The Schumer Dilemma: At What Point Will Comedians Stop Responding to Social Critics?

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For those who missed the latest speck of Internet outrage, The Guardian ran a Sunday feature on comedian Amy Schumer that accused her of having “a shockingly large blind spot around race.” The author, Monica Heisey, took Schumer to task for racial jokes that have “no apparent larger point,” and listed a few examples, most of which involved the Latino community.

Schumer responded on Twitter that morning, explaining that she occasionally plays a dumb character who says dumb things, and that her fans should trust that her intentions are good and that she is, in fact, not racist. She concluded by asserting that she wouldn’t abandon her act for “safe comedy,” and that the critics should “move on to the next person who is more deserving of your scrutiny.”

I don’t want to spend much time on whether Schumer is guilty of racism, but nor do I want to avoid it: I believe she’s innocent. I completely buy her explanation, because there is a long history of comedians adopting a persona to say things that are controversial or otherwise incendiary. I believe that the performer who makes racial jokes in Amy Schumer’s act is not the same as Amy Schumer. I think people who conflate the two are making five of the same mistakes we see over and over:

1. An inability to distinguish between art that deals with controversial opinions, perhaps even adopting them in the service of a greater message, and the controversial opinion itself.

2. An urge toward censorship of any controversial material, regardless of the meaning behind the work.

3. The belief that a comedian should never create any sort of art with a subtle or ambiguous message, lest it be misinterpreted (satire is particularly troublesome to this type of critic).

4. The belief that humor’s main goal is not to evoke laughter, but to reinforce liberal (or conservative, depending on the critic) values.

5. The belief that the tone and message of art should be controlled by the audience, rather than the artist.

The classic example of this mindset is the absurd #CancelColbert “controversy,” drummed up by a Twitter activist in response to a satirical tweet from Comedy Central’s Colbert account, which was itself derived from a stereotypical Asian character Colbert played in order to point out the actual racist intent behind the Washington Redskins nickname. The length of the previous sentence is a testament to how muddled the issue became, and how quickly Colbert’s intent was lost in the maelstrom of manufactured outrage—and how little it mattered in the first place. Among the angry hordes, there was no search for meaning, and what the episode really proved was how much temporary power could be gained in leading a left-wing charge. It made great fodder for think pieces, and was covered by entertainment outlets in the neutral tones that creates a false equivalency—both sides have a point! Suey Park, the activist behind the movement, became a flash Internet celebrity, and anyone hoping to take a position against the wave of anger found the going a bit tough—if you stand opposite somebody screaming “racist,” the counterattack is easy: You’re a racist too. Twitter, like television, lacks nuance, and there’s no quick way to dig out of that particular hole.

That’s far from the only example—Patton Oswalt has raged for years against the social justice warriors, and it seems like a new controversy foams up every week. The Schumer episode is just the latest, but it’s also one of the most surprising, since the feminist brand of comedy she’s adopted on her Comedy Central sketch show has made her a sort of Internet icon over the past two years. But maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise—as we saw with Colbert and Oswalt, it’s often the most liberal comics who face the biggest backlash. You could argue that the social critics expect the most of these people, but it feels to me like the critics go a step farther and co-opt these entertainers. In their minds, they begin to feel an ownership of them, along with a sense of entitlement, as if they can dictate the content. So that, when the comedian deviates from the strict set of values the critic has established in his or her head, the outraged reaction is more intense because it feels like a personal betrayal. They’ve lost touch with the idea that the comedian is a separate person, with separate ideas, and the extent to which the two life philosophies align is circumstance, not a binding contract lasting into perpetuity.

During the Iraq war, in the heart of the Bush years, any artist who protested was immediately met with cries of “stick to music! Stick to comedy!” by conservatives who felt offended by their politics. Like Schumer’s critics, those fans also believed that they owned the artist in some way, and could control what they said in public. And though the social justice warriors approach censorship from a different angle, the impulse is the same.

The good news is that these instances of backlash seem to yield diminishing returns. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, but each new attack appears to gain less traction, and to be greeted with a combination of disdain and fatigue from those who are a bit less hysterical in disposition. Time seems to be undermining their influence. The question is, how can the comedian hasten the process and help the fire burn out, rather than adding fuel?

Schumer’s response on Twitter was not a successful strategy. Her argument made sense to someone like me, but then again, I could have made the same argument on my own—I didn’t need an explanation on how comedy works, and I’d be willing to bet most of her fans didn’t either. We understand the intention. For those who came in angry, the response could only stoke the flames—the “I am not a racist” argument has never been an effective response to charges of racism, even when it’s true. Furthermore, there were undoubtedly many ho were entirely unaware of the so-called controversy before Schumer’s tweet. By drawing attention to it, all she did was to widen the circle of knowledge, which is never helpful.

But here’s the deeper truth: We live in a society of polarized viewpoints, and have for at least a decade. The act of changing your mind is seen as a greater weakness than being wrong and stubbornly sticking to your guns. Schumer was never going to alter any opinions, no matter how eloquent her response—and hers wasn’t particularly eloquent, simply straightforward. The entrenched enemies were always going to stay entrenched, and to believe otherwise was naive.

The rash of reactions-to-the-reaction prove the point. This example will stand in for all the others—the author calls it “disheartening,” and argues that her stand-up “never looks beyond the joke.” Never mind that many comedians would question the need to “look beyond the joke,” since the joke is very often the point—as it is in those sketches of Schumer’s which jive with the uber-liberal mindset. To argue that there’s a separation between the joke and the commentary is to make the joke subsidiary, which devalues comedy. In fact, the two are inextricable. What these critics really want is for the comedy to fall in lockstep with their personal opinions—therein lies the difference. Where the comedy fails to soothe them, they invent reasons to call it problematic, when the truth is they simply felt uncomfortable with the art.

“This just goes to show that the best conversations start with acknowledgment,” the article concludes, drawing a hugely spurious analogy to Lena Dunham, who once responded to criticism about racial blindness in 2012 by creating a one-dimensional black character that made very little impact on an otherwise excellent show. Dunham continues to get skewered today on the same issue, with the same vicious arguments, despite whatever capitulations she made. Dunham is, in fact, one of the most hated artists among the apparatchiks of the Internet outrage machine. Changing her art in an attempt to soothe some of that rage had absolutely no positive effect, and in fact gave power to a group of people who should have had none.

Let’s be direct: For comedians like Duham, Schumer, Colbert, and Oswalt, acknowledgement is a serious mistake. To engage with this reactionary world is to lower themselves into a morass that is inescapable. It also signals a lack of trust in their own art, such that they would be influenced by people without their talent or vision—where’s the backbone? More importantly, though, the social justice warriors can never be appeased. You will not win them over with concessions, because like all kinds of historical extremists, they will not act in good faith to meet you on common ground. Instead, they will take the victory and look for the next concession, the next advance. Worse, you’ll be fighting on their turf, on their terms.

There is only one solution: Ignore them. No matter how badly you want to defend yourself, resist, because their only power comes from the response. Constructive criticism should be taken to heart, and can even be incorporated into future endeavors, but this process should take place privately. Publicly, never respond and never engage, and soon you’ll find them deprived of even meager influence. There are too many critics in the current milieu with destructive impulses—opening up to them endangers both the art and the artist, and shows a lack of mettle. Let them blather on, unrecognized, until, like a schoolyard bully, the absence of attention drives them to a sullen silence.