White Male Impunity is Not, and Never Will be, Funny
“You don’t have a sense of humor.”
If you have ever called attention to the way someone’s behavior, actions, or language is having a harmful impact, you have probably heard this. Personally, I have heard this a thousand times over throughout my life from family members, to ex-boyfriends, to strangers on the internet. When I hear “you’re too sensitive,” “lighten up,” “it’s just a joke,” or “you don’t have a sense of humor,” it only means that the person speaking is refusing to acknowledge their complicity in a toxic, oppressive act.
Imagining a world that extends beyond normalizing and affirming structures of oppression and injustice means that we are going to need to hold people accountable for not just their actions, but their words. Some “jokes” are not funny. Some “jokes” are verbal perpetuations of sexism, racism, transphobia, and toxic masculinity. Bringing attention to how these jokes are not provocative, or simply “telling it like it is,” is crucial to ending discrimination. As Lester C. Olson points out in his essay Liabilities of Language: Audre Lorde Reclaiming Difference, “complicity inheres in language.”
Recently, Louis C.K. made some horrendous, painful, and vile remarks during his “comedy” performance in early December. For the entirety of his career C.K. has been wrongfully reputed as a comic of wit and insight. Ever since his abuses of power have been brought to light, he has wilted, crumbled, and fallen a part under the pressure to be accountable. Louis C.K. had the opportunity to use his power and privilege to seek redemption, to work towards healing for the people he harmed, and to serve communities who are most vulnerable to sexual violence. For fragile and toxic men like him, expecting him to change his behavior and habits was just too much to ask.
His behavior is nothing new because when toxic men are confronted for their behavior they too often double down. In Louis C.K.’s case, he made a shallow, disingenuous apology, and then torpedoed into a full-blown alt-right poster boy. It’s no surprise. I have experienced this first-hand with men I have confronted for their harmful behavior, so what would we expect from a sexual predator who tried to silence the women he abused? What’s the lesson from this? All of your faves are probably assholes. For many, Louis C.K. was their “premiere comic genius.” It’s not edgy to mock the queer community and gun violence survivors, or tap into emasculating stereotypes of Black and Asian men. It’s cheap, easy, harmful, and definitely not funny.
#metoo wasn’t just a moment. It has been a movement since Tarana Burke first created the campaign against sexual violence. When the floodgates opened in the fall of 2017 as Hollywood stars began exposing industry giants like Harvey Weinstein in response to Alyssa Milano’s catalyst tweet, we saw the downfall of one prominent man after another across multiple industries. Some people like to entertain the idea of separating the art from the artist. I do not. I refuse to support sexual predators and active racists because I know there are folks out there creating and writing who are actually and intentionally trying to free us all from oppressive structures, systems, and institutions.
The #metoo movement is about “dismantling the building blocks of sexual violence — power and privilege,” Tarana Burke explains in her recent Ted Talk, “Me Too is a Movement, Not a Moment.” Sexual violence is not an isolated event, or about individual “bad” people, it’s a product of the imbalance of power in our society. It’s what happens when those with privilege abuse their power. Louis C.K. was exploiting his power and privilege at the expense of those with less power due to their lack of privilege. Burke reminds us that this imbalance can happen between coaches and athletes, doctors and patients, teachers and students, men and women, cis and trans folks, etc. We see examples of people exploiting their unearned power and privilege all the time and part of the reason for this is because they know they can get away with it. Our society does not hold them accountable. This is how Louis C.K. summons the audacity to speak the way he does, like multiple other examples of toxic men who feel no need to be accountable for their impact.
While it is important to acknowledge and celebrate #metoo and the influence it continues to have, it is still very clear from the hypocrisy of Louis C.K. that white male impunity is still running the show. I believe it’s this kind of unabashed, no shame, no-fucks-given mentality that paves an easy road for men like Brett Kavanaugh, as well as grants Alex Honnold permission to treat his girlfriend like shit. It’s the kind of impunity that a white man knows he has, like Jazmine Barnes’ murderer who is still at large. It’s the kind of impunity that has put Donald Trump in office. It’s the kind of impunity that has caused hundreds of thousands of indigenous women to go missing and murdered at the hands of white men. So, when we are pointing out the way a phrase, word, or “joke,” is unacceptable, we are not just being nit-picky. It means we understand that words hold power and impact. We owe it to our collective freedom to never accept oppressive comments as “just jokes.”
If being relentless in the quest to see abusive men be held accountable for their actions means that I don’t have a sense of humor, then so be it: I don’t have a sense of humor.
I am more concerned about the fact that one-in-four girls and the one-in-six boys are sexually assaulted every year, that 84 percent of trans women will be sexually assaulted this year, and that indigenous women are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group as Tarana Burke tells us. Burke also shared that the Me Too movement is about “…the people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit.”
Having a sense of humor that panders to white male supremacy is none of my concern. I am most concerned with honoring all people who are fighting against manifestations of toxic masculinity and white supremacy, those who are forging from the margins to the center, and those who don’t put up with shit from toxic men like Louis C.K.