Tosh Joke Controversy and Online Discussion

I want to take a meta-moment to talk about online discussions surrounding the Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy. While the incident itself is a bit fuzzy, due to differing accounts, there is some concensus: Daniel Tosh was doing stand up at the Los Angeles Laugh Factory, and made a comment about rape, to which a female audience member "heckled," stating that rape jokes were "never funny." Tosh responded by "joking" that it would be funny if she got raped at that very moment in the comedy club, and she responded by walking out and anonymously blogging about the incident -- causing an uproar over Tosh's performance. He apologized via twitter after the incident came to light.

While this is not the first controversy of its kind, or the first online flare-up in response to professional comics' comments, I think it's worthwhile to look at how online discussion affects how we understand comedy and conflicts. Though initial reactions via twitter and comments can be enlightening, they rarely allow for deeper understandings of a complex situation like this one -- and they usually devolve into ugly and uninformed commentary. Various celebrities and internet users have commented on the controversy, including beloved comic Louis C.K. Tosh's defenders point out that he should be able to talk about controversial topics onstage without being heckled or vilified, while others believe that while Tosh can say anything he wants onstage, that he must also be prepared to accept reactions and consequences. Others have been quick to point out that rape is more prevalent and more hurtful than comics (working in a male-dominated field) and our society have acknowledged in the past, and that rape jokes of most sorts alienate audience members in unanticipated ways. Although I am interested in the nuances of this comedy- and gender- based conflict, the online proliferation of the discussion seems to be particularly important.

In a world without the internet, this conflict would have died in the comedy club, and while trash talking online has proliferated, so have complex and interesting discussions that ask important questions about who has the right to speak, and about what topics. Importantly, online environments have also widened these discussions so that they include non-comedians, men and women, and so the conflict can be evaluated in ways that don't simply reflect one or two perspectives or professional codes. These online discussions about rape, comedy, and gendered environments are far more socially important than the minor incident that precipitated them. Here are just a few of the articles that take the issue apart, largely siding with neither party:

http://jezebel.com/5925186/how-to-make-a-rape-joke

http://austin.culturemap.com/newsdetail/07-12-12-14-37-the-best-response-weve-heard-to-daniel-toshs-misquoted-rape-jokes/

http://blogtown.portlandmercury.com/BlogtownPDX/archives/2012/07/13/portland-comedians-weigh-in-on-the-daniel-tosh-media-explosion-yeah-we-even-decided-to-ask-a-few-women

Untethered by he-said/she-said dynamics or reactionary attitudes that typically follow conflicts, many of these articles identify gaps in understanding that occur when disparate groups (and contextual expectations) interface, as they do both in comedy clubs and in online environments. Their authors point to the gendered dynamics of comedians' strict no-heckling rule, the nuanced consequences of free speech, and the logic of jokes (i.e. at whose expense are they made). Whether you agree with their arguments or not, I find it difficult not to be fascinated by the ways that interconnection online can widen discussions of conflict in quite productive ways.