The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 13 asks, “When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?”
De gustibus non est disputandum. Loosely translated this means, “There is no reason to argue about matters of taste.” There is no fighting over subjective personal likes or dislikes such as colors or sounds. You can not successfully argue me into liking certain smells. I can not punch you hard enough to like what strawberries taste like. Being ticklish or not being ticklish is not an example to offer in a friendly “nature v. nurture” debate.
Comedy does not fall under the “can’t argue (or explain) taste” category of conversations. It is not a subjective taste. At worst, comedy falls in the “agree to disagree” territory—when it fails to entertain or amuse or even offends. But “agree to disagree” is a phrase that at least implies an acceptance of the possibility that opinions can differ. At best, the discovery that you and a new acquaintance share a sense of humor can seal the deal on a friendship for life. I do not know if you find what follows funny, but if you do, consider us friends (if you do not, that is fine, too; it is simply that these 16 seconds might be the quickest way to determine if you and I are potential friends) (yes, I am exaggerating):
Comedy often offends. To a degree, all comedy is offensive, as it shakes up and toys with perceptions; if you do not find the “Fish-Slapping Dance” funny, it may be because you find the waste of intellectual effort offensive. Or perhaps fish jokes generally turn you right off. “How is this funny?” becomes the same question as “Why is this funny?” “Why is this on my screen?”
Usually, “How” and “Why” are not the same question, not even related. How a car functions (fuel, pistons, wheels, tires, go go go) is not the same question as why I am using it (to go buy more fuel to drive somewhere else … um, I may need to look into this vicious cycle). The “Fish-Slapping Dance” actually can be seen as a depiction of the “How is this funny?” conversation. Michael Palin, the “little fishes,” dances the question, and then John Cleese, the “big fish,” delivers the only possible retort. “It is or it is not.” Splash.
“Because it is” is sometimes the only reply, but someone who replies with this is merely saying “Because it is funny to me,” as if to say that one can not argue about taste. That is true, but funny is not a taste. (“Funny tastes” might be a future “Daily Prompt.”) One who says this is falling prey to the logical fallacy that if something is amusing to him or her, and he or she rhetorically concedes that while YOU may not find it amusing (thus covering both bases), you, the non-amused one, are wrong. Wrong. And then you may find them theorizing that you have something rigid intimately involved with your colon. “Agree to disagree!”
So whose perceptions ought to be offended? When can offense be something that even the offended party finds amusing? I do not know if there can be a “unified field theory of offensiveness.” Or comedy. Myself, I am not a fan of “cringe comedy,” television programs or films depicting socially awkward situations in which two parties are in conflict and one party resides in an obviously superior social strata, yet they are the aggrieved party, and we the audience are supposed to laugh at the supposed aggressor, who may simply be a character depicted “doing their job.”
When all the roles are depicted as equal, scenes of bullies getting their comeuppance or returning the comeuppance can be sublime:
Poor Edgar Kennedy! Poor Harpo! Poor Chico! And they are all bullies! All three take turns being the most creatively worst person. They kick each other and destroy hats for no reason other than that is what no one in these positions ever does. They are equals. The comedy lies in the dance of disaster that unfolds for no reason. This is not cringe comedy, as all three get some sympathy and a head shaking laugh. But cringe comedy would happily use this bit (and it goes on much longer through the film, the essential “Duck Soup,” from 1933) and not get what makes it funny. (Larry David would be Chico Marx and his bald Edgar Kennedy would be some anonymous barista.)
Comedy works for me when it presents someone punching up at someone else, at a bully, at someone or something in power. It never works, and it is more likely to offend me, when it is a matter of punching down at someone or something.
(But isn’t Chico Marx’s mock-Italian accent [he was French-Jewish, by way of Brooklyn] offensive? I could reply with the “you have to know the context” argument, that his act was a commonly seen one in the era, that really, Groucho was the only Marx brother with an act unlike any other seen in the era, but if you find the accent offensive in the here and now of 2014 because it is not 1933, I really have no reply. If it is offensive to you, then it is.)
We all are members of interest groups. I am white, half-Jewish, half-Baptist, tall and thin, an alcoholic in recovery, and have a disease that is disabling me. What is the difference between this:
The second image is from the “Fight Ataxia Project,” a website for those people diagnosed with one of the many forms of ataxia (I was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia for a year) and for their loved ones and caregivers. It is one of several t-shirt logos that the group is selling. When one has a neuromuscular disease like ataxia or spinal muscular atrophy, one trips a lot and one falls down. The t-shirt is for people with such diseases. It exists to show that we can laugh at (at) ourselves. With ourselves.
The first image is a surprise. Not in itself; I have seen it before. It falls into the general territory of hard-hearted internet memes like, “every poor person is gaming the system and has a better cell phone than me,” or “look at these out-of-perfect-physical-shape shoppers at Walmart! They dress funny,” or “disabled people are faking it.” I can only speak for me, but I am poor and you probably have a nicer cell phone than I have, I shop at Walmart and hate it, and I am disabled and wish I was faking it. Why would I?
But I am my own interest group here, obviously. Of course, as a disabled person (not in a wheelchair, and I avoid the word “yet,” but … you know) that must be why I must be offended, right? Nope. Not that. My offense is from the combination of the “miracle meme” insult itself—but it’s not that insulting and I wouldn’t be posting this long post merely about this image—with the “you can’t argue about taste” attitude many took towards it when it was shared by George Takei on his Twitter account last week. (There is a must-read piece—after reading mine, of course—by Scott Jordan Harris in the August 13 issue of Slate.) Yes, that George Takei.
This George Takei:
The wonderful George Takei. The heroic George Takei whom everyone loves, including me. Who has in the past taken down internet memes from his vast social media network when he and his ghost writers have come under criticism for offending. He did not take this one down when disabled rights activists complained (obviously, as I was able to post it here), and wrote this response:
Fans get “offended” from time to time by my posts. There hardly is a day where something I put up doesn’t engender controversy. Concerned fans, worried the sky may fall, ask me to “take it down.”
So I’m also going to ask them also to take it down—a notch, please.
What? Because this internet meme is ironic (a handicapped person stands up to get a bottle of booze fro the top shelf), see, and I do not get the irony because I am too close to the issue. You can’t argue taste, after all.
But wait, George Takei’s argument seems to be that you can argue taste. Many of my posts court controversy, he says, and I receive complaints every day, some of which I respond to, but the complaints from the disabled and their advocates, well, those do not balance out the sheer comedy of the miraculous alcohol post. The complaints of the sensitive disabled (if anything, the disabled are pretty thick-skinned) fell on his deaf ears. Which is a handicap.
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Added at 8:07 a.m., August 14:
George Takei posted this on his Facebook page this morning:
I’ve just come back from an extended trip to England, and I came home to a large number of fan emails concerning a meme I shared more than a week ago. In that meme, a woman in a wheelchair was standing up to reach for a bottle of liquor in the store, and the caption said something about a miracle in the alcohol aisle. To this I added a quip about her being touched by the holy spirits.
I did not expect the level of offense this meme caused. I had naturally just thought of those movies where the evangelical preacher miraculously cures someone who was disabled. What I’d never really considered before so many fans wrote in is how that portrayal of disabled persons is filled with ignorance and prejudice—two things I never want to promote, even inadvertently.
Now, before all of you go and start defending my right to post what I want, I want first to thank the many fans who wrote in with the hopes of educating me on the question of “ableist” bias. While I did not ever mean to suggest by sharing the meme that all people in wheelchairs cannot walk, or that they don’t need them despite the fact that they can stand on their own from time to time, I have taken the fan mail and criticism to heart.
After I’d posted the meme, I noted in the comments an inordinate amount of very uncivil behavior on the part of many fans, including both those who demanded I take it down and those who said I should leave it up. I also received a good deal of email IN CAPITAL LETTERS asking me if I would feel the same way if someone called me FAG or a JAP. Now, I took down the meme from my timeline shortly after it went up, but I admit I was decidedly irked by the tenor of some of those criticizing me. In that moment, I posted a follow up telling fans that perhaps they should “take it down—a notch” which, in retrospect, was not the most sensitive response.
The fact that I was surprised by the response the wheelchair meme received indicates that I do indeed lack knowledge, and some sensitivity, over what is clearly a hot button issue, and that I and others can take this as an opportunity not to dig in, but rather to open up to the stories and experiences of those in the disabled community. I appreciate those who took the time to write in. I wish I’d had the chance to respond sooner, but until today I was not able to go through all the mail I’d received.
So to those who were hurt by my posts on this issue, I ask you please to accept this apology. To those who think I shouldn’t have to apologize, I want to remind you that I get to decide what I apologize for, so there’s no need to come to my defense.
Very well then, carry on, friends. Carry on.