Thursday, September 13, 2007

Kathy Griffin and The Comic Defense

The Comic Defense

Two commenters responded to yesterday’s blog with what I call “The Comic Defense” – a claim that if one is a ‘comic’, or one is trying to be ‘comical’, then one is immune to certain sorts of criticism that would otherwise be legitimate.

Griffin herself used this defense when she rhetorically asked, “Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?”

Interestingly, this is not the only place that I encountered the comic defense yesterday.

Al Lewis wrote an article, which was put under the headline, “There aren’t any atheists in a Front Range real estate foxhole.” Several atheists wrote to condemn him for using a version of the bigoted cliché, “There are no atheists in foxholes”. He responded to them in a follow-up article under the headline, “Letters from Atheists”:

To be fair, the original criticism of Lewis was misdirected. People who write articles do not choose headlines. Somebody at the newspaper chose the headline – and the criticism should be aimed at the newspaper.

However, in his follow-up article, Lewis defended the headline and condemned those who objected to it. This now makes Lewis himself a legitimate target of moral criticism.

As a part of that defense, he wrote:

Obviously, God did not give them a sense of humor. Maybe I should start praying for them.

Both speakers used substantially the same defense. “I was just having some fun. Quit being such a tightwad. Loosen up.”

The first thing I want to do is to demonstrate how the Comic Defense can be abused and what it looks like when it is abused.

Imagine a group of people burning a cross in a black family’s yard, or painting a swastika on a Jewish person’s door. When they are caught, they respond, “We were just having some fun. Lighten up, will you? Where’s your sense of humor?”

In this case, we would be hard pressed to agree with these agents that the moral fault lies with those who condemn them for “having a little fun.” The moral fault lies with those who think that this type of behavior is “fun”. There are limits to what counts as “fun” (or “humor”), and I want to see if I can say something useful about where those limits can be found.

Please do not get distracted by the fact that the examples that I used are also property crimes. The agents in this case are not only guilty of malicious “fun”, but of trespassing and vandalism. However, they are not being judged solely because of their crimes against property. Somebody who paints some random lines on a door or who sets fire to somebody’s pile of leaves in the yard has committed the same property crime, but has not committed all of the same transgressions as our imaginary Nazi or KKK member. The “communication elements” in these particular acts are morally relevant and morally contemptible in their own right.

Also, some people seem inclined to argue that “freedom of speech” means that we may not morally condemn others for what they say. Lewis also wrote:

The line about atheists in foxholes is a common expression. Atheists ought to be FOR freedom of expression — not against it.

However, the view that condemnation is a violation of somebody’s right to freedom of speech is nonsense. Condemnation itself is speech, so to say, “It is wrong to condemn others for what they say,” would – if applied consistency – also imply that it is wrong to condemn those who condemn others. This claim that the freedom of speech implies an immunity from criticism is simply a rhetorical trick.

The right to freedom of speech is not a shield against criticism, it is a shield against violence - whether privately enforced, or enforced through legal censorship. Since nobody (so far as I can tell) is threatening Griffin or Lewis with violence in this case, the claim that ‘freedom of expression’ is being violated is simply not true. People making this claim are attempting an illegitimate defense of what may well be indefensible.

This point relates to something else Lewis wrote in defense of the headline.

If atheists are really offended by such an innocuous line, how are they any different than Jerry Farwell, who was offended by Tinky Winky, the allegedly gay Teletubbie? Or Muslims who didn’t like cartoons?

There are, in fact, two differences:

The first is that the atheists offended by these remarks did not (to the best of my ability) threaten to kill anybody. I hold that this is a morally significant difference.

The second is that there is a difference between legitimate and illegitimate offense. The Nazi and the KKK member might be offended by my examples above. However, this is simply too bad – because the Nazi and the KKK member deserve to be offended. Whereas the Jews and the blacks who are “offended” by their symbols do not deserve to be offended or intimidated. To defend the phrase denying atheists in foxholes by saying that atheists in military service have no right to condemn being ridiculed and belittled is to claim that atheists in the military belong in the same category as the Nazi or the KKK members. It says that the speaker things they are members of a group that deserve denigration and condemnation.

With these two distractions out of the way, I want to return the original question: When is it legitimate to use “The Comic Defense” to ward off criticism of something that one has said?

Comics can, in fact, make outlandish claims and be immune from criticism. However, in order for this to be the case, the comments have to be made in a context where (1) the comic did not really mean to denigrate others, and (2) the comic has clearly indicated this fact in the context of his communication.

Archie Bunker in the TV Series “All in the Family” was famous for denigrating others. One could scarcely find a common prejudice that he would not repeat. Yet, Carrol O’Connor, the actor who played Archie Bunker, deserved no condemnation for these remarks. This is because his remarks were made in accordance with the two principles that I stated above. Everybody knew that O’Connor did not personally mean these things, and this was made clear in context.

There was also no moral crime involved in finding O’Connor’s remarks to be funny. This is because the audience knew (or should have known) that the character was being used to ridicule bigots, not to ridicule those groups where were commonly victimized by their bigotry.

So, who was Karren Griffin and Al Lewis making fun of in these cases? Who were they laughing at? Were they actually ridiculing those who would condemn religion, or those who would denigrate atheists in foxholes? Or were they speaking in support of those attitudes? The “humor” dfense would require the former.

One way to find out is to look at how people can reasonably be expected to have interpreted their remarks. Griffin received a great deal of praise from atheists who largely expressed approval at her comments. They did not interpret her remarks as a parody of those who would condemn religion. They interpreted her remarks as a slap against those who believe in God, and cheered her words for their content.

The phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes” itself is commonly used to report as if it is a fact that no atheist is sincere enough in his beliefs that he can resist turning to God in a moment of stress.

If it is the case that one person can sensibly praise a remark because of its comment, then it must be the case that somebody else can condemn a remark based on that same content. In other words, if we are going to say that the critic has failed to realize an important fact – that the remark was made in jest, then the supporter has missed this same fact. It would be like a bigot writing to Carroll O’Connor and saying, “Yes! Thank you! Somebody finally had the courage to say the things about niggers that I have been saying for years!.”

Anybody who made these types of remarks in response to O’Connor’s comments in the character of Archie Bunker simply did not get it.

Praise and condemnation play equivalent roles in this case. Either both are legitimate, or both are illegitimate.

Griffin’s comments, as well as those who use the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” did not fit these criteria. In fact, much of the praise that Griffin received for her comments were from people who praised the comments for their content. This would be like praising Carroll O’Connor for Archie Bunker’s bigoted remarks, saying, “It’s about time somebody had the courage to say such things. You are my hero.” Anybody who would make this type of claim about Carroll O’Connor clearly “doesn’t get it.”

This, then, is one test for The Comic Defense. If the people praising a remark for its content make sense doing so, then The Comic Defense is not a legitimate response to critics. If The Comic Defense is a legitimate defense of criticisms, then those who are praising that remark for its content similarly don’t get the joke. In fact, they don’t realize that they are the joke.

Another test is this:

Imagine somebody such as Mel Gibson receiving an award and saying, “Some people think that there is no God. Suck it, atheists. There is a God.”

Imagine what you would think or say or write on the day after an outburst like that, and compare it to what you thought or said or wrote about Kathy Griffin. Would you find it funny? Would your response sound different than your response to Griffin’s comments?

If I have done my job right then, at least in my own writings, there would be no difference.

Finally, I want to point out that it was not Kathy Griffin's content specifically that was at fault here. It was the content in that context. As I wrote yesterday, guests at award shows are asked and expected to refrain from using the awards ceremony as a political forum. The same remarks, made back stage, would not suffer from the same objections


Vince said...

While I don't pretend to know Kathy Griffin's actual beliefs on religion, it would seem possible that she could be being comical AND voicing her beliefs- or lack thereof in this case.

My feeling is that a lot of the praise that has been thrown her way by atheists has been for her irreverence toward religion on its own merits. At least that is how I feel. It is refreshing to see a celebrity take a stand and thumb their nose at religion and break the taboo where you cannot criticize someone's religious beliefs. In addition to mocking the seemingly hypocritical cliche' of praising the lord for the most trivial and banal of accomplishments, her comments (whether you find them tasteless or not) serve as a reminder that we are not all believers.

As far as the atheist/foxhole comment- in my opinion this is a silly rationalization that religious folks like to believe in; it is comforting for them to think we are ALL believers deep down. It is wrong of course, but offensive? not really.

Hume's Ghost said...

Imagine somebody such as Mel Gibson receiving an award and saying, “Some people think that there is no God. Suck it, atheists. There is a God.”

Actually, I think that is kind of funny. Regardless, I wouldn't particuly care. I certainly wouldn't describe it as hate speech worse than racism (as Bill "secular Jews" run Hollywood Donohue did about Griffin's remarks.)

On the other hand, I am bothered by Gibson's Apocalypto which I believe is dog whistle politics for saying that America (read: "liberal" America) is now a "culture of death" that is going to incur God's wrath.

Josh said...

I agree with Hume's Ghost. That would be funny of Gibson said as much. And I'm an atheist.

Sheldon said...

"Imagine a group of people burning a cross in a black family’s yard, or painting a swastika on a Jewish person’s door. When they are caught, they respond, “We were just having some fun. Lighten up, will you? Where’s your sense of humor?”"

I am a little perplexed by your use of this analogy. Burnings of crosses in black families yards need to be understood in the historical context of lynching and the Jim Crow south. Swastikas need to be understood in the context of the Nazi holocaust.

Both actions are meant as threats to potential real violence, and expressions of hate.

While I agree Griffin's remarks were in poor taste, they hardly come close to anything like that.

As for Lewis's comments, I just dismiss them as stupid. And I am sure that is a common response among believers.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To those who claim that they would find the relevant Mel Gibson statement 'funny', I have to ask why.

If it is because Mel Gibson would seriously embarrass himself by saying it - that you would be laughing AT Mel Gibson, then this implies that Kathy Griffin should be embarrassed and laughed at for her comments.

Other than that, I actually predict that the Atheist blogsphere would be alight with condemnation.


If this is a morally relevant difference, I need an argument to explain how. I did not compare the situations by an examination of its affects on Jesus vs Bob, but on its affects on the 'friends of Jesus' versus 'friends of Bob'. The latter two would be identical given that the 'friends of Jesus' think of Jesus as a real person.

I am also not denying that the 'friends of Jesus' do not deserve similar remarks in a different context (for holding absurdly false beliefs) - only that the comments were inappropriate in this contexts. This is true in the same way that I would hold it to be inappropriate for somebody to use their time at the podium to give a political speech condemning/praising Israel does not imply that I would condemn the same speech in a different context.

In fact, I think that Kathy Griffin owes an apology. If I were writing it for her it would say something like this.

I have to apologize to the TV Academy and to the viewers and members of the audience for making comments that were not appropriate for somebody receiving an award. That was not the appropriate venue for those comments. This, however, is an appropriate venue for those comments. Therefore, I would like to add, a lot of people go up there and thank Jesus for their award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. Suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!


I agree that Griffin's comments do not come close to burning a cross or painting a swastika. My use of these examples is merely to show that a line does exist - and the best way to do that is to use the most obvious examples one can think of to show that there are things beyond the line.

Hume's Ghost said...

I found the comment funny whether hypothetical Gibson was being serious or not, and yes, I would be laughing at him if he said such a thing in all seriousness.

I don't see how that would imply that one should laugh at Griffin's comments for being embarrasing unless you consider it to be the inappropriateness in both scenarios that is what is the embarssament. I would laugh at a serious Gibson saying "suck it atheists" because I think the notion of him thinking the award proves the existence of God is funny.

Griffin's comment that she considers the award "her god" is obviously not serious, and hence there is nothing absurd to laugh at. In addition, I don't think there's anything embarrasing in her not believing there is a Jesus entity that has the magical power to grant people Emmys.

I expect that the atheist blogosphere would be condemning such a comment, but that's a hardly makes my personal assesment that I would find such a scenario humorous as somehow false.

As I said, I'm much more concerned with Gibson's Apocalypto, as well as converting what is traditionally antisemitic lore into a popular movie that I would be with that sort of comment.

kate s-b said...

A very interesting post and discussion.

Philosopher Roger Scruton recently wrote a post putting forward the Comic Defence for all manner of racist and sexist jokes.

I would agree with you that intent is not enough. Anyone can say they were 'only trying to be funny', but if they fail and are greeted with stony silence, you can have no doubt that their offensive statements will be condemned (though not, of course, censored).

However I'm not sure your criteria for the Comic Defence (that no offence be intended) works.

Sometimes it is very unclear how far comics are mocking other groups, and how far they are mocking stereotypes themselves. The uncomfortable balance is only diffused when the joke is clever and funny enough to justify its use.

More than that, lots of comics actively court offence and controversy - not just politically incorrect stand-ups of today, but the radical left wing acts of the 70s and 80s.

I've had to conclude that the only criteria is the (admittedly subjective) success of the joke.

Scruton's article, and my response, can be found here:

Greta Christina said...

"Imagine somebody such as Mel Gibson receiving an award and saying, 'Some people think that there is no God. Suck it, atheists. There is a God.'"

The difference is that Griffin didn't say, "Suck it, Christians." She said, "Suck it, Jesus."

It's a fine distinction, but an important one. Griffin didn't insult the believers. She insulted the belief. I think her choice of words in doing so was ill-advised ("Suck it, Jesus" got more attention than the thoughtful words preceding it)... but she did, in fact, stay on the right side of this line: criticizing the belief but not the believers.