The Thin Line Between Bad Taste and Outrage


It has gone from truism to trite to say we live in a culture of outrage, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fact. It seems it is no longer possible to simply offend or commit a faux pas, everything that is done is an OUTRAGE, grist for the social media mill, driving one end or the other of the political spectrum into a frenzy. The latest example of this comes from the Harvard Lampoon of all places.

Now before I go any further I have to, of course, deny in the strongest terms that I am making any attempt to defend their bad decisions. What they did was in very poor taste. It was crude, and quite frankly not even funny. Should they apologize? Yes. Did they apologize? Yes. Case closed? Not by a long shot.

According to the Washington Post (my perennial source for outrage culture), Harvard sophomore Jenny Baker had the following to say about the Lampoon cartoon that started the controversy:

“Holocaust jokes? Never okay,” she began. “Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Never okay,” she continued.

“Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? So unbelievably not okay,” she emphasized.

Baker delivered a recommendation to the staff of the Lampoon: “try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people.”

She concluded, “This is trash.”

Now, having done more than a little humor writing myself, I’m going to offer a gentle rejoinder and say that Ms. Baker doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Holocaust jokes? Better be funny, but they can be okay. Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Better be damn funny, but it can be okay. Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? Holy shit that better be the funniest fucking thing I ever read, but you CAN get away with it if it’s good enough, especially if you are using your humor to make a larger point. A couple things we can agree on are that (a) they really should try to find other ways to be funny, because man did they miss the mark on this one, and (b) this is trash.

Lest you think I am merely engaging in some sort of knee-jerk libertarian defense of free speech, let me share some real-life experiences from my own college days. These are from a couple decades ago, back when people were at least slightly less prone to take everything so immediately personal and there was no such thing as the internet. I was working on an independent college paper, which meant we could do whatever we wanted, and we pushed a few boundaries. I’m proud of a lot of the work I did there, and we had a lot of fun. At least twice I can think of our papers were burned in effigy at Take Back the Night rallies because of what we had printed, and I’m still proud of what we published in those issues.

And then there was what I still think of as the incident.

I was the Humor Editor for the paper at the time, which I say only to establish that everything that happened was my responsibility. I made the choices, and I had the authority. I was looking for content for my section, and a new guy volunteered to write a three panel comic for me. Sure, he had a shaved head and looked kind of scraggly, but I had known more than a few cool skinhead punks down in Richmond, so I decided to roll with it. I was also very high on my First Amendment horse at the time.

Long story short, the comic turned out to be about what you would expect. Not so blatant that I couldn’t pretend a certain amount of ignorance or at least try to hide from it at first, but shortly after it ran I had to admit to myself I had run a Nazi skinhead comic in my section. And yeah, I got more than a little hate mail for it, which I freely admit I deserve. I owned it, and still do. I made a bad call, and the reasons why don’t matter. I apologized, we ran a retraction, and while I have moved on I have never forgotten it.

So why do I bring it up now? Because the other material, the stuff that got my work burned on campus, I am proud of. I stand by it today. Because it had a point, and a purpose, and I was saying something with it. And yes, if I thought I could make a larger point with a Holocaust joke, and I thought the joke was funny enough, I would go for it and I would be all in. It would have to be a damn good point and a fucking hilarious joke, and honestly I don’t know if I’m that funny. But it would be worth it. And I’d have Anne Frank in my sights.

And I wouldn’t apologize either.

Advertisements