I have already stated my love of Totally Biased on this blog. And the show continued to mix politics and comedy in a progressive way, up until the end of season one last week. The show will be moving on to a new station called FXX, which seems to be FX, just more, and Bell and his crew will have a nightly show. Yes, this increases the daily late night talk show glut to a tipping point, but at least you have options. Lord, a lot of options.
In a recent episode, Bell entered the “rape joke” fray started last year by Comedy Central’s Daniel Tosh, host of the risible Tosh.O. I don’t want to rehash this story too much–it’s old already and has been covered exhaustively (though not always in intelligent ways). Almost everyone who stood up to defend Tosh was male, white, and straight, and they are in comedy, as in the real world, the loudest voices in the room. If you want more on this battle, Jennifer Pozner has made some thoughtful and accurate statements on the topic here. But one of the first women to speak out on the subject was Jezebel contributor Lindy West. West was invited by Bell to discuss the issue with comedian Jim Norton. My sympathies are entirely with West, but Norton was a thoughtful-enough counterpoint, treating West with respect while also trying to defend his position on a comedian’s rights to make rape jokes. Norton confuses the issue here, as do most people defending Tosh, by thinking that this is an issue of free speech. It is not.
Most comedians seem to view the comedy club as a sacred space–one where anything and everything can be said and that nothing should be censored. There’s a certain logic there and certainly no one should be too afraid to push the envelope; stretching the boundaries of permissible speech is a worthy goal and sometimes ugly things can be said to great and even noble effect; that’s why we still read “A Modest Proposal” almost three centuries later. But not all offensiveness is useful or productive, and sometimes the unintended consequences of our speech mean more than our best intentions. Norton’s main argument (one also articulated by Patton Oswalt and others) is that the comedy club is a safe space, one where comedians make ugly comments in order to reveal the ugliness of the world and help us in turn survive and overcome. That’s noble, though I’m deeply suspicious of a group of almost exclusively white straight men who take on the burden of helping our culture get over a topic as horrific as rape. Has Norton or any other comedian worked for rape counseling services? Have they worked to take back the night? Is there only contribution to a world free of violence against women–sexual or otherwise–making rape jokes? It doesn’t seem like the most productive form of activism.
Norton wisely distanced himself from Tosh’s actual joke, while defending his right to make that joke. He was concerned that the backlash against Tosh was a violation of freedom of speech and a form of censorship. And here Norton reveals a common failure of most Americans when it comes to understanding what “freedom of speech” actually is. Here is the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Any cursory reading of the amendment makes clear that what is protected when it comes to speech is state intervention in speech–“Congress shall make no law…” This in no way protects people from being shouted down in a comedy club, called an “asshole” on a blog, or getting fired from a TV show for statements you have made (in this regard, Paula Deen has shown a rare amount of wisdom by not claiming her freedom of speech). When one speaks in public, you enter into a public conversation, where certain voices are louder and more powerful than others. Those voices still are overwhelmingly male, straight, white, and still find a lot of humor in racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. When figures like Tosh and others (one also sees this regularly with right-wingers like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin) claim their right to free speech has been inhibited by public criticism, they are simply wrong. What they mean to say is that they believe their speech is above consequences.
During the conversation, Norton made an interesting distinction. He claimed there was nothing wrong with disagreeing or criticizing a comedian on a blog or other space. But he drew the line at real consequences, stating “as long as somebody isn’t calling for someone to get in trouble for an opinion” and “as long as there’s not the asterisk, ‘you should get in trouble for doing that”‘ then he was fine with criticism. But he held in especial contempt those who try to make material consequences for the offensive speech of performers, noting that “the market should dictate whether people enjoy you,” not the complaints of your detractors. But a large group of people boycotting a network, a sponsor, or other financial supporter of someone like Tosh is precisely the “free market” at work. It is simply working in ways Norton and others don’t like. Such comedians want to be both subversive (by shocking their audience) and inconsequential (reducing things to “just a joke”).
What has been absent from this conversation is in the corporate media that most people seem to be ignoring. Tosh is not working for a non-profit; he’s not giving out his comedy for free. Though this battle began at a small comedy club, Tosh is a pubic figure by virtue of Viacom, one of the largest media corporations in the United States. Here is a graph which shows you just how few corporations control almost all of the major television media.
This is not a free speech zone.
Norton mentioned his work on the “Opie and Anthony” radio show, broadcast by Sirius and XM satellite radio, which rebroadcasts, and is partially owned by Clear Channel, the largest radio media corporation in our country. Tosh and Norton (and I don’t mean to lump them together ideologically, just materially) work for two of our biggest media conglomerates–the “free speech” they ostensibly exercise comes not from the U.S. Constitution, but the sufferance of their corporate overlords. Very little media we consume can be understood in terms of free speech, from something as seemingly innocuous as stand-up comedy to the major news outlets. When entertainers being paid by these corporations cry out for their freedom of speech, they are cloaking corporate sponsorship in libertarian discourse. And they are of course, quite wrong. As we have seen with Paula Deen, sponsors and networks can cut you off whenever they feel your speech has crossed a line, and this can come from public outcries, low ratings, or even the whims of network executives.
This level of censorship, happening at reaches of almost monopolistic power, should be far more distressing to comedians, and anyone in the entertainment industry, than the organic, grass-roots outcry of women who aren’t interested in having sexual violence trivialized. Those calling for the firing of Tosh, Deen, Don Imus, or other public figures who have crossed a line are not engaging in censorship or limiting a person’s freedom of speech. They are enacting freedom of speech collectively, and trying to bring a hint of accountability to a media structure with almost zero public input or influence. Someone you like might get taken down in one of these rare and uncommon cases, but your enemy is not a vocal public, and turning your ire on those people leaves Viacom and other corporations off the hook for the work they make billions from.