PC Comedy and Paul Revere
A rape joke, a rape case, and a public repentance provide another way to look at the debate that never ends.
[Advisory: This post contains extensive details about a sexual assault case and an animal cruelty incident that will be hard for some readers to take.]
This is a story about a rape joke.
In 1989, thirteen boys in Glen Ridge, New Jersey — all high school football players, in a town where high school football was very, very important — lured a developmentally disabled girl into a basement. She had a crush on one of the boys, and they promised her that the boy she had a crush on would take her out on a date, if she came with them. When one of these boys took his pants off, six boys walked out. The boys who stayed raped her.
Afterward, she stayed outside, waiting for the boy she had a crush on to take her on a date, because they had promised her. It was hard for adults to get a description of the event from her after the fact — she mentioned details but resisted questioning — because the boys, she said, were her friends.
Ready for the jokes yet? Here they come. One of the bigger songs, back then, was a Beastie Boys track, “Paul Revere.” It contained the following lines:
The sheriff’s after me for what I did to his daughter
I did it like this, I did it like that
I did it with a whiffleball bat
As it turns out, Christopher Archer, one of the boys who served the longest sentence (15 years, one count of second-degree conspiracy, two counts of aggravated sexual assault) really, really liked this song. He’d gear up for parties by singing it and punching the dashboard of his car.
“He’d sing it over and over again,” one teammate said. “He’d sing it and laugh — like it was the funniest thing.”
There’s your joke. And here’s your punchline: The instrument Christopher Archer used to rape that girl was a baseball bat coated in Vaseline.
The rape joke in “Paul Revere” did not cause Christopher Archer to become a rapist. No rational person could argue such a thing. Millions of people heard the same song without raping anyone. And the “cause” of the rape in Glen Ridge — to the extent that we can offer up any cause, beyond the boys’ decision to do it — is more complicated than any one factor. It’s the same pattern we saw in Steubenville, that we see all over the place: Unchecked sexism, the fact that high school football was the center of the community, the fact that teenage boys who played football were given a nearly infinite amount of leeway. As documented in Our Guys, Bernard Lefkowitz’s good and very disturbing book about the case, there had been a pattern of the football team getting away with sexual harassment and increasingly horrific violence (at one party, a boy microwaved a cat) long before this specific crime went to court.
So there’s no one-to-one effect. No simple causation. Gremlins didn’t make those boys try to burn a cat alive (even though it was a popular 1984 movie with a cooking-an-animal-in-the-microwave scene) and “Paul Revere” didn’t make them rape a girl with a bat (even though it was a popular 1986 song that mentioned penetrating a girl with a bat). These boys had the assurance that they could do anything they wanted without getting in trouble, so they did whatever they wanted, until they got in trouble. They burned that cat because they could. They raped that girl because they could. They did what they did because they could do it, and human evil is just that simple, and that unfathomable, in the end.
Chris Archer sure did like “Paul Revere,” though. It didn’t tell him what to do. It didn’t make him do it. It just made him laugh. It entertained him. It did what all good art does: It inspired him. It ran through his head, and intermingled with what was already inside of him, until he got an idea.
So here’s what I want you to imagine: I want you to imagine being in the Beastie Boys, after the Glen Ridge case. I want you to imagine hearing that six teenage boys raped a disabled girl who didn’t know what they were doing or why it hurt and who thought she had to let it happen because they were her friends. And I want you to imagine hearing — imagine knowing — that it was your voice, running through someone’s head, while they did that. Your words. Your ideas. Your joke. I want you to imagine that you are Christopher Archer’s funniest thing. That he laughed at your joke before every party. That he was thinking of you, as he picked up the bat.
I mean: Can you even comprehend how fucking awful that must be? That kind of sick, sinking, cold horror? The realization that you can’t fix it, and you can’t ever, ever take it back in time? I can come close, but I can’t get there. It must be one of the worst feelings in the world. Would anyone ever choose to feel that way about themselves?
Of course they wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. That’s not the question. The question is: What would you do, to prevent it, if you had the chance?
I want to say something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
— Beastie Boys, “Sure Shot”
This is a particularly useful incident, not because of how horrific it is — lots of things are — but because no-one would argue that the Beastie Boys were bad guys. They famously turned from party bros to social-consciousness-Free-Tibet-hi-there-Kathleen-Hanna bros, and renounced their early personas publicly. And, while I haven’t been able to find any evidence that the Glen Ridge case was a deciding factor, the timeline sure seems significant: The trial ran from 1992 through to 1993. “Sure Shot” came out in 1994.
By 1999, in fact, Adam Horovitz was lecturing other artists from the VMA stage about sexual assault awareness: “I read in the news and heard from my friends all about sexual assaults and the rapes that went down at Woodstock ’99 in July, and it made me feel really sad and angry,” he said, while accepting their award for “Intergalactic.” “We can talk to the promoters and make sure that they’re doing something about the safety of all the girls and the women who come to our shows. I think we can talk to the security people to make sure they know and understand about sexual harassment and rape and they know how to handle these situations.”
All of this makes my job very easy.
The “PC in comedy” debate has been going on for a long time now, and there’s a tendency — on both sides — to let “the ideas are bad” become “the people with the ideas are bad.” In some cases, it’s true. Some people really do harass, abuse, or seek to harm people in the name of being “funny.” Or, potentially, in the name of being “right.” But I think this conflation of person and idea undercuts the debate, or at least limits its potential.
For example: If you don’t like rape jokes (or other sexist jokes, or transphobic jokes, or racist jokes, or homophobic jokes, or) then the person making fun of you and the people you care about is obviously a lazy, cruel, bigoted piece of garbage who doesn’t care who they hurt. On the other hand, if you think of yourself as an artist who deserves artistic freedom — or if you just don’t see what’s wrong with those jokes in the first place — then the people telling you to stop are obviously hysterical, vengeful, censorious prudes. So you call them garbage, and they call you garbage, and since the only possible response to “you’re garbage” is “nuh-uh,” it just becomes a chorus of people on every side of the issue saying “I’m not garbage” over and over and over.
Here, with Glen Ridge, and with “Paul Revere,” we can settle the question right away. The Beastie Boys were not garbage. They weren’t bad people. They cared about the issues: Misogyny, sexual violence. At a certain point, they used both their art and their public platform to address those issues. They understood that their art could potentially affect the way their fans thought and behaved, and they tried to use that power to make the world better and safer for women. Whether they always did it perfectly, I won’t tell you — I grew up hearing them, like everybody, but I’m very far from being an expert — but I do know that they tried.
If that goodness came out eventually, I think it had to have been inside them from the beginning. So they were perfectly fine people, and they still made the joke in “Paul Revere.” They were decent human beings who wrote sexist stuff and made some rape jokes. Why? Well, probably because they weren’t really thinking about it. Because they didn’t understand the potential impact. Because Chris Archer was not someone they’d ever imagined might be standing in line to buy their album. Because rape culture was not something that they’d thought through or considered their position within, at that point in their lives.
Horovitz explained it pretty clearly, in the context of a song he wrote against street harassment: “Sexism is deeply rooted in our history and society that waking up and stepping outside of it is like I’m watching ‘Night of the Living Dead Part Two’ all day every day. Listening to the lyrics of this song, one might say that the Beastie Boy ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but in this fucked up world all you can hope for is change, and I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.’”
In other words: They made the joke because they didn’t know, at the time, that it was a bad joke. They were just wrong.
When a conversation becomes WHO IS GARBAGE: THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP TO FINALLY DECIDE WHO IS FUCKING GARBAGE (IT’S YOU) (NO, IT’S YOU) (NO, SHUT UP, YOU ARE THE GARBAGE) then no-one ever gets to just be wrong. Not “wrong because you are a piece of shit” (which no-one ever agrees to). Not “wrong because you are stupid and/or crazy” (which no-one will ever agree to). Not “wrong and therefore you should disappear because you can never change your mind or contribute anything of value or be defined by anything other than the fact that you were wrong” (which no-one should ever agree to; that shit is abusive). Just plain, simple, everyday wrong. “Sorry I told you Denise’s party was on Saturday — it is actually on Friday” levels of wrong. Human wrong. In possession of bad or incomplete information. Forming inaccurate judgments, and re-forming them in response to new circumstances and events. That kind of wrong, the kind everyone is, many times.
So let’s say that you’re a great person, and a talented comedian, and you’re wrong about a joke. You work hard to be funny. You don’t intentionally hurt people. You have empathy. I know you do, because even if you completely closed off when I mentioned sexual assault, even if you instantly put yourself on guard against my SJW preaching, when you read the phrase “microwaved a cat,” it made you tear up, or it made you nauseous, or you had to take a few breaths to settle down. You felt pain there, because in the absence of politics and pre-rehearsed arguments and everything you think you think, your brain kicked in and forced you to feel the pain of another living thing. That pain, believe it or not, is wonderful; it’s tangible proof, if you ever need it, that you are not a fundamentally bad person. The primal instinct at the heart of all kindness and justice exists in you. Yet you told that joke, and it was fucked up. It really, really was. You were wrong about that one.
Because I can’t really soft-pedal this part: If you tell a joke to the effect of “I raped her and it is hilarious,” you’re wrong. If you tell a joke that goes “all Latina women are crazy” or “all black men are criminals,” you are wrong. If your joke is “here is how all gay men speak and behave, which is weird” or if it is “transgender women are men,” you are just not correct, buddy. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s making you wrong today. Again: For the purposes of this argument, you are not bad. You are simply not right about this. Like you were wrong about where you put your car keys this morning, you were wrong about this joke.
There are a few reasons why this is an easier way to process bad joke decisions. For one thing, admitting to this kind of wrong is (unless you are ridiculously egotistical) harmless. It’s not your human value on the line. It’s not even your intelligence. You thought you had to turn left on Broad Street to get to the restaurant; actually, you needed to turn right. It’s a pain in the ass to turn back around, but your family won’t disown you for it. If you hurt anyone, deal with it — your friend has been waiting for 30 minutes in that damn restaurant; text her to say you’re sorry and that you got turned around — but otherwise, just fix it by being right.
Also: once we’ve established that everyone in this conversation has value, it’s a lot easier to talk about why you’re wrong. You’re not wrong just because you hurt other people, although you may have. (Again, simple solution here: “Got turned around, headed in right direction now, sorry for inconvenience.”) Being wrong hurts the people in the wrong. It hurts them in ways they don’t expect, and in ways they can’t fix. It can be devastating.
Because sooner or later, a guy who believes that all black men are criminals is going to shoot an unarmed black man. It happens. All. The. Time. The white guy who believes they’re “just words” and that people are being “too sensitive” about them is going to throw an N-bomb at a black person in anger. A white woman who thinks all Latina women are crazy is going to hurt her Latina girlfriend’s feelings and then tell everyone she’s being crazy; a dude who thinks all gay guys are the same, and therefore weird, is going to refuse to hire a guy who “seems gay” in the interview; the feminist who thinks trans women are men is going to accuse one of planning to rape her when she’s just trying to use the bathroom.
The guy who laughs and chants rape jokes before every party is going to rape somebody. Maybe in the precise way his favorite rape joke envisioned. Maybe there’s something wrong with him — hell, there’s clearly something wrong with him — but this isn’t Charles Manson deciding that a song about a fucking park slide is predicting the End Times. This is a kid hearing grown men laugh about rape, and deciding rape is funny. One is a bizarre delusion. One is a logical outcome.
You didn’t make them do it. You didn’t tell them what to do. There are a million other prejudicial messages and ideas floating through the air, and there are a million structures giving those prejudices credibility and power — any one of those moments has a thousand causes, and also only one cause, which is that someone decided to do it. Maybe you didn’t even mean for your joke to relay those messages — maybe you were trying for something more subtle, or you didn’t know that one word had an ugly history, or whatever, and you just screwed up in communicating your point, like the best of us do from time to time. And maybe everyone else who heard your joke is a wonderful and completely bias-free person who’s never done anything oppressive, though I doubt it. The world is pretty tangled up in old, bad ideas.
And maybe — here’s where I really stick my neck out; you’re welcome — you’re tangled up, too. Maybe you did think they talked like that, or that you should be able to say that word, or that rape is just a gross thing that happens pretty rarely outside of crime procedurals. I mean, I’m white and straight, and I can’t even forgive you on behalf of all the other white straight ladies, but speaking purely for myself: That could be okay. If you weren’t a woman yourself, you could easily be a good person and just not know certain things. Adam Horovitz didn’t. People don’t know things, until they do. Education was invented for the sole purpose of addressing this well-known human problem. So yeah, you turned the wrong corner, took the wrong train, thought rape was rare: You turned back around once you realized the mistake, right? As long as you get to the right place, we can hang out. If you take the wrong turn and stick to it out of pride until you eventually walk into the ocean, then I worry.
But even if all you do is make them laugh, even if all you do is entertain them, there is that one, lingering problem. There is the power of art to inspire. You don’t want to be the victim of Christopher Archer or someone like him. But even if you were physically safe, could you ever entirely forgive yourself if you knew that you were the voice running through his head? And running, and running, before every party, until the party where the spark hit the gasoline and Christopher Archer got his wonderful, funny idea? Even if you are a good person who happens to be wrong — in fact, because you are a good person who happened to be wrong — I don’t believe you would ever want to be his funniest thing.
Comedians who protest “PC in comedy” tend to frame it — maybe understandably — as if comedy is the only thing in the world, and comedians the only people who experience actual human emotions.
“They keep moving the lines for no reason,” says Seinfeld, unaware of the reasons lines exist or get moved. “When we can’t purposefully get our feelings hurt by a comedian, we usually find another, albeit less satisfying, source of indignation,” says Jim Norton, because presumably only committed lifestyle masochists are ever hurt by something they read or hear, and no hurt ever has its foundation in the real world. Patton Oswalt, in his (I’m going to say) 478th statement about something Salon wrote, complains that… oh, God, I can’t bring myself to care what Patton Oswalt had to say about Salon. It was angry, right? It’s usually angry. ANYWAY: “What all these idiots have done is basically shut up and silenced the comedians, and not just the comedians, the truth-tellers — the people who’ve given their commentary, no matter how distasteful, on society,” says Adam Carolla, who (trust me) you’d probably recognize if you saw a photo or something. “I mean, my God! You can’t take a guy who was on a Wheaties box, as the greatest athlete in the world, and have them undergo genital reassignment surgery, or at least a sex change — I don’t even know what to call it anymore — and expect the nation’s comedians to be silent?”
Ignoring the fact that it’s not that you speak but what you say that causes a reaction. Ignoring the fact that people are only holding the “truth-tellers” up to the standard of telling the truth. (For example, the truth that Caitlyn Jenner is not “a guy.”) I don’t believe that offensive comedy should be prevented from existing, or forcibly suppressed. I believe it should be freely and openly criticized, because free speech does cover speech you don’t like, and therefore the answer to bad speech is more and better speech. But believing in criticism and not censorship puts me substantially at odds with the above-quoted comedians, who seem to believe in neither.
And yet, for all the talk about how comedy is sacred and comedians are the only people who matter, it seems like the “PC” critics are the people who actually value comedy the most in this discussion. They’re the people who believe comedy has power and influence. They’re the ones who really believe comedians can change lives, or change the world. It’s because they believe all this, in fact, that they’re so worried about what comedians do. People who understand the power of something are anxious about how that power is used. Adults scream if they see a toddler holding a loaded gun, because they know what guns can do. The toddler just waves it around freely, and cries if someone tries to take it away from him. He doesn’t know about its power, and he’s not scared of its danger; that’s why he can play with it so casually, when adults are scared to touch it. To him, it’s just another toy.
So for all the talk about PC “babies,” it seems pretty clear who’s acting like an adult here. Because they are out there, in those seats. Your audience. You may know them as “the people who make it possible for you to eat and pay rent.” Even if you look out there and only see sacks of money propped up next to shitty $15 cocktails, they are human, and they are listening. And it’s not the people you hurt that you really need to worry about. It’s the people who like you. The ones who laugh a little too loud, and listen a little too well. The ones who lean forward when you get vicious about some group of people. Almost as if they’ve been waiting for permission. For someone with power, and a microphone, who agrees.
We don’t create the Christopher Archers of this world. We don’t control them, either. And there is no way we can go back in time to save that girl, or even the cat. But we don’t have to entertain them. You can protect yourself from that sinking feeling that something awful chose you for a friend. You can say something that’s long overdue, because it’s got to be through, and change is all we can hope for in this fucked up world.
The only thing “PC” critics are asking you to do in the end, is that. It’s to realize that your voice runs through minds. Maybe a few dozen; maybe millions of them. They’re asking you to think about what else might be in there — what we know, from history, is too often found in there. To know that some people are flammable, and to be careful where the spark lands. Because, in the end, I don’t believe you when you say you don’t care. You are human. You are too good to want the innocent creatures burned.