Patton Oswalt: Outrage against the Machine

Patton Oswalt is one of the good guys.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are the good women, too. Their intentions were in the right place. Unfortunately, it was a swing and a miss at the Golden Globes.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion on whether their comment on Bill Cosby was correct and that’s a good thing. I’ll get to why it’s good later. But it’s important for everyone to recognize that while they did publicly represent Bill Cosby as a rapist in front of friends and colleagues at the Golden Globes on national television, their joke focused entirely on how Sleeping Beauty should have known better than to go for coffee with a rapist. The joke was on “Sleeping Beauty”. You can argue whether or not I should be dissecting a joke about Sleeping Beauty this far but it’s important to recognize the joke was made because of Cosby’s rape allegations and the joke focused not on “Cosby is a rapist” but “Sleeping Beauty went to coffee with the wrong person”.

Swing and a miss. Fey and Poehler will get many more opportunities at bat.

Back to Oswalt. Oswalt’s tweet was the subject of a lot of debate, debate he seemed ready to have. There were three things Oswalt did or said that I don’t feel intentional on his part and I think that’s why he missed the boat:

  1. He felt his tweet was just a suggestion.
  2. All of his replies to people disagreeing started with a period so instead of being a personal discussion between two Twitter accounts, he ensured everyone on his Twitter could read. He then afterwards felt bad that people were attacking and trolling and making jokes at the people he was trying to have a conversation with, completely oblivious to the fact that by making the tweets readable to everyone did just that. He eventually tried to move the discussion to DMs.
  3. Patton Oswalt never defined what outrage was to him.

I want to focus on the third point a bit. His original tweet discusses counter-punching over outrage. He later asks what about his language was dismissive and states that outrage, “just gives assholes breathing room to land more shots.” He states this after explaining that counter punching is getting angrier and that the issue isn’t about anger.

These miscommunications are common and it’s much better to have them with a guy like Oswalt than it is to have them with, say, just about anyone else on Twitter who is always trying to tweet so people re-tweet them instead of tweeting to have a conversation.

When Oswalt posted his original tweet, he was trying to tell people that the joke by Fey/Poehler was acceptable (he had already given his kudos in an earlier tweet) and re-tweeted someone bummed that anyone found it offensive. I’m sure Patton can explain himself but it felt like what happens quite often, which is comic shielding. Comics are very protective of each other and their craft, as they should be. They are professional comedians in a world where everyone thinks they are funny and most are not. When you’re in a field which everyone thinks they can do, any criticism or offence to it is going to get you protective and defensive. It’s difficult to sparse when people are just being stupid about it or if there’s a real discussion to have.

While Oswalt wanted to defend it on the merits of Fey and Poehler making a good joke, the discussion many others were having was on the target of the joke and whether this was how the entertainment industry should be approaching Bill Cosby, currently accused of raping multiple women. Cosby is already being defended by many in the industry and when it’s time for something to be said with everyone watching? It’s not just a joke. It’s a statement. Poehler and Fey might not have gone up to make a statement, but anyone feeling like this is Hollywood just protecting another rapist sees the joke on the raped and not the rapist. The entertainment industry isn’t afraid of discussing rapists. They are also not afraid to protect them.

But there’s a bigger problem and that’s Oswalt’s use of the word “outrage”. Outrage is right up there with Social Justice Warrior as a term used when you want to quell and diminish a person’s concern for something that’s significant to them. The problem isn’t jokes about rape. The problem is that a joke is being made that once again treats the rapist as common and the raped as making a mistake. It’s setting up a likely situation we’ve seen time and time again where time will heal all wounds for the entertainer but the wounds of the victims will never, ever heal. And why? Because any time someone wants to bring up these issues when they are used as material for comedy bits on an awards show or any other example, the reactions are immediately labelled as OUTRAGE.

I’m getting really exhausted with seeing Internet figures write and shout to the rooftops about their favourite entertainment, whether it be comic book movies, Star Wars or TV shows. They will create entire careers around them raging against George Lucas decisions or ripping on bad comic book movie choices but when people want to actually discuss something that matters to someone other than them? It’s outrage. It’s always outrage. It’s always people being directionless in their anger and just making things worse. It’s never recognizing that people might be angry about something you don’t understand.

There’s always a volume control on issues that matter. There’s never a volume control on distractions.

So maybe Patton didn’t see what he was saying as anything louder than a “suggestion” but it’s another suggestion in a long line of discussions from thousands with some form of platform that it’s time to calm down about what matters and do something instead in 2015. Laugh some more and “counter-punch”. Of course, it’s kind of hard to counter-punch when you have no platform. Rape victims don’t get to decide the volume to which they should rage. That’s before considering rage and gender.

As Anne Thériault stated, the idea that rage and emotion invalidate an opinion was just more fuel to dismiss people for being angry instead of confronting WHY they are angry. It goes back to why I said the discussion on the joke is a good thing. There’s something we can learn from it. We can learn what the perspective of that joke is for someone who isn’t a comedian and wants to look at it on the merits of a good joke, but of someone without power. Like the fictitious Sleeping Beauty in the joke. Someone who has had their power and integrity taken away and watches on national television as two women use the situation of rape as a way to maybe bring up Bill Cosby as an accused rapist, but more that they somehow made a mistake in their situation. Sleeping Beauty is fiction in a joke. Those allegedly raped by Bill Cosby are real, alive and watching.

I’m no comedian so I won’t even try to give an example of what they could have said instead. Instead, I’d rather point out that Fey and Poehler swung and missed. That doesn’t mean they can’t ever swing again. I have good confidence that a little more time and insight they could hit it out of the park with a joke that identifies Cosby as a rapist without it coming to the expense of someone raped being the subject.

This isn’t about vilifying good people who might have missed the mark on their own perspective of a situation. The focus is still on the allegations against Bill Cosby. But these conversations and discussions are not outrage. They are about everyone coming to a better understanding, everyone being included in the conversation and having a better sense of where we should go in the future. For Oswalt, he seemed worried that outrage would just give fuel to the wrong people, that the outrage was empty. For the rest of us, we understand the worry. But it’s not him to decide if the outrage was empty. We are on the same team, and being on the same team means sometimes you need to get coached.

I feel it’s important to make it clear that I come from a limited perspective. I’m no comedian or someone who could be directly affected by the implications of rape jokes and the allegations towards Bill Cosby. There’s things I might miss or issues I couldn’t ever possibly discuss in good faith. But talking about it is what helps shape perspective and help one realize that outrage is rarely empty and their perspective is rarely clear. I’m not trying to get this right. I’m trying to get close. Better to just quote someone.

I’m a comedian.  I value and love what I do.  And I value and love the fact that this sort of furious debate is going on about the art form I’ve decided to spend my life pursuing.  If it wasn’t, it would mean all of the joke thief defenders and heckler supporters are right, that stand-up comedy is some low, disposable form of carnival distraction, a party trick anyone can do.  It’s obviously not.  This debate proves it.  And I don’t want to be on the side of the debate that only argues from its own limited experience.  And I don’t need the sense memory of an actor, or a degree from Columbia, or a moody, desert god to tell me that.

I’m a man.  I get to be wrong.  And I get to change.”
Patton Oswalt

photo credit: Collapse The Light via photopin cc

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