Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dear "Community"

Note for gendered slur in quotation and the mentions of rape, rape culture, racism, abuse, and apologia:
If we don't treat him like such a dick, well, he'll probably still be one 98% of the time, but the 2% he's tolerable, it might be worth it.  -Jeff Winger, "Community" (episode 4.7, "Economics of Marine Biology")
Dear "Community",

In a recent episode, you had your show's hero espouse two ideas:

1.) Nasty, bigoted people are nasty and bigoted because we expect them to be and treat them poorly.

2.) If someone's tolerable 2% of the time, it makes up for the 98% he's terrible.

The first is ridiculous, and I frankly don't feel like entertaining it.

The second immediately raised my hackles, though, so let's discuss!

The character under discussion was Pierce Hawthorne, a one-man bigot parade who says cruel, hateful things about every marginalized population he can think of, wears blackface, and never met a stereotype he didn't like.  I wouldn't call him a gendered slur, as Jeff does, but I would call him a lot of other things.

The premise, then, is that even if someone is a bigoted oppression machine a majority of the time, if he's marginally tolerable once in a while, it's "worth it."  We should put up with someone's vile, oppressive antics because he's occasionally tolerable.  The joy of someone acting like a decent human being 2% of the time is so significant that we should gloss over and accept the 98% of the time he's a harmful jackass who belittles, mocks, and insults everyone around him.

Yeah, I'm going to have to disagree.

There are a lot of people who would agree, however.  This is a familiar, beloved concept to them.  They're the ones who say, "Well, sure, he did something absolutely atrocious, but he's a great guy!  You can't hold it against him!"

The ones who say, when a friend makes a video mocking homeless people, trans people, and addicts, "My friends are good people," as if that makes everything okay again, because how can anyone be disgusted by his actions and demand an apology and think that there's anything wrong when he's a friend, a good person, someone we certainly can't accuse of being hurtful and ask to re-examine his behavior.

The ones who say, when someone's accused of rape, "But he's on our side!  It can't really be that serious!  He's one of us!"  Because if you're a whistle-blower, that automatically cancels out any harm you might cause elsewhere.

The ones who say, when someone's accused of rape and molestation and sexual assault, "But he's a role model!  He helps underprivileged kids!  He started a foundation!"  Because if you've ever helped kids, that automatically outweighs any harm you can do to those same kids or any others.

The ones who weigh "rape" against "important cinema" and decide that movies win.

The ones who weigh "felony assault" against "music I can dance to" and decide that music wins.

The ones who weigh "gang rape" against "promising football career" and decides that football wins.

I could go on, but I'd go on forever.  It's everywhere, it's all around us.  Sure, your boss made some inappropriate jokes during the meeting, but he's a great guy, you can't hold it against him.  Sure, your brother-in-law made some insensitive comments at dinner, but he's a good guy, he didn't mean it.  We have to let it go, we have to understand, we have to accept, we have to forgive, because if anyone is funny or inventive or entertaining or meets the bare minimum of human decency once in a lifetime, that good outweighs the harm of sexual assault, of a rape joke, of a history of racist comments.

Whatever the people around you deem good enough to hit that 2% tolerable bar cancels out bad behavior.  Renders it null and void.  They'll tell you that you're wrong to be angry, you're wrong to be disgusted, you're wrong to hold his crimes against him, because he's a good guy the rest of the time!  He contributes important things to the cause!  He makes great art!  He's funny!  He's entertaining!  Don't you know that he gives to charity?!


No, I will not put up with the 98% to bask in the 2%.  No, I will not excuse rape and sexual assault because I love a good football game.  No, I will not excuse nasty, harmful jokes and bigoted comments because the rest of the jokes are hilarious.

We all fuck up in one way or another.  We all say and do hurtful things over the course of time.  It's okay to point out those things.  It's good to hold us responsible.  You're not doing anyone any favors by excusing foul behavior; you're just ensuring that it'll keep happening.  It's when we point this stuff out and examine it and push each other to do better next time that we become better people.  If we make excuses and cover it up and say "it's okay because he means well," what's going to stop him from doing it again?  What's going to stop everyone else from learning that it's okay to make racist jokes if you're generally a friendly person, and it's okay to make rape jokes if you're popular, and it's okay to rape someone if you're good at something people deem valuable?

There's no magical calculator that deducts 15 points for sexual assault, awards 20 points for donating to Greenpeace, and decides that you come out ahead.

When you reward someone for that 2% and say that it makes the 98% "worth it," you're telling everyone who's harmed by the 98% that their lasting pain is meaningless and your fleeting enjoyment is everything.  You're telling them that Pierce Hawthorne is special and important, and the hurt he causes is outweighed by the positive contributions he makes, and the harm he does to them is just the price they have to pay so that the rest of us can enjoy the star in our midst.

It all boils down to: Look, I know that he beats you, but he does a lot of important stuff otherwise, okay?  So shut up and take it, because his genius is worth more than your pain, and if we start holding him responsible for his actions we might not get any more great stuff out of him, and things might get unpleasant.  You're just going to have to take one for the team.

Here's a radical notion.  How about we hold people responsible for their behavior?  How about we put away our magical calculators and admit that the bad things people do cause genuine hurt that isn't washed away by their occasional decency?  How about we admit, as a society, that one individual is capable of both good things and bad things?  "But he's such a good guy" is not a defense.  It only means that he, like everyone else, is a complex human being capable of multiple behaviors.  It only means that he acted like a good guy around you.  It only means that he treated you well, not that he treats everyone well.  It only means that you ignored the evidence and waved away the testimony because it made you uncomfortable, and there's nothing people with privilege hate more than being made to feel uncomfortable.

Jeff Winger: Pierce may be an atrocious douche 98% of the time, but 2% of the time, he makes me feel all sunny and warm inside!
Me: Not to change the subject or anything, but did you hear about the rape-joke dickwolves nonsense?
Jeff Winger: But those guys founded a charity!
Me: Not to change the subject or anything, but did you hear about those college guys who raped that woman?
Jeff Winger: But they were athletes!  Their team was doing so well!  We had a shot at the championship this year!

I don't care about how warm and sunny Jeff Winger feels; I care about the people who feel like crap every time Pierce spews his vile stereotypes.  I don't care about the charity because the charity is not the point under discussion; I care about the perpetuation of rape culture.  I don't care about a team's win-loss record, I care about the woman who's just been raped.

I wish that were the sitcom lesson-of-the-week.

I wish that were everyone's reality.

With love,
Frank Lee


  1. When I heard about this episode (haven't watched yet), I assumed that saying someone who's 2% nice and 98% asshole is redeemed by the 2% was an example of exaggerating the idea that peoples' bad deeds are erased by the good to the point where its problematic nature is obvious.

    In other words, exaggerating to make the reverse point through sarcasm.

    Did the actual portrayal convince you they were "playing it straight" and actually for-real endorsing the behavior?

    1. Did the actual portrayal convince you they were "playing it straight" and actually for-real endorsing the behavior?"

      Yes, it did, and that's what struck me so much about the moment. It seemed very genuine and not at all ironic, both to me and the person watching with me.