Joan Rivers is in a bit of a fracas with Jennifer Lawrence, a conflict of the entertainment-industry sort that would typically hold little interest for me — but she did enter my bailiwick by touching on a couple of my favorite subjects: religion and feminist values. From the Huffington Post account:
[Lawrence] has been candid about her refusal to lose weight for roles, her distaste for dieting, and willingness to admit when she’s been photoshopped – yet Rivers seems to think her campaign is nothing but an act.
“I love that she’s telling everyone how wrong it is to worry about retouching and body image, and meanwhile, she has been touched up more than a choir boy at the Vatican,” Rivers told the Post. “Look at her posters. She doesn’t have a nose, she has two holes. She just has to learn, don’t talk if you’re doing it.”
Question: Will Rivers get a lot of flak for her vicious comments about a great institution? By which I mean, of course, Jennifer Lawrence; we can take for granted that she’ll get a pass on what she said about the Vatican.
Many years ago I was talking with our friend David Pryce-Jones about a British writer who managed to say all sorts of outrageous things — but nonetheless failed to draw the ire of the political-correctness police. “How does he get away with it?” I asked. To which David responded: “Oh, he wears an honorary cap and bells.” That is to say: He is a court-jester type, who serves an important role as a social safety valve. He can hint at things it’s impolite for the ordinary person to mention.
Joan Rivers is an heir to this tradition; so is Triumph the Insult-Comic Dog. But note that this exemption from the PC rules does not apply to the typical mainstream comedian. A few days ago Steve Martin apologized for a joke he tweeted: When someone on Twitter asked him, “Is this how you spell lasonia?” Martin tweeted in response, “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?” The joke was quickly labeled “racist,” and Martin deleted it and apologized profusely. Martin is a talented man with no history (that I have heard about) of racial prejudice, but people leaped to the least charitable possible interpretation of his joke: that he was engaging in cruel mockery of an ethnic group. As somebody who occasionally reads comboxes on various political websites, believe me, I know what real racism sounds like, and this ain’t it: Martin’s joke was pure social observation with not a hint of malice. It’s no more racist in its essence than the old transcription of the national anthem as “José can you see . . .” Somebody could quote it and add a racist spin to it — but the racism is not inherent, and I see zero evidence that the original speaker intended it.
I think there should be a broader issuance of the honorary cap and bells, because if decent folks have to engage in a great deal of self-censorship, the voices of actual haters will only end up occupying a greater amount of the public square. (I don’t think even the haters should be banned or silenced — I’m something of a First Amendment absolutist. The solution to false and harmful speech is not silence but true and good speech.)