Patton Oswalt, You’re Not Helping the Trevor Noah Situation

Yesterday we pleaded with the Internet to use the Trevor Noah “old tweets” scandal to have a productive conversation about both what’s edgy vs. what’s just tired in comedy, and to what extent we should hold public figures responsible for their years-old social media posts. Throughout the day I saw some good responses about anti-Semitism, about comedy, and about forgiving ourselves for our past social media sins.

This morning, some of the literati, prompted by New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul (who tweeted twice, once with an seemingly intentional typo and once without), confessed their fears about making mistakes in public.

At this point, as Sarah Weinman notes, many of us are less worried than we once were about saying something stupid or offensive in public (I’ve done the former enough and try to be very careful about the latter) and being pilloried for it, and more worried that we’ll lose our ability to distinguish real outrage from the kind manufactured out of a kernel of genuine misbehavior, but unworthy of the scope of the reaction.

For instance, I’m concerned that the Internet leads us to be more worried about things like Trevor Noah’s tweets than we are about Indiana imprisoning a woman for having a miscarriage. Or that we spend more time talking about Patricia Arquette than we do about immigration reform splitting families apart.

But comedian Patton Oswalt, who gravitates to online blowups like a bear to honey, is still stuck on the outrage cycle. And indeed, he is intelligent enough to understand exactly how concern about sexism, racism, transphobia, and the like plays out on Twitter. Yet it appears he’s not hip to exactly why, and how this fits into the broader scheme of things. Last night, he unleashed a long rant about privilege in comedy which served his own agenda (getting social justice warriors off his back!) but had little to do with the actual issues around Noah’s tweets.

Oswalt’s rant (full link here) focuses on the substance of peoples’ complaints abut comedians. This is a common mistake that people make in critiquing Twitter culture, or the idea of pile-ons.

It’s true that sometimes jokes can be transphobic, or ableist, or generally insensitive. It’s true that in many cases, just how offensive a joke is, is actually debatable. So there’s nothing wrong with engaging in that debate, sometimes loudly. Everyone on social media is in the position of being in public and open to criticism, particularly public figures. In fact, I think it’s great to name and point out when someone erases an entire group or does something insensitive. I’ve been called out for being overly focused on one group of people (women, or straight women, or straight white women) to the exclusion of others, and it makes me think harder the next time I write.

The issue with Noah, and other instances of Internet behavior that is genuinely offensive (if idly so), isn’t that it’s bad to call out prejudice. The issue is that, often, one person or a handful of people has made a valid point to that end and then hundreds of others jump on the bandwagon to say something simply along the lines of, “Yeah, what he/she/they said, you suck [insert object of public shaming here]!” At that point, the substantive critique can get lost in the glee of the pile-on, both for observers and the person being lit into.

Everyone, from Patton Oswalt to his critics, wants to have the moral high ground. Everyone wants to be right. So they’re eager to plant their flag in righteous ground. Today, Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, has a Vanity Fair interview in which he and Monica Lewinsky discuss this phenomenon. “On social media, we’ve set a stage for constant high dramas. So we have to do something wonderful and heroic or we have to shame this terrible person,” he says. “It’s a strange combination of schadenfreude and othering people,” she replies. Pointing out prejudice, insensitivity, or — in Noah’s case — dumb tweets, isn’t what allows us to dehumanize that person and “other” them. It’s the rush and thrill of group shaming that does this. These are separate issues, and it would be good for Oswalt and his fans to understand the distinction.