Social Justice Tourists: Amy Schumer, race, and social media's censorship of satire
Two popular entertainers have come under fire over the past two weeks for making disparaging comments about Latinos.
Despite the obvious parallels raised by numerous observers, in so many ways the incidents couldn't be more different.
Yes, both sets of comments pertained to Hispanic-American men and the crime of rape. Both inspired a fair amount of outrage on social media. And both individuals attracted defenders of various cloths: some of these supporters decried the so-called PC culture in America that -- in their minds -- has threatened political discourse.
Others viewed the heated reaction to these snafus as part of a broader attack on free speech. Still others found their own prejudices echoed within the controversial comments in question, citing spurious "facts" to support these prejudices, which quickly fall apart under even the most basic statistical analysis.
But it’s where these two incidents differ that we can learn a great deal about how racism, sensitivity, and outrage play out in America today -- often at the expense of reasoned debate.
You couldn't find two public figures more dissimilar than Donald Trump and Amy Schumer.
One is a failed businessman who inherited his daddy’s fortune, and professional troll with disturbingly plausible presidential aspirations. The other is unquestionably the funniest -- and quite possibly the smartest -- voice in feminism today. And yet the two have found themselves standing side by side before the Internet's virtual firing squad.
The first to add gasoline to the eternal flame of Internet outrage was Trump. In his announcement that he would run for president, the Turd of Troll Street suggested that the majority of Mexican immigrants are criminals – specifically, drug dealers and rapists.
Within days, both NBC and the Latino-focused network Univision dropped Trump’s Miss America and Miss Universe pageants, while NBC made it clear that the serial-bankruptcy enthusiast would not be hosting any future seasons of The Apprentice. Less surprising was the response from Trump’s political opponents on the Left, who uniformly condemned Trump’s racist generalization about Mexican immigrants -- a generalization that's as inaccurate as it is offensive.
After compiling some data from the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Pew, Pando's found that only 2.6 percent of undocumented immigrations have ever been convicted of a crime -- including the crime of entering the country illegally. The portion of the general U.S. population that's ever been found guilty of a crime? 3.4 percent.
Thanks to his reliance on so-called "empirical evidence" -- and thanks to ICE's exceptional recordkeeping -- Trump's claims are easy to disprove. And yet, the GOP candidate later doubled down on his racist blather instead of apologizing, making it extraordinarily easy for anybody withan ounce of decency, a sense of rationality, or both to condemn his statements.
But the second entertainer catching heat for anti-Latino comments faces a much more complicated set of circumstances.
Amy Schumer has long been a favorite of stand-up enthusiasts and feminists alike. I first witnessed her brilliant skewering of America’s gender politics on Election Night 2012 at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan. Since then she's hit the Big Time, thanks to her critically-acclaimed Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, which this year entered its third season. Her popularity among fans, critics, and social justice advocates is reminiscent of Dave Chappelle’s in the mid-2000s. Chappelle rose to fame by forcing his audiences to grapple with race issues in a way that was more complex and honest as well as brutally funny; in a similar way, Schumer arrived on the scene at a time when gender issues have never been more front and center, and in need of a harsh comic medium.
Like nothing else in mainstream media today, Inside Amy Schumer perfectly captures the zeitgeist of 21st century feminism. And again, like Chappelle, her success stems not only from good timing, but also from the intelligence and hilarity with which she approaches these serious issues, endearing herself to virtually every demographic between sensi-bros and third-wave feminists.
One of her most memorable sketches from the new season, for instance, is a parody of television’s Friday Night Lights. Titled “Football Town Lights,” it stars an "unconventional" new coach who lays down some ground rules on the first day of practice – including a highly controversial “no raping” policy.
"What if the girl said yes but then she changes her mind out of nowhere, like a crazy person?" one player asks.
"What if my mom is the DA and won't prosecute?" another pleads.
By finding a way to introduce complex and urgently relevant themes facing women to a huge mainstream audience of comedy fans, all without shying away from ugly realities, Schumer has practically risen to the level of national icon in short order.
But this sense that Schumer can do no wrong – particularly within the context of social justice -- has opened her up to intense scrutiny from naysayers. Last week in a Guardian article, Monica Heisey spent a few hundred words largely singing the comic’s praises before launching into a line of attack that cemented the article’s status as a piece of shareable outrage-bait. Late in the article, Heisey identifies what she calls Schumer's “shockingly large blind spot around race” and cites a few examples: Calling Latina women “crazy” at the MTV Movie Awards; joking that “nothing works 100 percent of the time – except Mexicans”; and in a standup routine Donald Trump could be proud of, explaining, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
These complaints leveled against Schumer – particularly considering they were preceded by the author leaving heaping amounts of praise at the comedian’s feet – felt almost like they were added minutes before publishing, as if to give the article a little shot of share-juice before tossing it into the social media fray. Following the little outrage cycle the article propagated on Twitter, Heisey even said, “hate the idea that anyone thinks I called her racist full stop.”
But an article published yesterday on the Washington Post’s website was far less equivocal in attacking Schumer's racial politics.
“Don’t believe her defenders. Amy Schumer’s jokes are racist,” read the headline. Within the piece, authors Stacey Patton – an education reporter with a Ph.D. in history – and David J. Leonard – a professor of criticism, culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University – go so far as to invoke the Confederate flag and Donald Trump when discussing Schumer’s Latino jokes, which they characterize as “dehumanizing language that gives life to an ecosystem of racial fear and violence."
Before long, the authors makes their way to the absurd yet inevitable conclusion of many a modern rage-bait piece; the place where, in order to lend maximum power and timely urgency to the authors' narrative, the article likens the target of its outrage to some horrific tragedy – in this case, last month’s racially-motivated massacre in Charleston.
"[Schumer's] rhetoric...breeds the fear that results in soaring gun purchases, that 'inspires' monsters like Dylann Roof to craft a manifesto with deadly consequences," Patton and Leonard write.
In other words: Amy Schumer is responsible for Dylann Roof?
Before going any further, let’s be clear: Schumer's three jokes cited by the Guardian and the Washington Post are racist jokes. Painting Latino women as “crazy” and Latino men as “rapists” are unquestionably ugly stereotypes. And although the “working 100 percent of the time” joke was directed less at Mexicans and more at a society that exploits and devalues these residents, it still conjures a stereotype about Central American immigrants as powerless laborers. (That said, the joke doesn't so much reinforce reactionary racist stereotypes as it does take the piss out of them and anyone who holds them).
Nevertheless, the tenor of Patton’s and Leonard’s article is bothersome and troubling in its own right — and fits into a much larger trend involving the rhetoric of modern American political discourse.
From the start, Patton and Leonard’s main argument is that Amy Schumer is no different than Donald Trump:
“Wouldn’t it be funny if Donald Trump and the wildly popular feminist comedian Amy Schumer joined forces and ran on the same presidential ticket in 2016?” the authors ask, facetiously. “You might not think this duo has much in common, but they certainly share similar views about Mexicans.”
The thing is, the pair does not “share similar views about Mexicans.” Trump has made it clear on multiple occasions that, if he had his way, America would be entirely closed off to Mexican immigrants. In his “clarification” of the racist remarks he made in his presidential speech, Trump merely reiterated his previous bullet points that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists.
Schumer, on the other hand, is known to play characters not only on television but on stage while delivering standup. Her favorite of these personas is the “dumb, sheltered, white girl.”
“I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot,” Schumer wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “That includes making dumb jokes involving race. I enjoy playing the girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible…”
Patton and Leonard – like many of Schumer’s critics -- are not deaf to this defense. But they dismiss these rationalizations by arguing that they’re not so different from Republicans’ defense for espousing similarly racist quotes -- a disingenuous position that couldn't be farther from the truth.
“Just as Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and other members of the Republican Party regularly disparage people of color and claim they are simply telling the truth, Schumer can use comedy as a protective shroud to deny the harm and hurt caused by her jokes,” the authors write.
This is a slippery bit of rhetoric Patton and Leonard have employed here. It literally attempts to equate “truth” – the GOP’s defense – and “a joke” -- Schumer's defense. But the effects and motivations of presenting racism as a true believer – like Trump – and presenting as satire and sarcasm -- like Schumer -- are wildly different.
This fallacy gets to the very heart of what satire is. It's akin to saying that Joe McCarthy, the notorious congressman behind America’s communist witch-hunts, and Stanley Kubrick, the maker of the McCarthyite-baiting satire Dr. Strangelove, share the same politics and aspirations for the world. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick depicts political and military operatives who, in their mad zeal to defeat the Russians and their communist ideologies, put millions of American lives at risk without question. By exaggerating and parodying these figures, Kubrick crafts a powerful commentary on the dangers of blind nationalism and a fear of the unknown. His intents – and the personal politics his film betrays – are in fact diametrically opposed to the madmen like McCarthy that Kubrick's film mocks.
Schumer’s satire – at least when it comes to race – may not be as obvious or elegant. And without question, there are racists who, upon hearing one of Schumer’s Latino jokes, will become that much more convinced of their own prejudices. But the same could be said for Dr. Strangelove. And it isn’t the satirist’s job to convert viewers who are already so certain of their flawed ideals. If these viewers fail to understand how jokes work, then likely nothing will change their minds -- not least of which, satire. (Although hearing people laugh at racist opinions they hold dear might, maybe, dislodge a bit of said racist’s smug notions.)
What makes Patton’s and Leonard’s article even more insidious, however, is that it’s part of larger efforts to paint satire as an inappropriate form of commentary – when in reality, it’s one of the most powerful mediums for political debate. Such efforts to silence all but the most dry, sincere, and aboveboard forms of political speech are amplified exponentially by the mob dynamics of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Pando's Mark Ames discussed this at length in his piece, "The geometry of satire and censorship."
A brief summation of the theory goes like this:
Studies show that individuals are much more likely to share unpopular opinions in real life than on social media platforms -- platforms where those opinions spread with terrifying speed and are laid bare for the world to see. All it takes is one tweet or Facebook post to initiate an avalanche of outrage. Psychologically-speaking, each "like" or "favorite" is equivalent to a scientist pumping a little endorphin rush into a lab rat. And a post is far more likely to gain these "likes" if it uncontroversially "goes with the flow."
So if all of your friends and colleagues are outraged about something, regardless of the incident’s merits, it's much safer for you to either say nothing or -- better yet -- join the pile-on. That way, not only is there a little endorphin rush that comes with people sending you positive signals pertaining to your post; there's also a sense of well-being that comes with joining a popular mob crusade against societal indignity. I mean, why go volunteering at a homeless shelter when the same gratification comes from tweeting about the world's ills? These crowd-loving conformists aren't "Social Justice Warriors" as they're often negatively labelled by their opponents. They're "Social Justice Tourists."
What tends to transpire next, according to Ames, is known as "horizontal censorship." Following a theory put forth by Russian television anchor Sergei Dorenko, “horizontal censorship” differs from "vertical censorship" which occurs when a government polices language and free speech through top-down enforcement, like in Putin's Russia. Horizontal censorship, on the other hand, stems from one's peers. The pressure to self-censor oneself under his paradigm emanates from a fear of deviating from the social rules set in place by one's peer group, not from fear of government reprisal.
Because these peer groups are much larger on Facebook and Twitter than in real life, the consensuses of the crowd are often far more restrictive and demanding of each user's conformity – even the slightest variation of the crowd’s narratives is unacceptable. Moreover, the consequences of breaking these unspoken social media mores are terrifying in scale -- anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of a "flame war" has experienced this firsthand. The fact that these platforms are often open or semi-open only exacerbates these consequences.
In some cases, these consensuses aren't terribly insidious or harmful -- like the collective celebration of the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling in certain social media corners last week.
In the case of Schumer, however, the accusations leveled against her are wildly extreme, as the authors liken the comedian to the perpetrator of a savage and deadly mass murder; or to the Confederate army which launched a violent rebellion against the United States in order to preserve the horrific practice of slavery, leaving close to a million dead. Framing the narrative in such exaggerated terms is in part symptomatic of an American public that, according to Pew, is more polarized across political and ideological lines than ever before.
But this extremist bent is also a baldly manipulative tactic of persuasion.
“What,” the authors say, tacitly – along with anyone who puts their social media stamp of approval on the story -- “you disagree with our opinion of Schumer? Why, that must mean you’re a racist! And that you align yourself with Dylann Roof! And the Confederacy! And slave owners!”
Sound outlandish? A friend of mine shared the story on Facebook and stated that the authors’ conclusions were overblown. This set off a trail of comments berating the poster for shedding “white tears” and betraying her “white privilege.” Don’t misread me – privilege, whether it pertains to race, class, or gender, is real. But calling out a racially-charged post for relaying a poorly-argued thesis does not automatically betray one’s "whiteness" or "privilege." Moreover, one's privilege -- or lack thereof -- is the complex sum of a number of societal and experiential factors, and can't be measured by a single Facebook post. So while responding with “Check your privilege” may attract a lot of Facebook likes, it isn’t a valid counter-argument here--in fact, it’s meant to quash argument, without argument.
The Schumer incident is in many ways indicative of what’s known as Godwin’s Law, which reads, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” Replace “Nazis” with “slavery” and you’ve got "Schumer’s Law."
Unearned slavery comparisons hurt the public discourse in more ways than one. Not only does it enable the consensus to label any naysayer as a racist, but perhaps more troublingly, it threatens to devalue the experiences of those who are the victims of more severe and overt racism. That's what happened to Hitler, who to many is considered little more than a joke in this context.
“Obama has a secret bunker in the case of a nuclear attack,” one might say, to which another might reply, “You know who else had a bunker…”
Finally, the Schumer incident reeks of its own prejudices.
“A joke is considered benign especially when told by a supposed white liberal feminist,” write Patton and Leonard. “Supposed,” they say, as if Schumer’s feminist bonafides are in question all because she invoked racial stereotypes.
There are two things going on here: First, this is a classic technique of a takedown piece. By attacking one of the most prominent feminist voices in America, the authors risk being perceived as opponents of feminism. This could be avoided by praising Schumer’s feminist qualities, but that would dilute the uncut, trollish vitriol of the piece. So instead the authors call Schumer's feminism into question, without any evidence to back that up.
And secondly, the piece is part of a troubling trend within the feminist community. Here, I’ll hand things over to Ijeoma Oluo, who writes at the Huffington Post,
I started seeing an even more disturbing trend: white feminists calling other white feminists racist as a weapon in their personal grudge matches. Just this last week I've seen white feminists try multiple times to damage other white feminists that they have personal issues with by implying that they are racist without any proof. Name-calling and gossip is everywhere on social media, but this is more dangerous than that.
To be fair, Leonard is a white man and Patton a black woman, so this isn’t quite the same trend Oluo identifies. Nevertheless, their Schumer takedown is a clear example of using specious accusations of racism to devalue a feminist.
Shortly after the Post article was published, Schumer did one last thing to differentiate herself from the Donald Trumps and Dylann Roofs of the world: She apologized.
“I am taking responsibility and hope I haven’t hurt anyone,” Schumer wrote on Twitter. “And I apologize it [sic] I did.”
Regardless of the merits of the accusations, Schumer was not incorrect to apologize. Just as people have a right to say whatever they like in America, others have a right to be offended. There’s no shame in apologizing for hurting somebody by furthering stereotypes surrounding them, even if the intent was satirical.
Moreover, neither Schumer’s original “just a joke” defense nor the importance of satire means that comedians have carte blanche to say whatever they like onstage. When Daniel Tosh, for example, suggested to an audience member that it’d be “funny” if she were raped, that wasn’t a risqué joke or a piece of satire – it was a threat. The same concept held true when “comedian” T.J. Miller called a woman in the crowd a “bitch” at the Crunchies. And of course, perhaps the biggest difference between Schumer and these comics is that she's a hell of a lot funnier.
But to premeditatively stoke outrage by suggesting that a satirical – if not very sophisticated – joke about racial stereotypes is tantamount to slavery or mass murder, and that the positive social statements made by the teller of his joke are therefore nullified, represents some of the worst dynamics of political discourse in the social, digital age.
I wish I could take a page from Leonard’s and Patton’s book and simply dismiss their arguments by calling the authors “racist” or “sexist." But they’re neither of those things, and I won’t pretend otherwise.
They’re just wrong.