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David Morrison and Patton Oswalt: Two Guys We Want at the Table

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David Morrison, Australia’s Army Chief, and Patton Oswalt, Comedian and Entertainer, are my Heroes of the Week. Here’s Why:

Situation #1: Sexual Assault in the Military.

Reaction #1: The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. The Armed Services Committee has been in the news a lot lately for two reasons: their first hearing of the year, on our military’s sexual assault crisis, and the number of women on the committee (7 out of 26, which is a record high). Many of the female committee members, including Senators Claire McKaskill (D-MO) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY), have been making headlines for their tough questions and demands for better policies. Their deep concern is warranted, considering last month’s release of the Pentagon’s disturbing survey results, and the release of the powerful  documentary The Invisible War, both of which focus on sexual assault in the military.

Senator Gillibrand proposed a measure that would have removed the current requirements for internal military rape reporting. Currently, if someone is raped by another military personnel and reports it, then his or her commanding officer makes the decision about whether or not to try the accused person (a person he or she knows and works with, which is a bias that has led to massive under-reporting). Senator Gillibrand proposed to take the decision of whether or not to prosecute the accused out of the chain of command and allow it to be handled by a military prosecutor. This would have empowered the victim, the person for whom the statistics show needs the most empowerment. Isn’t that great? Of course! Did the measure pass? Of course not.

Senator Gillibrand’s measure was replaced by one, written by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), that requires senior military officers to review the commander’s decision of whether or not to prosecute the accused rapist. While Senator Levin’s measure, which passed (the vote didn’t happen along gender or party lines, and Gillibrand will bring her measure up again in front of the full Senate, so there is some hope), is an improvement upon the current reporting procedures, it still keeps the problem internal. Sexual assault is not only terrifyingly prevalent and under-reported in the military, but it is also ignored and hidden by the chain of command. This internal audit is not a solution. Those who supported Senator Levin’s measure did so because they claimed it empowered the military chain of command. But the military chain of command has been a huge part of the problem. We don’t need to empower the chain of command; we need to empower the VICTIM. My blood pressure is rising just writing that sentence, so let’s move on to some good news.

Reaction #2: Australia’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison. This week, the Australian army was rocked by its own scandal, when 17 military members, including high-ranking officers, came under investigation for allegedly creating and disseminating emails, videos, and images that are degrading to women. These men, who coined themselves the “Jedi Council” (clearly understanding nothing about the code of the Jedis), videotaped themselves having sex with women who didn’t consent to or even know about the filming, and then sent the videos around to one another on email. Three of the “Jedi Council” have already been suspended and the rest are under investigation.

This is not unlike scenarios that have happened in the U.S. military, but the U.S. doesn’t have Lieutenant General David Morrison. Yesterday, a clearly infuriated Morrison released a blistering video, in which he tells anyone who will not respect the military’s brothers and sisters equally to “Get Out.” There are so many amazing moments in this video that you need to watch it (again, if you’ve already seen it):

This is what we need more of in the U.S. I hope our military and our political leaders are watching this and taking note. I have watched the video at least three times and while much of it is stirring, I deeply appreciate his call for bystanders and observers to “show moral courage and take a stand against it.” It’s a call for all of us to stand up and do our part.

And here’s where an Australian Lieutenant General links to an American comedian (you were wondering how that would happen, weren’t you?).

Situation #2: Rape Jokes

The background to this story is a bit lengthy, and since this post is already lengthy (I’m an academic and I’m trying for brevity, really!), I’m going to let you read the background yourself, should you desire it. The short version is that Daniel Tosh, a standup comedian about whom I know nothing apart from this story, started telling a rape joke at an open mike event. A female audience member yelled out “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Tosh’s response was to joke about how funny it would be if the female audience member was raped by five guys at that moment. The audience laughed along with Tosh’s über-smart and not-contributing-to rape-culture-at-all response, and the female audience member left the show. Hilarious comeback, isn’t it?

Tosh came under fire for his clearly inappropriate response to the woman (he issued a public apology later), but a lot of his supporters defended him under the guise of free speech, arguing that stand-up comedians should be allowed to joke about anything, and he was just joking, and she was heckling him, and blah blah blah. For the record, I don’t do stand-up comedy and don’t see a lot of it, although I like it. Tig Notaro is someone I want to see (and have at my imaginary amazing-people dinner party), and I hope to do a post about her at some point (read up on her amazing show last year here and search out the hilarious footage of her recent appearance on Conan – you won’t be sorry you spent those minutes on her).

And I am a fan of Patton Oswalt for many reasons.

Patton Oswalt

But today I fell in love with the guy (hyperbole seems appropriate here). I appreciated   the entire post on his blog (which also deals with originality and heckling in extremely informative ways) but his last section, entitled Rape Jokes, is an incredible, well-written and well-reasoned take down of the “but rape jokes are hilarious” argument. Oswalt has been a comedian for a long time and his approach to this, from inside the comedy world, is one I can appreciate and respect. For one, he differentiates between what Tosh did  in responding off the cuff to a “heckler” at an open mike event and a fully written thought out joke.

Oswalt mentions that everyone should know you don’t heckle the comedian during the joke set-up, as many master comedians start out a joke sounding like it will be deeply offensive, but turning it around on the offender at the end (jokes that start out sounding racist or homophobic or sexist can often turn out to be anti-racist, anti-homphobic, or anti-sexist). In Tosh’s case, it doesn’t appear that he often heads the other direction when making rape jokes, but Oswalt has a great point. He also, in his earlier section, takes down the argument that comedians love hecklers. They don’t. Now, the woman at the Tosh show wasn’t intending to be a heckler; she was genuinely alarmed that Tosh seemed to be setting up a pro-rape joke and responded with concern, but again, Oswalt makes a good point. Wait until the punch line and then you can get pissed off.

Oswalt then goes on to walk through his previously held belief that rape, along with any other sensitive topics, is fine to joke about. Before someone jumps on this, I want to differentiate this. As Oswalt discusses on his blog post, NO ONE has said that you can’t joke about these subjects. He believes that all subjects can be funny and that’s true. But turn the joke away from the victim. It’s lazy and unimaginative and only contributes to rape culture to make the joke about the victim. Oswalt writes, “In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.”

Oswalt also walks the reader through his transformation, from someone who thought that pro-rape jokes don’t contribute to rape culture (since most comedians who make pro-rape jokes aren’t actually rapists or wanna-be rapists) to someone who believes that rape jokes that make the punchline about the victim are not only hackneyed, but also part of the problem. He writes: “And just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness on stage in a comedy club.”

THANK YOU, Patton Oswalt, for being an ally, an amazing comedian, and an incredible man. You made this week, and you make this world, better.

And, to make your week, and world, better, here’s a video of Oswalt on Parks and Recreation, improvising for nearly 10 minutes about his ideal plot for the new Star Wars movie:


2 responses »

  1. I would love to see this become a regular category of “Guys We Want at the Table” – what a great idea! Especially in terms of the discussion of allies and friends, I think it’s critical to engage with smart, thoughtful men.


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