Thursday, April 2, 2015

Safety In Numbers

I haven't really been following the flap about Trevor Noah. To me, it's just another in a long series of teapot tempests that are quite literally sound and fury signifying nothing. But an acquaintance excerpted an article from Time Magazine where the author offers Americans the choice of either being addicted to taking offense or being "the most hypersensitive group of whining milksops ever assembled under one flag."

But he makes an interesting point about comedy in the piece, and since that was the part that stood out for me, I want to quote it at length, to capture its context.

The image people have of comedians staring defiantly over a stationary line of good taste is simply inaccurate. We don’t approach this line, put our toes over it arrogantly and then scamper back to safety. The line doesn’t exist. The correct image for people to have is one of a circle, with a comedian standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a myriad of races, religions, social beliefs, sacred cows and political ideologies. And in these groups are endless numbers of sub groups and personal boundaries. There is simply no way to consistently do the type of comedy that addresses these things without upsetting somebody. No matter which direction you turn to aim the joke, someone is getting hit. And while the person who has been hit jumps up and down and exaggerates their injuries, everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke. Until they themselves get hit.
Jim Norton: Trevor Noah Isn’t the Problem. You Are.
While it seems to me that Mr. Norton is keen to indict people (other than himself, that is) for being willing to "jump up and down and exaggerate their injuries," he's strangely silent on the other factor that he notes - that "everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke." Earlier in the piece, he had made the following observation:
[Trevor Noah] also neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.
While I understand his anger at what he perceives as America's love affair with "[b]eing outraged and upset and feeling bullied or offended," he's curiously silent about our habit of simply ignoring what happens to others, as long as it doesn't happen to us. Having read his piece, the issue seems less a national hypersensitivity than a national lack of empathy. If people can't be bothered to look after those in their midst who understand themselves as being injured is it any wonder that the response is to shout louder?

Yes, comforting people after trivial injuries or assuring them they will be alright after a minor wound is tiresome and feels like we're coddling people who should really be able to stand up for themselves. But it's by teaching people how to judge the extent of their hurts that they learn to understand what they can take and what really spells trouble for them. Especially when there's a history involved. I haven't read any of the Tweets that Noah is being called out for, but I understand that they're being seen in some circles as anti-Semitic and sexist. Now, I'm not a particularly astute student of history, but I seem to recall some rather high-profile instance of Jews and women being left out in the cold while the situation around them escalated. Sure those things were in the past, but once bitten, twice shy, and as I recall it, those were some serious bites.

The answer to the issue is not simply expecting people to suffer in silence, but to support them, stand them back up and demonstrate that we have confidence in their ability to take the hit, even when it seems serious. And to let them know that when things more serious than jokes are being flung around, that we won't abandon them to the hope that if we do, the only blood spilled with be theirs.

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