Daniel Tosh, Concepts, and Categories

The insane misogynists who have invaded Alyssa’s comment section to defend Daniel Tosh’s right to tell women it’d be funny if they were gang-raped (a right that only exists as a limit on government action and does not actually seem to be in question here but whatever) make a variety of stupid points, perhaps the dumbest of which is the following:

1. Some say rape jokes aren’t funny.

2. Comedian X told Joke Y about rape which is funny.

3. People who say rape jokes aren’t funny are wrong.

There are so many things wrong this it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, Alyssa has never said that rape jokes can’t be funny and has written as much. For another, the statement that a certain joke or category of joke is or isn’t funny (or that a food is/isn’t delicious, a novel/song/film is/isn’t good) isn’t a proposition capable of being true or false, it’s an expression of an attitude. People who say this about ethics are wrong, because statements have to be truth-capable to have normative force, but it seems clearly correct about aesthetic judgment. Parfit in On What Matters is great on this point:

It is sometimes claimed that we have reasons to enjoy, or be thrilled or in other ways moved by, great artistic works. In many cases, I believe, this claim is false. We can have reasons to want to enjoy, or be thrilled or moved by, these artistic works. But these are not reasons to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these works. We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express. But poetry is what gets lost in the translation, even if this translation expresses the same ideas. And we never have reasons to enjoy, or be moved by, great music. If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvelous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason. Modulations to distant keys are like the herbs, spices, or other ingredients that can make food delicious. When someone neither enjoys nor is moved by some great musical work, this person is not in any way less than fully rational, by failing to respond to certain reasons. In comparing music with food in this way, I am not belittling music, ranking it below novels, plays, or poems. Music is at least as great as the other arts. Without music, Nietszche plausibly (though falsely) said, life would be an error. But music is also the lost battlefield and graveyard of most general aesthetic theories.

So the jerks in the comments say “Wishing date rape upon people is hilarious!” and I say “No it isn’t!” and we’re at an impasse, because we’re not actually saying things that can be right or wrong, we’re expressing our emotional reactions to a certain stimulus. I happen to think that particular stimulus is dangerous for non-aesthetic reasons, but that’s a separate matter. Neither of us is right in the sense that their judgment that the joke was funny has any normative weight. It doesn’t mean that I ought to make myself find the joke funny. It’s not clear what that would even mean.

But the particularly startling thing about this response is the idea that everyday concepts are clearly demarcated categories such that general statements about them can be refuted with a single counterexample. When people say “rape jokes aren’t funny” or even – as the woman upon whom Tosh wished date rape said – “rape jokes are never funny,” they don’t actually mean “there exist no jokes that concern the subject of rape that I find humorous”. Similarly, when I say “Goldfish are shaped like fish” it does not constitute a refutation to point out that some are shaped like basketballs.

The term “rape joke” does not refer to every joke about rape every told, it refers to the concept of a rape joke that exists in the mind of the people talking about it, the same way “Goldfish” does not refer to every cracker Pepperidge Farm has ever marketed as such but to what we think of when we think of a Goldfish. And what we’re talking about when we’re talking about rape jokes is not this Ever Mainard bit or this Always Sunny scene. We’re talking about jokes that make women who are violently assaulted by men the target of ridicule. That’s just the meaning the term has taken on, for better or worse. So when people make statements about that term, treating it like a rigidly defined category, as Alyssa’s commenters have, is preposterous.