Do a Google search for “Daniel Tosh rape joke” and you’ll get at least 6,190,000 results, as of this morning. The now-infamous July 6 show at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles where the comedian exchanged remarks with a heckler about rape jokes has not only drawn comments from fellow stand-up comics like Dane Cook, Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K., but also cultural critics like Elissa Bassist (The Daily Beast), Alyssa Rosenberg (Think Progress), Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC) and Jessica Valenti (The Nation), plus an avalanche of discussion on Twitter. So what was the kick-off for all of the chest-thumping, pontificating, anger, ranting and name-calling?
The post went up around July 10 and promptly went viral; it detailed a young woman’s story about how Tosh said it might be funny “if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” The resulting backlash led Tosh to issue an apology via Twitter: “all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize.” Then, Jamie Masada, the owner of The Laugh Factory, told BuzzFeed that the girl’s story was all wrong, yet acknowledging that “I really didn’t hear properly.”
And that’s it. That’s all we have. One story from an anonymous woman as told to her friend, a tepid apology from the comedian in question, and a brief rebuttal from the club owner who notes his faulty hearing. We have no transcript of the routine, no video of the performance, no commentary from anyone else in the audience that night and no identity for the primary source of the story. Based on this scant evidence, millions of words have been written, hackles have been raised about sexism and misogyny, and a viral news story was born.
I personally don’t find Daniel Tosh funny; I think his humor is obvious, shallow and trite. I myself was raped as a child, and have no interest in preserving rape as a generally acceptable topic for comedy (though, as Valenti points out, it can be). But there is simply not enough information to warrant the media firestorm that has ensued. No one has stepped up to confirm the woman’s story; ironically, so many rape prosecutions also fall apart due to a lack of facts – making the whole incident still another indication of how people do, and do not, talk about sexual violence against women in our culture.
We live in a reactionary media world where people shoot first and ask questions later, but just as journalists have to corroborate facts and have their stories fact-checked, we should ask the same of questions about stories written by bloggers before we use them as the basis for a tirade. I’m not saying the girl is a liar, or that Tosh is a tasteful individual and there’s no way he would say something so outrageous. Discussions about free speech, cultural boundaries and the way women are treated and represented are almost always valid and worthwhile. But they have to be grounded. This is one conversation that is not grounded in facts, and we have to keep this in perspective. Healthy skepticism has always been a bedrock for media literacy, and we’d all do well to remember that the next time a story like this crops up – which it will.