There's a scene in "A Piece of Work," the 2010 documentary about comedian Joan Rivers, who died last week, in which she shoots down a heckler while performing in a casino in northern Wisconsin. In so doing, she effectively explains the purpose of humor in society.
After she delivers a throwaway joke about Helen Keller, a man in the audience shouts, "That's not funny if you have a deaf son!"
Rivers' eyes flash with a combination of anger and boredom. "Yes it is!" she bellows.
"Let me tell you what comedy is about," she continues. "Oh, please. You are so stupid! Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things!"
As I read the many tributes to Rivers over the last week, I often found myself thinking about that heckler in "A Piece of Work."
It's probably not even fair to call him a heckler; more likely he was just a humorless guy having a bad day. And Rivers seemed to know this. Later, in a "Fresh Air" interview, she said she sympathized with the man but ultimately had a responsibility to the rest of the audience. "It was a 4,000-seat house, and there were 3,999 people in the theater that I did not want to walk away not having a good time," she said.
That logic may seem obvious, but in today's culture of outrage, some version of that humorless Wisconsinite is lurking on every social media feed and every comment thread. He is railing against some vaguely offensive offhand comment a public figure made while a video camera was rolling. And it isn't just the Donald Sterlings and other worthy targets who draw his wrath. He is "calling out" celebrities for saying dumb things in interviews or on Twitter or for yelling at paparazzi or not picking up after their dogs. As you read this column, he is whipping himself up into a righteous frenzy over my use of "he" as an indefinite pronoun even though "they" is blatantly incorrect and "he or she" takes up too much space in a newspaper column and sounds incredibly awkward to boot.
And he will have a point. Moreover, he will have every right to make those points with as much umbrage and indignation as he likes. But guess what? The objects of his scorn have every right to ignore them.
The problem is, ignoring public outrage is very much out of favor these days. As a result, public mea culpas can often seem disproportionate to the offense committed. When Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson apologized Sunday for an email he had sent two years ago in which he discussed reasons that white fans might not be coming to games, he characterized his words as "inappropriate and offensive" and accused himself of suggesting that white fans are more valuable than black fans. He later announced that he was selling his interest in the team.
Granted, Levenson's email surfaced in the context of an already complicated racial dynamic in the NBA, and who knows, maybe there's worse yet to come. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quietly borrowed a page from Rivers' handbook when he wrote in Time magazine that valuing white fans over black ones "was not the message of the email at all" and that Levenson's "worst crime was white guilt." Without calling anyone stupid, he stood up to the humorless Wisconsinites in the scenario, who have been drubbing Levenson in social media. The Hawks' owner, he wrote, was not a racist but "a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats."
But when so many people are so busy looking for ways to be offended, reasonable questions aren't only pointless, they are threatening. The very act of questioning someone's outrage is often taken as act of aggression, one that just leads to further outrage. But whether we are talking about businessmen who don't exercise adequate diplomacy in (private, by the way) emails or abrasive comedians who have made an art of insulting people, the truth is that all of us have a little bit of Joan Rivers in us as well as a little bit of humorless Wisconsinite. We're all capable of offending as well as being offended. The key lies in knowing when to shut up.