally proved that they are worth less than the keyboard they so frantically beat.
We all need to breathe.
Goddammit, I love comedy. It’s the new philosophy, I think.