06/10/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Guys, We Can Counter Rape Culture

It is eerie, watching the shots of the audience. You never see anyone just plain laughing, as if they'd heard something that was funny. You see, instead, behavior more appropriate at a fascist rally, as his fans stick their fists in the air and chant his name as if he were making some kind of statement for them. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he is giving voice to their rage, fear, prejudice and hatred. They seem to cheer him because he is getting away with expressing the sick thoughts they don't dare to say.

-Roger Ebert on the film Dice Rules.

I have to keep writing about this. Even as a not-so-serious person, I feel I've got to. As a wise-ass comedian who cringes when men call themselves "feminists," I still feel I must. Because I'm a dude. Because there is a culture. Because there aren't enough dudes writing about it. Because this: "If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?"

In the article above, writer Lindy West discussed her debate with comedy vet Jim Norton about rape jokes and the abuse she's received for... her audacity...?

That term "rape culture" was one that used to bounce off my head. I didn't understand it and I really didn't want to try. The words sound so disparate; an ugly combo used to make me feel bad about my penis. But let's give it a try, guys. And it might help us if we look at another disambiguation of the word "culture." The microbial definition, the verb form: "to promote or improve the growth of."

There was a series of books in the 80s called "Truly Tasteless Jokes." They were categorized by ethnicity. I used to read it as a kid (okay, a teenager), and, honestly, a lot of them were funny. But there was always with them a feeling of unease, that the author and I were getting away with some duplicity. Same thing when my friends would tell these jokes and we'd guiltily guffaw with each other. I'm a white guy. We're all white guys. But my best friend in grade school was a black kid named Mohammed. I was conscious of the question: could he hurt me as much as these jokes could hurt him?

As boys, we all laughed at and said things we didn't actually find funny but we all felt we had to contribute to the fraternal weal. Back to the lab: the common way that scientists encourage the growth of pure cultures like yeast is to isolate them. That's more or less what men do when they enjoy entertainment -- they isolate themselves amongst each other and look for a catalyst. I thought and still think that Andrew Dice Clay is a funny person. But he was also a catalyst encouraging the growth of something vile and he must have known it.

"There's always waves of comedy. Right now we're in a rape comedy wave," said W. Kamau Bell who hosted the debate that triggered the online abuse West has endured. Why this wave? Why are men feeling so empowered to ride it?

"Denials of rape culture always stem from a place of anxiety regarding loss of privilege," wrote my comedienne friend Katrin Hier on her Facebook page. "These anxieties are being tested... I'll be glad to look back at this time as being part of a cultural shift and to tell my children: I was there when some gals dared to speak out and critizize normalized misogyny."

Comics don't take well to being told they're misogynist and yet they love being told that they're offensive. Some comics believe that the great edgy comedians were great because of their disregard for the feelings of the crowd -- that they offended and that's what made them great. And yet, I've never known a truly funny joke that actually offended more than 2 percent of the audience. If someone knows of one, acquaint me with it. Yet when rape-joke comics discover that a good portion of the crowd has reacted negatively to their material, they either dismiss it or use it as a sort of corroboration of their importance. I don't doubt that Bruce or Hicks or Carlin ever said really offensive jokes, but why can't we remember them?

Is it possible that your rape material isn't actually as funny as you think? Are all those women who react badly to these jokes wrong? Do you think that the only ones who are offended are the ones who have blogs?

Ebert used the word "fascism" again later in the decade referring to political correctness. He called it "the facism of the 90s." And that's often the cry of defensive comedians: We're not PC! But there's a huge difference between PC in art and PC in conversation. Ah, but stand-up comedy is an art, no? Yes. But it is the one art form that most straddles the line between art and conversation. It is the one art form that engages eye-to-eye and whose purpose is to elicit a very particular reaction. The problem is that that particular reaction is not always real. Often it's a tool to cover up nervousness, fear, hostility, camaraderie. Sometimes comics don't know the difference. But more often they do and they don't care.

A colleague once defined political correctness in two words: "being polite." That's really all it is, when you think about it. What is politeness but measuring your words, using and not using words that may mean little to you, as a consideration for someone else's feelings? Yes, I know, comics aren't polite. But that's style. You can be impolite in style and be enlightening in substance, unless your purpose is simply to offend.

"You can't disarm that word," comedian Marc Maron said in his conversation with Kamau Bell and Dwayne Kennedy about white comics using racially inappropriate terms. "Just because you all of a sudden found the freedom to say it to shock somebody does not mean that word doesn't mean what it means." And that's the question for the privileged class: Do you need to be convinced that certain words, used in certain ways, make someone feel bad? Does the word need to affect you the way it does them for you to be somewhat considerate? And most importantly: If a man of a certain ethnicity apprises you of his offense, do you value his umbrage over that of a woman's?

That's the disregard that signals to guys that abuse is all good. Sure, it's relative to different people. Of course you can't survey your audience to find out who's irked by what words. Most women don't blanche at the word "bitch," and in fact it's almost a playful term of affection for them. So is the woman who is offended by that word an uptight prig? Maybe. Or maybe... Maybe that's what she was called by her abusive father. Or maybe that's the word she heard when she was being assaulted. It's not wrong not to know that, but it is wrong not to care.

I agree with Jim Norton in one sense: Comics should be given some leeway if their intent is indeed to be funny. If they try, allow them to fail. But there is a difference between joking about a subject and joking at a subject. And it's the joking at someone, like Daniel Tosh did, the way rape jokes often are, that encourages the culture of victimization. You're a catalyst, eliciting a vocal response, not to your ideas but to your actions. A rape joke where you are the victor is an act, and boys mimic actions. If you want to joke about rape, and no one is saying it can't be done, try having a point of view about it, because you can be sure that more than half your audience does.