No, Twitter Is Not Terrifying: On Trevor Noah, Public Shaming, and the PC Police

Trevor Noah via Comedy Central
Trevor Noah
via Comedy Central

On March 30, Comedy Central announced that Trevor Noah would be the next host of The Daily Show, following Jon Stewart’s impending departure. The news was initially met by both excitement (a non-white host! with dimples!) and confusion (who is he? and where did he get those dimples?), but because the prevailing law of the Internet requires a swift and strong backlash to any and all positivity expressed within, by March 31, Trevor Noah was in trouble—and it was all because of Twitter.

Eagle-eyed Internet users with enough time on their hands to scroll through literally thousands of Noah’s tweets quickly discovered that the comedian has made many jokes at the expense of everyone from overweight women to Jewish children to the trans community. Outraged people immediately began demanding that Comedy Central fire Noah for the sexist and anti-Semitic rhetoric which has been a constant—if sporadic—presence on his Twitter account for six years now, but Comedy Central remained staunch in its commitment to Noah, and issued the following statement: 

Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.

But, of course, once an Internet backlash starts, it takes a while for it to quiet down, and in the meantime a vicious, snake-eating-its-own-tail cycle begins, where the offenders become the offended and everything becomes even more terrible than you’d previously thought possible and you seriously contemplate just staying away from all things digital forever because what’s even the point anymore anyway? After all, if we now live in a society where people can lose their jobs because of one terrible tweet, hadn’t we better reevaluate our collective compulsion to cast blame on those who make a momentary bad decision, and take a long hard look in the mirror at our own propensity to participate in Internet witch hunts? Who are we? The PC police? Isn’t this really all kind of our fault? Well. No.

There’s little doubt that the glee some people take in tearing down others online comes from places just as dark as the initial offense, and there’s little doubt that, sometimes, the backlash is unwarranted, and the punishment does not fit the crime. However, Trevor Noah’s offensive* jokes are not going to result in his dismissal from a role he hasn’t even inhabited yet. If anything, Noah is now in a stronger position because of how vociferously he’s being defended by people, most notably his fellow comedians.

Today on Fusion, five comedians participated in a roundtable in which they discussed the Trevor Noah case and the risks we take as a society when we decide to judge comedians (and, I guess, other people) for every little last thing they say. In the conversation, Jim Norton insists, “Comedians are going to always say things that upset some people. Instead of just being offended and getting on with their stupid lives, people like to behave like a jilted spouse and demand something be done.” Which, ok, Jim Norton, I guess the best defense is being as offensive as possible a good offense. But also, Norton has a point: The nature of comedy, of course, is to operate on the edges, and to try and shock the audience. Not infrequently this happens by trafficking in jokes that are designed to offend. And more and more now, with the advent of social media, these offensive jokes wind up finding an audience which refuses to be amused by jokes that seem to exist at the expense of marginalized groups, the jokes that punch down. In other words, while it once might have been par for the course for straight men to make rape jokes at will, now that “right” is questioned. But how is that actually a bad thing?

On Fusion, comedian Aamer Rahman says, “Twitter is terrifying… once a tweet is out there, and anyone misinterprets or is offended by it, the only viable course for you then is to apologize immediately – no one cares about what you meant, or what your intentions were.” But how can Twitter be terrifying if comedians know the risks they are taking? And could anyone even fairly say that Noah was taking a risk when he made jokes about Jewish women not liking to give oral sex? That kind of humor is actually the opposite of “risky;” it’s hackneyed and boring. It is also offensive, which makes it completely ok for people to voice their disapproval; that’s freedom of speech as well. The idea that political correctness is truly silencing some truth-speaking brigade is absurd—there should absolutely be accountability for people who traffic in offensive statements and actions. That’s not censorship—that’s personal responsibility.

In the Fusion roundtable, Aparna Nancherla asks, “Does the freedom of all speech mean one never needs to reflect on or even stop to reconsider anything one says? And what exactly do the Internet-termed ‘outrage’ crowd want in terms of concrete goals? If it’s just to start a conversation, who is that hurting? Besides the status quo? Social change doesn’t occur through pretending biases and power structures don’t exist in society.” And she’s absolutely right: Internet outrage doesn’t simply exist to tear people down—it also functions to give a voice to people who have long been oppressed. After all, which world would you rather live in, one where someone in power can tweet out an anti-Semitic joke and face no consequences, or one in which he is held accountable for his words? Even in the age of the Internet, people can make mistakes, it’s just that now, they might have to think of the consequences of their actions a little bit more. And that’s really not such a bad thing at all.

*Although, to me, Noah’s bigger offense was making dumb, hacky jokes that would be worrisome if The Daily Show was something that I cared about anymore, but it’s not—I still can’t forget that Rally to Restore Sanity debacle from 5 years ago. Never forget.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen