No joke: Why no one is laughing with the Rutland County GOP

Originally published in the Rutland Herald on July 18, 2012.

Rutland County GOP Chairman Rob Towle’s offensive Facebook post has become a national news story and sadly has brought the ugly, racially charged rhetoric currently at play in parts of the Republican Party home to Vermont.

While the post was eventually removed after commenters from all sides decried it as racist and offensive, Towle’s half-hearted non-apology only drew more criticism. By Tuesday, Towle found some better words and apologized in earnest for his “bad judgment,” calling the post “stupid and insensitive.”

Towle’s first apology.

Towle’s future as chairman for Rutland County remains uncertain. That is up to his party to decide. While the rest of us can fume over how boneheaded it was to post something so blatantly racist, we have to take Towle at his word: He screwed up. Is he a racist? Probably not. And while neither I nor anyone else can know what is in his heart, I want to believe him when he says he is not.

Just because you tell a racist joke does not mean you’re a racist. You may be out of touch or insensitive, but you’re not necessarily a racist.

“Comedy is usually based in reality,” Towle wrote, initially defending the post. “Call it racist if you must … Not too far off from the truth.”

However, the satire argument doesn’t hold up here. Satire points to and comments on a deeper truth through the use of humor, parody, irony and/or sarcasm. But the joke in question is not satire; it’s lazy. It lists tired stereotypes and adds no comment or gets to no deeper truth. What exactly is the punchline? Our president is black so he must like cornbread and fried chicken. Also, he might be a secret Muslim who wants to make us all speak Spanish. (Cue rimshot.)

(And let’s be clear right now: If you do not understand why cornbread and fried chicken are racist in this context, you are either lying to yourself or woefully ignorant.)

So is racial humor off limits? No.

Are the thought police coming for you? No.

Is free speech under attack? Of course not. And any assertion otherwise is just an insecure deflection.

But there is a difference between saying something hurtful and mean and saying something funny.

In a recent post on the women’s blog Jezebel, Lindy West addressed the recent controversy over comedian Daniel Tosh’s joking about rape during his act. Much has been said about the incident, but West (a female) sums it up well: You can joke about rape and other terrible things, but the humor should not come at the expense of the victims or the oppressed.

She writes, “The best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse. The key … is to be a responsible person when you construct your jokes.”

That’s the difference between, say, “The Daily Show” and that racist email your uncle forwards to you. One is well-constructed, intelligent satire, the other is a photo of President Obama altered to look like a monkey. (Spoiler alert: The joke posted on the RCGOP page falls into the monkey email category.)

The concern that people are being censored is bunk. West points out the painfully obvious: We censor ourselves all the time — in comedy and in our everyday lives. And if you are challenged for saying or posting something that someone else finds hurtful, being called out on it is not censorship; it’s feedback. The responsible and mature thing to do is to enter into respectful dialogue as to why you posted it and why someone else would be offended by it. The wrong tack is to double down, shift blame and play the victim — as Towle initially did.

Outside of comedy, our culture has now deemed it acceptable to say whatever we want and jump behind the First Amendment as if that magically excuses all accountability.

Remember, just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should. Finding a thoughtful, respectful way to express yourself is not censorship; it’s maturity. Honestly, if you can’t find a way to criticize President Obama without resorting to racist stereotypes, you’re not trying hard enough. And at this point, those who still find humor in Towle’s post expose themselves as juvenile, small-minded and ignorant.

Locally, the Rutland County GOP will get past this incident. While it is troubling that a member of party leadership posted the joke, no one should interpret it as representative of the party as a whole.

Former volunteer communications director for the RCGOP Courtney Mattison condemned the joke this week in the Herald, saying, “I want people to recognize that Republicans aren’t supportive of this.”

Mattison resigned in the wake of the incident, telling the Herald, “It really comes down to the fact that I can’t endorse divisive rhetoric from either party,” she said.

In an email to me on Sunday, Mattison expressed similar outrage over the joke, adding that it was a distraction and that “racially suggestive language has no place in the discussion.”

She is right. And the Republican Party, both locally and nationally, would do well to heed the advice of its younger members. Being under 30, Mattison is a millennial — a generational cohort the GOP desperately needs if it is to have a future. However, young people are not connecting with the party.

On issues of same-sex marriage and religion, the right is finding its message increasingly out of touch with young people. (It goes without saying that lazy racist humor is another area of divergence.) Indeed, a survey by Harvard puts Mitt Romney 17 points behind President Obama among young voters.

While some young people may identify with the core values of the GOP, bigoted attitudes among its older generations only succeed in driving that youthful energy away.

In Rutland County, where the GOP was once synonymous with names like Jeffords, Maynard, Ferraro and Wing — articulate, reasonable leaders of the community — the current leadership seems to have lost its way. A quick glance at the RCGOP’s Facebook page (before it was deactivated) provides much insight and reinforces Mattison’s point that rhetoric should not obfuscate issues.

Yet Mattison remains hopeful. “I think you’ll begin to see the reasonable right in Rutland emerge,” she told me. Let’s hope so — not just in Rutland but across the rest of the country as well.

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