This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Nine Stupidest Things People Like to Say in Defense of Hateful “Humor”

Lighten up, it's only art.

Relax, it’s only art.

I continue my frustrated “Stupid Things People Like to Say” series. Today’s entry: stupid things people like to say in defense of bigotry, especially bigoted “humor”. My post focuses on anti-Semitism, but I think a lot of what I say here is applicable to other forms of bigotry as well.

You may have heard about Trevor Noah, a South African comedian and the new host of The Daily Show, finding himself in a bit of hot water last week, when some people who can’t even take a joke dug up some ”old” tweets that are, to put it mildly, problematic. I am not going to repost them here because this entry really isn’t about Trevor Noah (you can follow the link to see the tweets in question in all their glory); so I will briefly summarize. One tweet that struck a collective nerve is about Israel, and while it is over-the-top and I don’t agree with it, I accept it as merely heartfelt political commentary. The rest of the problematic bunch, however, are disgusting. One concerns running over a Jewish child with a German car (the punchline, I suppose, is that it’s a German car). Another is about how it’s impossible to get a Jewish chick to give a guy a beejay (because we all know Jewish broads are frigid, amirite?). Yet another is about how behind every successful rap musician is a rich Jewish executive. There’s some stuff about fat women. You get the picture.

As I say later in this entry, I don’t much care if someone, somewhere said something hateful and painfully unfunny. For what it’s worth, for the sake of Jews and women everywhere, I hope Noah doesn’t get fired. I prefer to see him make a fool of himself on teevee than become a martyr to “Social Justice”. As the host of The Daily Show, I’m sure everything he says and writes from here on out will be pre-approved anyway (and probably even written by other people), and the network will no doubt put a cap on his Twitter diarrhea. What interests me here, however, is the wide array of justifications that people – seasoned journalists included – have offered in defense of what is, let’s face it, indefensible.

One more thing before we dive into the muck. One of the most maddening things people who have been caught doing something naughty like to say is: don’t judge me for what I say or do, judge me for who I am. Here is the rub, though: the “real” you isn’t some mythical, elusive entity that exists apart from your words and actions. You ARE what you do; and what you do includes things you say. The result is that none of these are helpful:

1. “You can’t judge a man who’s written more than 8,000 tweets based on just 6.” Of all the justifications offered in defense of an avowed bigot, this is the one I find most mystifying. Long ago, when I worked as a lowly associate for a really, shall we say, modest law firm, I had the misfortune of handling a civil case on behalf of a disgusting low-life, whose resume of misdeeds included robbing an 80-year-old on the street. He hit the old man on the back of the head with a tree branch, kicked away his cane, took his wallet and watch, and left him bleeding face down on the sidewalk. At sentencing, his attorney (not me!!) argued for a reduced sentence on the ground that what his client did was “out of character”. Out of character?? What happened, did this guy’s character go on vacation, leaving him unchaperoned? I would think this is elementary: if you have the kind of character that doesn’t permit you to assault and rob an elderly person, then guess what? You won’t assault and rob an elderly person, not even once. If, on the other hand, you do something like this – even once — then you have the character of a violent criminal and a coward who targets the vulnerable. And if you are the kind of person who doesn’t hate Jewish people, I really don’t see under what circumstances you would launch into anti-Semitism, even if it’s once in a decade.

I am willing to permit some exceptions to this, such an isolated and brief episode of rudeness by an otherwise unfailingly polite person. But, the more abhorrent the action (or the word), the less convincing the whole “out of character” argument sounds to me. You kill one person, you are a killer; it doesn’t matter that you came in contact with thousands of other people and didn’t kill them. It doesn’t matter that you spend most of your time on innocuous activities like eating, shitting, watching TV, etc. It doesn’t matter if out the 30,000 hours of your life (let’s say), you devoted only one hour to killing someone. One homicide is enough to make you a killer. You steal once, you are a thief. You bully people occasionally, you are a bully. You fuck one little goat … well, you get the idea. Because even doing it just once, or twice, or six times, involves a motive. There must be something that impels a person to make a repulsive comment about Jews or women (or some other group). Rarely expressing one’s thoughts on the subject doesn’t somehow mean those aren’t the person’s real thoughts.

Furthermore, I reject the notion that judging people by the bad stuff they’ve said or done is somehow unfair. Again, as with everything, there are exceptions. For instance, I can get on the other side of Nikolai Gogol’s anti-Semitism because he’s Gogol. However, most people don’t dramatically improve the state of humanity by creating sublime works of art, designing life-saving drugs or developing technology that changes everyone’s existence for the better – things that could potentially outweigh the instances in which such people make the world a shittier place. (Say what you want about Noah’s “brilliant” comedy routines, but on the grand scheme of artistic endeavor, he’s a lightweight.) For ordinary folks, being a non-bigoted, non-anti-Semitic, non-sexist person is a basic social expectation, not an achievement – because if you aren’t inventing a cure for cancer, the least you can do is not add to humanity’s woes. And so you get slammed for being an anti-Semite; you don’t get praised for not being one. You don’t get brownie points simply for fulfilling the basic moral obligation of being a minimally decent human being – and you pay a price when you fail to meet that basic obligation. Nothing unfair about that.

2. “The right-wing media is trying to destroy his career because he’s brave enough to criticize Israel.” Look: yes, it’s possible to criticize Israel without such criticism being anti-Semitic. Yes, there are people who intentionally, and in bad faith, accuse non-anti-Semitic critics of Israeli policies of hating Jews. That said, however, two things are true: a lot of criticism of Israel actually IS motivated by anti-Semitism; and modern anti-Semites have gotten very adept at preemptively inoculating their explicit, old-school anti-Semitism against any protest by claiming that it’s a form of criticizing Israel and advocating for human rights. The Left really does have a problem with this, so much so that I am often tempted to ask fellow Leftists: Is there ANY idea that one can express about Jews that’s wrong enough, mean enough, crazy enough that you would consider it beyond the pale? So here is what I think. Joking about a Jewish child being killed by a German car isn’t a legitimate criticism of Israel. Complaining that Jewish women won’t suck your cock isn’t a legitimate criticism of Israel. (It is, however, a point in Jewish women’s favor, so thank you.) Repeating the old canard that Jews control the entertainment industry and get rich off of “real” artists isn’t a legitimate criticism of Israel. All of those are examples of anti-Semitism – and anyone who tries to rationalize such “jokes” as merely a way to draw attention to human rights abuses in Israel is in fact proving those who believe all criticism of Israel is motivated by bias ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. And that, needless to say, does very little to advance the cause of human rights in the world.

3. “He’s an equal-opportunity basher.” He’s an even bigger asswipe than you thought, therefore he’s a good guy. Is that the take-away? As much as I like to think that no topic should be off-limits to comedy, I really don’t get the notion as such of making “jokes” at the expense of racial and ethnic groups, especially historically disparaged groups. It often involves “punching down”, it reinforces people’s biases, and it almost always appeals to the worst aspects of human nature. What is the point of targeting any group, in which membership (usually) isn’t a matter of choice anyway? Who laughs at this stuff?

4. “But what about all those Jews who joke about Jews?” Not all jokes are created equal. There is the fact that outsiders’ jokes about a group are almost always inherently suspect, as opposed to jokes by insiders. Most importantly, though, a “joke” that consists of non-ironically trotting out well-worn stereotypes and canards – ones that have previously been used to rationalize oppression and even the killing of people, occasionally in large numbers – is a “joke” that appeals only to bigots. Jews very rarely joke in this manner about other Jews – but when they do, it’s just as reprehensible.

5. “What are you saying, no one can mock Jews?” See #3 and #4.

6. “But he’s one-quarter Jew!!” (Or so he says.) The term is arguably overused, but Jewish self-hatred absolutely is a thing. As a child of a mixed family, I speak from personal experience. In fact, anti-Semitic self-hatred is one of those psychological crises that every Jew goes through – or at least, every Jew who is reared in a society with a history of virulent anti-Semitism. Though termed “self-hatred”, it’s not actually a hatred of oneself. It’s anger directed at one’s community for being born into it; for the notion that as a Jew, you have a moral obligation to all the ancestors who have suffered for being Jews to maintain some form of Jewish identity. It’s anger at those very ancestors whose choice not to assimilate, made hundreds of years ago, now seemingly controls YOUR destiny, the choice that somehow resulted in everyone hating you.

In Russia, where I grew up, I would say only a small minority of people are anti-Semitic to the point of wanting to straight-up kill all the Jews. The majority of people though (to my, admittedly unscientific, observation) are what you might call “open-minded anti-Semites”. In other words, they dislike Jews en masse, but are willing to make an exception for an individual Jew who proves he’s “not like all the rest”. These are people who claim they always “judge the individual”, even while they sweepingly disparage an entire group. Of course, proof that you are a “special” Jew, one who isn’t a horrible person (unlike most other Jews), must be constantly reinforced, the standard of proof is endlessly elusive, and the most innocuous action – like wearing a new pair of shoes to school – will erase whatever “proof” of your humanity you previously furnished and confirm in the mind of an “open-minded anti-Semite” that you are in fact a “typical Jew”.

Living like this is exhausting. Growing up in such an environment is incredibly damaging. By far the most common coping strategy with “open-minded anti-Semitism” is to try to become an Honorary Gentile. And when the desire to become an Honorary Gentile combines with the anger I described above, you get that familiar Jewish self-hatred, in other words, Jewish anti-Semitism.

Then again, perhaps Noah just has mommy issues. Either way, purported Jewish ancestry does not inoculate him against criticism.

7. “What he said was stupid, not anti-Semitic.” “Forgive him, friends, for he knows not what he says. He is A Idiot, you see. A simpleton. He doesn’t know any better. He can’t be an anti-Semite, because his cognitive function is so low, he lacks the mental capacity to even form the intent to express anti-Semitic thought.” Is that the idea? I could never understand the notion that bigotry and stupidity are mutually exclusive. I am not going to dismiss every person I believe is a bigot as generally stupid, but prejudices based on the accident of birth are inherently irrational. Therefore, there is a lot of overlap between prejudice and stupidity. Bottom line, it’s entirely possible for a statement to be both anti-Semitic AND stupid. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for a statement to be anti-Semitic and non-stupid.

8. “Jews don’t own the word ‘anti-Semitic’ because Arabs are Semites too.” Provided the person making such a statement isn’t hopelessly naïve and/or completely ignorant of European history, claiming that the term “anti-Semitism” should apply to prejudice against ANY Semites, including those who are not Jewish, is intellectually dishonest and – no kidding – in and of itself motivated by anti-Semitism. The term “anti-Semitism” was coined by a 19th-century German anti-Semite Wilhelm Marr. He used that term specifically to refer to the hatred of Jews. People who hated Jews eagerly embraced the new fifty-cent word because it coated their age-old hatred with a patina of scientific validity. In fact, the term “anti-Semitism” and its immediate popularity (among anti-Semites) is prime evidence of the fact that by the end of the 19th century (at the latest), European anti-Semitism was ethnic in nature, with religious issues being gravy at most. The term underscored that Jews are really Middle-Eastern, not European. Jews were accused of colonizing Europe, of subjugating and exploiting its “native population”. Sound familiar?

Now, in the 21st century, anti-Semites have shifted tactics. The current anti-Semitic argument is that Jews are actually ethnically European, and immigration to Palestine (and subsequently Israel) was a straight-forward colonial endeavor (by evil Jews, who are really all just Poles). This argument denies the history of Europe’s repeated and violent rejection of Jews for being non-European. Making such claims is really no different than Holocaust denial; and one of the tactics at play is to attempt to strip the word “anti-Semitism” of its historical context. It’s true, not all Semites are Jews, and not all Jews are Semites. In fact, we can talk until the cows come home about ethnicity being, in and of itself, a bullshit concept. But the fact remains that in the context of history, the term “anti-Semitism” has always referred to the hatred of Jews. It may not align perfectly with what the word “Semite” means, but hey, that’s how language works.

That aside, I really don’t get what rejecting the label “anti-Semite” does to exonerate someone who hates Jews. Suppose that hating Jews and Jews alone means you are not an anti-Semite, so … congratulations?

9. “OMG, people are so easily offended today!!” Don’t you miss the good old days, when only the feelings of default humans mattered, and most groups in the world existed strictly to provide entertainment in good times and absorb blame in bad times? Wasn’t it GREAT living in Germany circa 1933, when people actually had a healthy sense of humor about the whole Jew-hating talk? We are so addicted to offense these days! says Jim Norton. Right, Jim. “We.” When was the last time you heard anyone waxing philosophical about how much better the world would have been had Oliver Cromwell “finished the job”?

On this point, the Internet is up to its ears in Goysplaining and rueful expressions of hope that Noah will learn to “navigate” the dangerous waters of American political correctness – as if joking about killing Jewish children with German cars is just something one does, innocently and matter-of-factly, without having the slightest idea that someone might find that statement problematic. Arguments calling upon members of historically persecuted groups to lighten up are usually made by people who have no personal experience with prejudice, and believe – from their position as “default” people whose perspective is inherently objective and universal — that prejudice boils down to no more than an occasional “insensitive” joke. In other words, it’s a classic example of failing to Check Your Privilege. Such people invariably attribute what they characterize as “offense” to some mental disorder that makes the kikes unable to take a joke and completely discount the fact that these kinds of “jokes” revolve around dehumanizing Jews – and though these are “just jokes”, at their core lies the same dehumanization that has fueled everything from the ghettos to the pogroms to the Holocaust to the occasional synagogue bombing. Yes, yes, I know, the world is tired of the Holocaust; but I have to tell you, my non-Jewish friends, you have no idea how tired of the Holocaust most Jews are. It’s “jokes” like this, alas, that keep trotting it out and reminding us time and again that the sentiments that inspired it are still alive and well. It’s really, really hard to take it graciously and in good humor.

Characterizing obvious, plainspoken anti-Semitism as such is merely stating the obvious. It’s not tantamount to being “easily offended”. In general, I must confess I loathe the term “offended” as used in this context, because it presumptuously assigns certain emotions to anyone who finds any problem whatsoever with what is being said. I am not, strictly speaking, “offended”. I don’t give a hoot about Trevor Noah as an individual; I don’t care how nice he supposedly is in person, or anything else about him, really. He’s not a relative, he doesn’t make laws and we don’t go to the same parties. Based on what I’ve read, he seems like a pretty shitty comedian who uses ethnic and gender biases as a crutch in his “comedy”. If despite all this, he’s still nice “in person”, all that says to me is that he’s a coward who wouldn’t say to an actual Jew’s face what he’s more than happy to blare on Twitter. But so what? The existence of shitty people in the world is a fact of life no more or less irritating than allergies or airline check-in. That said, his statements are what they are, and they are accurately described as anti-Semitic and sexist. Period. The degree of emotional disturbance that someone experiences on reading them is neither here nor there.

If anything provokes an emotional response from me, it’s the intellectual dishonesty that underlies all of these rationalizations. And that emotional response is irritation, not offense.

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3 thoughts on “Nine Stupidest Things People Like to Say in Defense of Hateful “Humor”

  1. Pingback: Self-justifying reporters and other things; a political linkpost | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. CM Xanthos on said:

    There is a very thin line between comedy and insult, which is why those who “joke” about other racial groups are treading on dangerous ground. IMHO, it’s never okay for one group to joke about another, especially if the joked-about group has been historically oppressed.

  3. I started reading your blog posts (both blogs, food and rants) about three months ago, and I love you. This is great.

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