Thoughts on Responsible Social Criticism (Response to PBS Idea Channel)

For a long time now I have been a huge supporter of the work done by Mike Rugnetta over on the Youtube Channel PBS Idea Channel. For anyone unaware of the series he generally takes thought provoking looks at debates surrounding pop culture and breaks them down in incredibly insightful and well presented ways. A big part of the show’s success is that following the publishing of each episode he digs into feedback and responses from viewers and assesses how aspects not touched upon in the video fit into the debate. With that said, their most recent video on responsible social critique convinced me to write my first response.

For me the part of this video that was of the most interest, and the part that managed to eloquently put across something I have struggled to explain to people for some time, is the inherent difference between expecting media to keep to a moral standard that is not harmful to viewers and censorship. Rugnetta nicely sums this up right near the beginning of the video by saying:

“I’m going to talk about how media can be hurtful. That is not the same thing as encouraging censorship. Expecting moral standards fro media creators is not the same as preventing them from creating or distributing media. Freedom of speech is not some magical incantation that allows you to say whatever you want free of consequence. Furthermore, when media is removed from a website because it violates community guidelines, that is not censorship. It is a perfectly common and legal practice supported by the terms of service that any user agrees to when signing up for basically any website, including YouTube. I get it, you don’t like it, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it censorship. You are not prevented from distributing that media in lots of other places”.

For the purposed of this post I will mainly be focusing on how this aspect of the video applies to humor, and specifically the fact that simply including depictions of generally accepted hurtful actions does not equate to responsible critique on the issue. In fact, the problem with a lot of humor targeted at minority groups for example is that by failing to provide any contextual critique of t act, it merely becomes a reproduction of said act.

Right, enough dancing around this. Today I want to dig into my issues with the recent trend in animated online humor of using the word Tranny as a punchline. Feel free to do further reading on specific examples I have touched upon in the past through the hyperlinks,  but my primary points of discussion here are the “Tranny Hole” arc in Doraleus and Associates and the recent tranny as a punchline use in Team Four Star’s DragonBall Z Abridged.

The key take away I had from Rugnetta’s video in reference to these specific instances of using a slur as a punchline is that they merely reproduce an act that is known to be wrong, without any follow up or consequence. Where reproduction of an act merely reinforces that it is an act that can happen, media becomes responsible critique when it follows that reproduction up with consequence or reaction to try and either stigmatize or eradicate them as an eventual end goal. As pointed out my Rugnetta this can be done in humor through sarcasm, irony, satire or multiple other methods. The important thing is that for it to go from a joke that makes a group a punchline through reproduction of current beliefs toward the group and change it instead into responsible social critique, it has to within the same piece of media show consequence or make some kind of comment about the action.

For the example of Tranny as a punchline it’s not enough to have the media use that slur as their punchline then critique it as a wall of text in a video description or some other outlet. The critique of Transphobia would have to come during and with the use of the slur, intertwining the critique or response in with the use of the slur. A great example that pulled this off was Faullero’s tackling of Transphobic attitudes in Dranganronpa Abridged. In that video he intertwines his critique of the source media in with his humor, meaning he manages to have a Transgender character as part of a comedy program, without it shying away from the inherent issues that come with trying to use that plotline as humor. Faullero here does not say that Transphobia is okay, then later retract that with a social message. Faullero critiques the topic instantly, not leaving any space of time where his work temporarily appears to portray negatives attitudes toward the minority subject group.

If you make a joke and only address it later, the time between the joke and you addressing it is a time where the effected group have to be surrounded by the belief that their own experiences of that act were deemed acceptable by the creator, which is harmful to viewers if only for a period of time.

Also, while hearing someone say Tranny does not cause other people to call Trans people Tranny, it does spread the message that using the slur is in some contexts either acceptable or even likely to cause amusement rather than cause harm. That’s a problem when you reproduce an act without critique, you set up boundaries where it can be perceived as the right thing to do.

Going to let Rugnetta sum this up again for me:

“Portraying a criticism free situation where harassment is shown to be okay or funny implicitly reinforces t idea that there exists out there in the word situations where that harassment is okay or funny”.

When I complain about certain examples of Tranny as a punchline I am not saying that you cannot have Trans people used as topics of humor, I’m certainly not calling for the topic to be an untouchable taboo for comedy. HOWEVER, I am pointing out that that vast majority of examples I could find of Trans based humor did not treat the topic or the slur responsibly. You have to make sure your audience laughs at something that is simultaneously made to be obviously reprehensible, something that is lost when you merely reproduce. The majority of Tranny as a punchline humor reproduces the act of laughing at the use of the word Tranny, but never attempts to frame doing so as inherently wrong, that to laugh at that word is something to be avoided in other contexts. It’s inherently contradictory which is why it’s so hard to make a Trans joke and to do so correctly and responsibly.

So ah, there’s my thoughts on this applied to Trans humor in long form rambling style. TLDR; Trans humor is not off the table, but you need to be a lot smarter about it. Most comedians attempting it currently are reinforcing negative stereotypes without any attempt to critique their humor internally in such a way that it in an almost contradictory manner makes you laugh, while also making it obvious that to laugh at it outside of that context would be wrong. Humor can be a great tool for advancing societal views of underrepresented groups, but attempts that fail to internally critique merely reproduce and reinforce negative attitudes. Also free speech doesn’t absolve you of consequence for your words and critique of poor humor and requests to make humor more socially responsible are not the same as censorship.

Whew, got that all off my chest eventually.