Cognitive Dissonance: A Response to Arguments Defending Daniel Tosh for Making Rape Jokes

by: Miriam Mogilevsky

Some comedian I’ve never even heard of before–but now have–is under fire right now for a “joke” he made in one of his shows. I use the word “joke” (just as I will use the word “humor”) broadly here.

In the words of a woman who attended a show by comedian Daniel Tosh, this is what happened:

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didn’t appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

[...]After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

So, what we have here is a (male) comedian insisting that rape jokes are funny (in itself a barely defensible position), getting called out for it by a female audience member, and insisting that it would be “funny” if she got gang-raped.

Naturally, Tosh made a typical non-apology:

Credit: Feministing

I just love how he claims, as usual, that his comments were taken “out of context.” Is there any context in which, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” is an acceptable thing to say?

While I’m pretty sure that most decent people would see this “humor” for the crap that it is, a number of online conversations I’ve had the misfortune of having over the past few days suggest otherwise. For the record, almost every single person who has defended Tosh in this situation is 1) a man, and 2) someone who admitted to having previously watched and enjoyed Tosh’s show. So something tells me that there’s a little bit of “But I like this guy and I need to convince everyone that I’m still a good person!” psychological trickery going on here. In technical parlance, we call that “cognitive dissonance,” and it helps explain why some people defend assholes like Tosh so rabidly.

Here are some Actual Arguments that I’ve seen.

But humor relies on offensive jokes!

Now, that’s just false. My favorite comedians, such as Jon Stewart and Tina Fey, may make fun of people, but they don’t need to try to crack jokes about rape to be “funny.” And, as I’ll discuss later, there are different ways to be offensive.

But that’s just his Thing!

Um, so…get a new Thing, then? If you need to remind people of some of the most terrible things they’ve ever experienced in order to earn a living, you might want to consider getting a different career. Just sayin’.

But joking about terrible things makes it easier to get past them!

Why don’t you ask the survivors of said terrible things? Most rape survivors would disagree with you. Also, while there are definitely ways to incorporate sexual assault into a comedy routine that are sensitive and useful (this Jezebel article covers that quite well), joking about the gang-rape of an audience member is emphatically not one of those ways.


Words cannot describe how tired I am of this argument. Anyone who makes it lacks even the most basic understanding of our Constitution. All the First Amendment means in this context is that the government can’t restrict Tosh’s right to include offensive material in his routines. It can’t censor videos of his routines, it can’t impose any fines or penalties on him for doing his routines, it can’t make it illegal to joke about rape, and so on.

But that’s it. The rest of us can still speak out when someone says something terrible. A company that employs that person or syndicates that person’s material can still fire the person or stop syndicating the material.

Yes, you have a constitutional right to be an asshole. But why, why must you exercise it?

But people should know what they’re getting into if they’re going to his show!

Well, that sounds awfully victim-blamey, doesn’t it? Should women also “know what they’re getting into” if they go to a bar alone? Should people going to prison “know what they’re getting into” if they get sexually assaulted there?

First of all, this isn’t always practical. The woman in question here was going to see a show that included several comedians, some of whom she knew of and others that she did not. It’s unreasonable to ask everyone going to a comedy show to research the comedian’s entire oeuvre to make sure that it’s free of rape jokes.

Second, Tosh has a show on Comedy Central. One of my friends pointed out that it’s often playing at the gym when she goes. Should she just avoid the gym, then? Should she call every gym she’s considering going to ahead of time to make sure that none of their TVs are currently playing Tosh’s show?

Third, jokes about rape have an effect that goes far beyond their potential to trigger and terrify an individual audience member. I’ll quote Melissa McEwan from Shakesville, complete with links to relevant pieces on her blog: “Rape jokes are not funny. They potentially trigger survivors, and they uphold the rape culture. They tacitly convey approval of rape to rapists, who do not appreciate “rape irony.” There is no neutral in rape culture, and jokes that diminish or normalize rape empower rapists. Rape jokes are pro-rape.

But other Comedy Central shows are offensive too! Why focus on this one?

This argument generally refers to South Park, which is well-known for being offensive. But there are different kinds of offensive. South Park, for the most part, is “offensive” because it covers taboo subjects and uses strong language. Such things can be shocking and unpleasant if you’re not expecting them, but they’re not outright prejudiced and harmful. And in fact, this type of “offensive” material can actually break down stigmas and encourage more openness around these subjects, which is great.

Joking about rape, as I mentioned above, is different from joking about religion or bodily functions or sex. It’s not merely “offensive,” it’s actually harmful to individuals and to society as a whole.

But she “heckled” him!

Am I to assume that interrupting a comedian’s show makes one deserving of rape?

First of all, as this woman makes clear in her blog post, we have a responsibility to speak out when something isn’t right. Could she have waited till afterwards? Sure. Could she have written Tosh a nice, polite, friendly letter that never made it past his secretary? Sure. But she wanted to be heard, and she had the right to be.

Second, even assuming that she was acting improperly (not something you’d ever accuse a man of, is it?), that still doesn’t make it okay to announce in front of an audience how “funny” it would be if she were gang-raped. I honestly have trouble believing that there are really people who would justify Tosh’s behavior this way, but I saw them with my own eyes on Facebook earlier this afternoon.

But Nobody Cares™! That’s Just How Things Are™! Nothing Will Ever Change™!

Comments like these create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people care, the faster things will change. Because they’re already changing. If you’re not interested in helping, bugger off while the rest of us change things.

But he said he’s sorry!

First of all, no, he really didn’t. He said, “All of the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” Out of context? Misquotes? Honey, stop. Here’s what should be a primer on how to actually apologize for something you’ve publicly said.

Second, even if he had made a genuine-sounding apology, I don’t understand this requirement that we have in our culture to accept any and all apologies and then never speak of the Matter again. What if I don’t accept your apology? What if the words “I’m sorry” are simply not sufficient to make up for what you did?

Nobody owes forgiveness to anyone, and even if Tosh had actually apologized, that doesn’t mean we should stop analyzing his words and making sure that others understand why he was wrong. You don’t get to be like, “Yeah well I said I was sorry so why can’t you just get over it already!” Sorry, nope.

But you’re just taking it too personally!

Congratulations, you’ve now completely failed at being a decent person. Yes, there is such a thing as taking an insult too personally. If a comedian made a joke about brunettes or writers or psychology majors or other such mundane groups that I belong to, and I exploded at him, then yes, I would probably be “taking it too personally.”

But sexual assault is not something that can be “taken too personally.” It is personal. It’s personal even if you haven’t personally experienced it, because I guarantee you that someone you care about has.

It’s personal because a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault is still questioned about what she was wearing at the time. It’s personal because a man who accuses a woman of sexual assault is still laughed at and considered less of a man. It’s personal because a man who accuses a man of sexual assault is still called a f*****. It’s personal, people.

Perhaps there will come a day when sexual assault is treated exactly the same as other crimes. When it does not disproportionally affect women, people of color, young people, poor people, and others who are already marginalized. When we can all agree that there’s nothing anyone can do to “ask” for rape.

Perhaps when that day comes, it’ll be possible to joke about sexual assault and wonder how it could ever have been that people didn’t treat it seriously.

But I doubt it.

Miriam Mogilevsky is a senior at Northwestern University. In a year she will graduate with a degree in psychology and pursue a career that involves asking people about their feelings. She enjoys reading and writing about social justice, politics, culture, sexuality, and mental health. For this purpose, she has a blog, a Tumblr, and a Twitter.

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6 responses to “Cognitive Dissonance: A Response to Arguments Defending Daniel Tosh for Making Rape Jokes

  1. I think the more interesting point would be why sexual crimes are put on a different level than other crimes. Is it not the result of a patriarchal culture? If he joked about someone getting beat up, it wouldn’t have had the same effect, would it? Still violent, still a crime, yet there would be no outcry.
    If a serial killer targets prostitutes through Craig’s List, the conservative wing of society jumps out to tell us the problem is prostitution. If another serial killer targeted real-estate agents through Craig’s List, I doubt those same people would suggest real estate ads be suppressed from that publication.

  2. I think part of it falls to why people watch his shows.
    People like to be shocked, they like to be slightly offended so long as they don’t feel it’s “Serious”.
    This causes a bit of a disconnect when you have a serious offense, from someone who skirts the line so often. The Cognitive Dissonance you mentioned before fits right in. They want it to be okay for them to still laugh at his other material.
    People also hate discussing things that make them uncomfortable.

    It’s a lose-lose all around.
    Great Article :)

  3. I agree that his joke was inappropriate at best, and I don’t believe that the fact that he is a shock comedian completely justifies him, although it does shed light unto his motives. At the same time, I don’t see his joke as being motivated by a pro-rape ideology or anything like that. What I do think is that females do not have a monopoly on rape, that many men are raped every day, and that the likelihood of a male having been raped is not as far off from the likelihood of a female having been raped as people think. As a male who has been raped, and as a male who is familiar with rape statistics in male prisons, I just don’t feel that this issue is akin to, say a sexist, homophobic or racist issue. I don’t believe there is a right answer regarding how people should be reacting, because no one is on the right side of the issue. And sure, I’ve argued with females who claim that the naturality with which rape males is portrayed in media is our own damn fault, I have just never in my life seen someone step up and defend males who are raped in prison, male or female. With that in mind, I don’t think that the feminist point of view in this issue is hypocritical, just that it is biased. For instance, the Jezebel article that supposed that all males had thoughts of rape and that we simply longed for a legitimacy of it to rape. Which is a very offensive claim. Some have even offered analogies regarding how it would feel for us in a situation that affected males as much as it affects females. Well, see that’s where the fault in that lies, in that we too are harassed and that we too are raped, and no one really seems to mind that nearly as much. And sure, this is where you can claim that it happens more to females, well, it barely does. Now the next step is to talk about how most male on female rape is more aggressive, violent and intrusive. Well, not always. The cognitive dissonance here I think lies in that the issue is not as clear as anyone wants to think. In my personal opinion and in accordance to my taste, I like it when people try to take away an absolutist perspective from something, which is not to say that rape should stop being seen as an absolute bad (although it’s not ie i hope you end up in prison from your crimes and drop the soap type of expressions that are not that rare), but that the idea that it cannot be talked about outside designated places and in designated tones should not exist.

  4. A) How would you explain the fact that nearly comedian that has commented on this incident, – both male and female – has defended Tosh?

    Ex. Here’s a tweet from FEMALE comic Chelsea Peretti:

    B) I would contend that if you hadn’t previously heard of Tosh – undoubtedly one of the most famous and recognizable comedians in the US for the past few year – you’re probably not fit to be critiquing comedy. Oh, and by probably not fit, I actually mean NO FUCKING WAY ARE YOU FIT!

  5. One more quick thing: I don’t have a problem with Tosh’s joke, because I think it’s obvious that he doesn’t ACTUALLY support the raping of females, as opposed to an incident such as Michael Richards’, where it was pretty clear that his tirade was influenced by ACTUAL racism that he felt.

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