Here’s a link to Lindy West debating comic Jim Norton about rape jokes.
This debate is important: not just because it’s about feminism and violence against women, but because it’s implicitly about our expectations in the public forum, which means that it’s about democracy per se.
Here’s the setup: a (usually male) comic will make a joke about rape (see the Daily Beast’s roundup here). Feminists like Lindy West respond with something along the lines of “You’re encouraging rape-culture, I object.” Comic replies, “You’re trying to silence my subversive comedy” and/or “Come on, it’s just a joke!”
The problem here is framing: comics like Jim Norton seem to believe that there is no way of qualitatively differentiating between kinds of rape jokes–i.e. that a rape joke is a rape joke, is a rape joke–so when West criticizes a subset of rape jokes because they trivialize rape, make fun of the victim, reinforce assumptions of rape culture, etc., the comics think she’s attacking all rape jokes ever.
She isn’t. If you don’t believe me, go read her brilliant article “How to Make a Rape Joke,” which explains how to differentiate between oppressive and subversive rape jokes. Her point is not that rape jokes should be verboten, but that oppression-reinforcing rape jokes should be criticized as such.
She’s not saying, “Don’t use comedy to talk about rape,” so it’s either a misunderstanding or a dodge for pro-rape-joke comics to respond to her as if either all rape jokes are okay or no rape jokes are okay. Her point, I think, is that comedy is like any other form of speech in the sense that it has meaning: jokes express linguistic content in the same way as regular declaratory speech. When you make a joke, you’re saying something, and people get to respond to it as such.
That’s what makes this an issue of democracy: our ability to work together in autonomous communities depends on our ability to have thoughtful conversations with each other. The idea that comedy is beyond criticism, or that irony is some kind of carte blanche to say whatever you want, is a confusion which prevents us from doing precisely that.