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Jokes, Fights And Controversy In A Frictionless Void

Fer Gregory

There's a saying about lawyers in court, which is that you never ask a question you don't know the answer to. I'm going to warn you now that this is not court, and that at the heart of this piece are a bunch of questions I don't know the answers to.

Imagine a conversation about a point of public interest as playing with pucks on an air hockey table, but with the rail around the table removed. (If you've never watched air hockey, it looks like this.) There's effectively no friction, and there's effectively nothing that keeps the pucks on the table rather than letting them fly off in whatever direction. That's how controversy often feels when it pops up on Twitter.

As you may suspect, we are indeed here in part because of Trevor Noah, but not to reargue the specific case of these jokes. All you need to know for these purposes is this: BuzzFeed followed the conversation about his appointment to succeed Jon Stewart at The Daily Show and found some people pointing to some jokes he made on Twitter to which they took offense, some of which went back to 2009 and some of which are from the last year. BuzzFeed framed this as reporting on an existing conversation, not starting it themselves — their headline starts "People Are Mad...."

What's come out of observing this entire deluge is a clear demonstration of that alarming fact that there's no friction and no way for stories like this to come to a natural stop the way they should as soon as they should. The puck moves faster, the reactions get faster, and people apply more force in every direction. There's no boundary that we bump up against that encourages deceleration, where something has even the opportunity to be publicly dismissed with either, "Welp, those jokes are pretty unfortunate, and I hope that's not what his version of this show is going to be like" or "eh, those jokes don't bother me." The only natural stopping point is the inevitability of people becoming consumed with something else in exactly the same dysfunctional way, which isn't very comforting.

It's vexing. All that the people BuzzFeed originally quoted were doing was looking at jokes a suddenly famous comedian had made in public and having opinions about those jokes. And all that BuzzFeed was doing was pointing to tweets that already existed. And all that everyone who followed after BuzzFeed was doing was weighing in on an existing controversy. And all that the comedians who have framed this as an attack on comedy are doing is reacting to what they clearly genuinely believe is an existential threat. I personally think almost everyone who is angry about this is now more angry about things that have happened since they read about this than they were when they first read about it.

I don't know what I think would have been the right resting place for the puck in this case, but I do believe it wound up off the table and on the floor.

Here's the question I don't know the answer to: Where is it possible to introduce friction — or, in fact, any kind of controlled deceleration — into this system?

The puck

One way, of course, is to try to get everyone who could possibly be the subject of controversy to live as if they will one day be subjected to a confirmation hearing. It's one way to go, but it's a good way to make sure everything you hear from anyone is calculated, vetted and probably written by public relations professionals. So it's safe to say: large downside.

The first push

Every story like this starts with the first people who notice something. Twitter — but it's not just Twitter, it's also YouTube clips and everything else that leaves a trail — invites this. People hear a name, they're curious, and they look. Or in some cases, people hear a name, they want the attention that comes with being the first to discover something, and they look.

The problem with asking for the slowdown to come from the originators is twofold. First, regular people notice good things, but they also notice problems, and that's salutary in many, many cases. Second, you will never achieve this. Asking people in the age of social media not to say "hey, here's a thing" because the consequences might get out of hand is very close to asking the phenomenon of social media to un-happen.

Still, we wind up having a lot of our arguments here: Why is anyone offended? People are so easily offended. Why can't you just not be offended? Why can't you have a sense of humor? But those questions all miss the facts that people can rarely be talked (not to mention hollered) out of their reactions to something like comedy, and that even without denying them those responses, there are ways to put friction back into the system and to slow everything down a little.

The accelerants

There are two kinds of accelerants in a case like this: the unofficial and the official.

The unofficial accelerant is, technically speaking, anyone who socially multiplies the reach of what the originators have found. But really, it's those people with large followings who are capable of taking something that originated with an egg avatar and suddenly make it famous. Some of them are celebrities, some of them are writers, some of them are just regular people who happen to have large audiences. In our air hockey example, they are people who apply extra force, who keep the thing going, who make it go faster. And often, they're people who don't know exactly what direction it's going to go in and may not even realize that they're joining with others who are giving little nudges at the same moment.

The official accelerant is the media organization that picks up the story, either from the originator or from someone who's already boosting it, and boosts it more. This is what happens when "people are saying/arguing/claiming" becomes news. This is BuzzFeed in this case, but it's just about every other outlet that covers entertainment, too. BuzzFeed didn't even have the option of using a light touch in nudging this story along, of course — they're BuzzFeed. Any force they apply is great force, or at least potentially great force.

The problem with laying this at the feet of these folks is that asking people not to tell anyone that something is happening because of the consequences of the information itself being shared is pretty troubling. "Don't tell people this; they won't know how to keep it in perspective" is a complicated, complicated principle in journalism.

It is, however, fair to ask both official and unofficial accelerants to act with caution and to understand that this is the role they potentially play in a story like this. Everything said about the "controversy" can be double-checked so that you're not adding anything to it that isn't already there.

Furthermore, it's really important to learn to distinguish a controversy that's prominent from a conversation that exists. Here's an experiment: do a Twitter search for the name of a prominent female celebrity of childbearing age and the word "pregnant." You will learn that for every actress or singer who is not believed to be pregnant, there is often an equal and opposite rumor that she is, in fact, pregnant. It would be insanity to pluck a series of these tweets and write something saying, "Twitter Discusses Whether [So-And-So] Is Pregnant. IS SHE?" That's taking a puck that's essentially stationary and firing it directly at the side of the table as hard as you can. Most conversations you can imagine are being had somewhere at any moment you want to go look for them, so the fact that there are some people who think some lady is pregnant isn't a story called "What If She's Pregnant?" but a story called "It Must Be Thursday."

The floor

If you know the puck is going to fly off the table, it's possible that in the end, the only solution is to make the floor softer. In other words: if we know that once these things get started, they're extremely hard to stop, maybe the only solution is to rethink not the discovery of information or the classification of it as regrettable but the consequences. The same goes for dumb comments in interviews or stupid tweets by companies: This happened; it's gross; so what?

One of the points comics have made in the last couple of days is that lots of comics have regrettable jokes in their repertoires. Perhaps most; perhaps almost all. Not necessarily ones like this, but ones that, given the chance, they wouldn't make again. Unfortunately, the way this usually gets communicated is with sarcastic anger, as if the fact that everyone makes mistakes makes even the raising of an eyebrow at those mistakes monstrous and unfair.

But there's a different way to go about that, which is to shift the conversation so that rather than going around and around about "these jokes are/aren't offensive because [DISCUSSION GOES HERE]," or "you have no right to discuss whether these jokes are offensive because [DISCUSSION GOES HERE]," you get through to "these jokes understandably are off-putting to a certain number of reasonable people, which is true of a lot of performers' back catalogs because performers try things and humans are fallible, and so [DISCUSSION GOES HERE]." What consequences did the people who originally were bringing these jokes to light really call for? What did anybody call for? What if the entire answer is "and so ... that's unfortunate," and that's both legitimate and sufficient?

It's a method that problem-solvers might call (edited to add: in a model used in lots of settings) getting to the so-what and the now-what instead of spending all our time on just the what. "People need to be able to do an unfortunate thing, have people notice it and take reasonable exception to it, and survive" isn't a desirable state of media (or social media) ethics or etiquette; it's a desirable state of public empathy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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