So it’s my first day in Chicago. I’ve landed and already picked up a middle aged Welsh guy as my new best friend. I’ve not eaten enough, I’ve been awake for 21 hours and I’m jetlagged like nobody’s business. I needed something to keep me awake for the evening and after going for a walk, buying the standard toiletries I forgot to bring (toothpaste. It’s always toothpaste) I decided the only smart thing to do was to find an open mic night in the city that is home to some of the greatest comedy stages on earth.
I read an article in time out that listed the top 10 open mic nights and I went along. It was pretty quiet, nothing too fancy and seemed fine for what I wanted – something light enough to occupy my brain and stop me from falling asleep and waking up at 5am the next day.
I did my set and it was fine but a couple of people after me there was a woman called Bridget who seemed to be in her late 30s, maybe early 40s. She did a set that made me feel really uncomfortable. She stood up and I promise, verbatim she said
“I hate the Jews. Don’t you just hate the Jews? They just celebrated 70 years of the holocaust. IT HAPPENED 70 YEARS AGO WHY CAN’T YOU JUST GET OVER IT ALREADY? They don’t shut up about it. And 70 years ago they keep going on about how 6 million of them were killed or whatever – that was ages ago! You’d think there’d be more of them already!”
Now this didn’t get laughs and there was a feeling of awkwardness in the room and she eventually asked “What? Why aren’t you laughing? Is one of you Jewish or something?”
So I replied saying, “I am.”
And she stared at me and said “What? Are you offended?”
I opened my mouth and said, “I’m not offended but I am disgusted.”
And she faltered for a second and then told me to get over it.
I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not. A woman was literally standing there saying how much she hated me, my family, my friends, my community…an entire race of people. I don’t know if there is a right way to respond to that. On the one hand, she’s entitled to her opinions, free speech exists for a reason and whether I agree with her or not is irrelevant. That’s the beauty of the free world.
But I don’t think it is OK to stand on a stage and declare your baseless hatred for a group of people and then mock the greatest tragedy in their recent history. I don’t think that’s acceptable. And it’s not because it’s offensive.
I recently discussed this with an academic whom I greatly admire – being offended is a total waste of time. It doesn’t make you seem more intelligent and it’s not a valid argument in a conversation. To be honest, it feels a bit pompous, like hot air and ruffled feathers. You have the right to be offended, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a lazy way of articulating a feeling of affront. I feel like people say that something is offensive when what they really mean is they think it’s wrong but don’t want to take the time to explain why. Something offensive might be said because someone is ignorant and don’t know better, or because they want a reaction for attention or because they just don’t care about anyone else. But getting offended doesn’t teach that person anything.
Bridget disgusted me but she didn’t offend me. I didn’t sit there thinking, “Well I absolutely never, how dare she?”
I sat there thinking “I wonder if she realizes that what she’s saying isn’t acceptable? I wonder if she’s thought about whether anyone in the audience is Jewish? I wonder if she cares. I wonder why she thinks these things about people she doesn’t know.”
I don’t have a generalized opinion about any group. I don’t presume to think I can cast a judgment on anyone like that. It doesn’t feel right to me. I can’t make my brain think like that. But some people appear to be completely filled with baseless dislike and hatred and more than anything that saddens me. Imagine what life must be like viewed through those eyes.
I also found that I’ve learned something from this experience. I’ve always wondered what shock comedians like Frankie Boyle are trying to prove. He seems to hate everything and everyone. He makes jokes about anything. But really that’s it – he makes jokes. They’re carefully crafted and they poke fun at things but it’s really just fun. This woman had no craft behind what she was saying. She hadn’t structured her thoughts to say something funny. The only actual joke in there was that she’d said “celebrated” instead of “commemorated” about the holocaust. She must have been so pleased with herself to come up with something so entirely intellectual.
I’m very lucky. I have rarely felt like I am in the presence of anti-Semitism. But last night, for one of the few times in my life, I really felt it. I think we in the UK on the comedy scene are incredibly lucky and we don’t even know it. I truly believe that if someone in London got up and baselessly said they hated a specific religious group or a nationality, not in a character or with any real joke to make, they would be asked to leave the stage. The comperes I am lucky to know and have experienced wouldn’t let it happen. I’ve seen a lot of comedy in London and in Edinburgh and it really doesn’t seem to happen.
So thanks Bridget. Your anti-Semitism didn’t offend me. Your anti-Semitism made me appreciate how lucky I am, how good I have it, how excellent the people I’m surrounded by are, and what it is that Frankie Boyle does. I am not offended by you. I pity you.