Many people have now watched the touching tribute giving by Billy Crystal to Robin Williams at the Emmy Awards ceremony (I actually detest awards shows and show the clip below after the controversy arose). It appears that there has been a torrent of criticism of one of the clips as racist. We have been discussing the rising limits on speech deemed racist or hateful, including cases brought against comedians (here and here). This controversy highlights the subjectivity over the meaning of such a joke in my view.
In the tribute below, Crystal shows a progression of clips from Williams’ brilliant career starting with his early appearance on the Tonight Show and going to some standup routines. The clips highlighted Williams’ ability to improvise, including one scene where he borrows a pink scarf from an audience member in the front row and wraps its round his head like a Hijab, or Islamic headscarf. He then says “I would like to welcome you to Iran . . . Help me!”
The response was outrage on social media sites which called both Williams and Crystal racists and the tribute “offensive” speech. One critic objected that “After that, people who’d never heard of Robin Williams would think he’s Billy Crystal’s racist friend who was on a lot of talk shows?” Others called for apologies and sanctions. While Williams did a brief accent of a women from Bombay, it was the use of the scarf as a veil that led to the posting of most of the objections.
However, the critics ignore the alternative meaning of the joke. I took the joke as less as statement on Islam generally as a statement on the treatment of women in Iran — a subject of continued discussion on this blog. Clearly many women choose to wear burkas and veils and they should have every right to do so. However, we have also discussed how women have been abused in Iran and other Muslim countries when they have tried to resist discriminatory rules and compelled clothing requirements. Comedians use such controversies as the grist for their comedic mills. The best comedians have an edge and a point of view. While to some the veil is a religious symbol, it is also to others a symbol of the plight of many women who want greater freedom from Sharia law and cultural/religious restrictions. There are many women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries who have fought bravely for equal rights. The veil is often a symbol of that political struggle, including the continued abuses by morality police against women in countries like Saudi Arabia. This includes the recent sentence of flogging for a women who insulted the morality police and the earlier tragedy of girls forced back into a building school because they were not wearing veils and appropriate coverings.
The greatest concern is that in some Western countries like France, England, and Canada, we are now seeing people criminally charged after complaints have been filed over speech deemed to be offensive by particularly groups or individuals. It is part of a growing threat to free speech that I have written about. For recent columns, click here and here and here and here. When (as we have seen) this crackdown starts to include even standup routines, we have reached an unnerving point in our treatment of free speech and expression. In addition to the prosecutions of such cases, there is the creation of a chilling effect on many who do not want to be accused and potentially charged. The result is a type of self-censorship.
To be honest, I do find some comedians to be incredibly offensive and not funny: I would put Andrew Dice Clay and Kathy Griffin among them. I have even objected to the airing of inappropriate sexual displays during Superbowl shows or New Year shows due to the audience. Indeed, as many have noted, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned (some would say prudish) about crude jokes and a thuggish conduct. However, these objections go further than folks saying that they disliked the joke and raise the question of whether some jokes should be labeled and sanctioned as hate speech or racist. Kathy Griffin simulating oral sex on Anderson Coopers is hardly a disagreement of interpretation. It is appropriate (though in my view still decidedly not funny) in some contests (like a comedy club) and not others (like a television audience with kids celebrating the New Year). The Williams clip controversy turns more on the content of the joke and its meaning.
The clip below can be seen by different people in different ways. However we appear to be losing our tolerance for different or opposing views — even in a comedic routine. The result is pressure to strip away controversial or edgy elements — leaving a type of vanilla flavored level of discourse in our society. The free speech community needs to do a better job in advancing the notion of tolerance for speech in a pluralistic society. It may require giving the benefit of the doubt to people like Williams or Crystal and just not laughing at a joke.
What do you think?