In Which I Apologize for Saying "I Will Always Defend Jokes" After the Offensive Onion Tweet

We all have passions. One of mine is defending jokes in an increasingly outrage-feeding-frenzy-driven society. Making that point after The Onion c-word tweet, however, did more harm than good, and I apologize.
Publish date:
March 4, 2013
onion, tweet, apology

Let me tell you a little bit about the training grounds in which I learned to always defend jokes. One night, I was at the Comedy Cellar when a comic went on after my friend and emcee Ardie Fuqua, who is black, introduced him. The comic made a few gross references, including "monkey." I was horrified. I asked Ardie if it bothered him. He said, "I don't have any problem if it's comedy."

I had trouble seeing how a racist comment like "monkey" qualified as comedy, but I understood his impassioned defense of The Right To Make Jokes. It's a right I've learned to hold very dear.

For the last few years, I've operated in two conflicting and separate worlds: comedy and journalism.

I've found myself more than once begging journalistic colleagues to not go the crucifixion route in reporting on a joke as "news." I once talked to a reporter on Page Six, and said please for the love of God, do not report Jim Norton going off on a heckler and saying he hoped all manner of horrible things would happen to the heckler, as a news story. It's not a fucking news story. It's comedy. Brutal vicious offensive comedy -- but that doesn't make it evil at its heart. A lot of times, it makes it purging.

I'm a helluva a lot more afraid of what doesn't get said than what does get said to be honest.

The media cycle (and ours included at xoJane) is largely driven by what I call "manufactured outrage." In the case of The Onion tweet, I have come to see this was justified outrage.

Not as a defense of myself, but as perhaps an elaboration, let me tell you a little about my background in regards to offensive comedy. My mother and father allowed me to swear growing up. Curse words meant nothing. My parents taught me words were just words.

My father, a blind man, would talk about fellow blind people as "blindfuckers." My father became blind after being shot twice in the face in Vietnam. We dealt with it through comedy. Very, very dark comedy.

Is "blindfucker" artless, juvenile, name-calling comedy? Absolutely. Did he think anything ill of other blind people? Of course not. Crassness offers relief. I like my lowbrow with my high. Always have.

I do believe that, in the world of comedy, the nature of the heart matters. Is there an evilness or ignorance of heart, or is something being done in the name of bringing lightness to dark -- which I consider the majority of comedy to be. Even comedy that is considered offensive.

During the discussion which came out of this Onion tweet outcry, thanks to engaging with critics like Pia Glenn, I decided, upon further reflection, to join with her and many others in condemning that Onion tweet.

I was wrong to tweet after the outrage outpoured against the tweet began to pick up steam: "I will always defend jokes." The full tweet I wrote was: "If it helps break the tension at all, The Onion can call me a cunt as much as they like. I will always defend jokes. Also I'm kind of a cunt."

But I was wrong, and I apologize.

I have no right as a white woman to engage in this area, and my respect for that sentiment being told to me by so many people I respect is paramount. The last thing I would ever want to do would be to bring more harm to the world than good in this area.

And I'm so grateful to Black Amazon and Tressie McMillan Cottom for suggesting I write this after I wrote on Twitter how proud I was to have brought Glenn on as a writer for xoJane, and her fierce appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC on Sunday. Tressie suggested to me: "helpful: a piece from you about the changing your mind part. That's rarely modeled publicly."

Well that's exactly what I'm doing here.

As Harris-Perry says quite eloquently on her MSNBC show: "Here's what those of you defending it don't seem to understand. A sexualized hateful comment about a child is only funny if you see that child as the least likely target for that kind of attack. And if you're fortunate to wear the privilege of blinders then that's probably what you saw and laughed at. But when the lens through which you view the world reveals women of color and even little girls of color are regularly in the crosshairs for critiques, it is neither funny nor ironic. It's just real."

Seeing that I was wrong made me think of a moment from my favorite course I took as a student at Northwestern. During the course -- on the history of the civil rights movement, I was fortunate enough to read Elaine Brown's "A Taste of Power" and watch the stunning "Eyes on the Prize" documentary series (the best documentary series of all time, in my opinion).

I will never forget raising my hand one day and asking the teacher: Didn't he think it was obnoxious that several of the white volunteers for Freedom Summer were self-righteously waxing on and on about the oppression and The Man while they volunteered -- without ever once acknowledging that they, themselves, could leave at any time. This stunning privilege was never acknowledged. The professor stopped and asked my name. He told me later I had actually impressed him.

I wish I would have remembered my own privilege skewing my perspective last Sunday night.

With this Onion tweet controversy, I will heed the words that I spoke then. If others whose opinions I respect deem it inappropriate for me, a white woman, to discuss this particular joke in relation to my ingrained defense of comedy, then I respect this very much.

I will always defend jokes. But I won't defend that one. Because it's done more harm than anything else.

And more than anything else, I apologize.

Because the world needs more light. And I hope that my apology provides at least a small ray of it.


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