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How do atheists respond to the misogynistic comedy of fellow atheist Jim Jefferies?

April 6, 2015

It is Comedy Festival time in Melbourne, Australia (where I live) and so there is comedy in the air. I’m actually running a couple of comedy forums myself

I recently stumbled across this video of Australian comedian Jim Jefferies. I saw Jim Jefferies live at the Global Atheist Convention back in 2012 as a part of their comedy show on the Friday night. Jeffries made the same joke then.

To be honest I couldn’t quite believe he made the joke. I failed to laugh at the Global Atheist Convention and I failed to laugh now. He says, one of the reasons he couldn’t be gay was because he couldn’t ‘fxxk’ something he respected’.

Now I understand that the context is this is a joke, but I fail to see how this is funny (I am also staggered at the 465 likes on YouTube). In our modern egalitarian, anti-discrimination culture where we are developing anti-domestic violence campaigns and where religion is so often criticised as being misogynistic, I found it staggering to hear this joke.

It’s very clear that Jefferies is an atheist (and seemingly has the support of the Atheist Foundation of Australia who invited him to perform at the Global Atheist Convention and never issued an apology over his joke). Now I’m not trying to say that because Jefferies is an atheist he thinks like this. But it’s important to note that his atheism hasn’t stopped him from making the joke!

Hence my questions revolve around, how do Jefferies’ fellow atheists respond to Jefferies misogyny? Can atheists condemn his joke? I have a series of questions for atheists.

1. Should an atheist condemn him for misogyny? If so, on what basis? Why is your brand of atheism more morally acceptable than Jefferies? It’s unclear how that could be without resorting to some arbitrary rule.

2. Could a ‘well-being’ case be made against his joke? It’s hard to see how a utilitarian argument can be mounted against Jefferies because people laughed at the joke and it has a massively higher number of likes than dislikes on YouTube (on 120,000 views). It would almost seem that the utilitarian would suggest that his joke is a ‘good’ thing because of the enjoyment and laughter he has brought into the world. Hence the utilitarian would almost have to condone the joke.

3. Would Jefferies adopt the same stance if he were a Humanist? No, he could not according to the Humanist Manifesto of the American Humanist Association which is ‘critical of sexism or sexual chauvinism’ (I don’t know if Jefferies would ever call himself a Humanist, but if he is, he is a hypocrite!) If he isn’t a Humanist (which is probably likely), then how will he be convinced of becoming a Humanist? Who will call on him to repent and change his life? Do humanists evangelise in this way? According to their manifesto in Australia, humanists do not impose their views on others. Which creates a bizarre paradox, if a Humanist fails to live according to the dictates of Humanism, there is no mechanism within Humanism to call someone to ‘repent’ because no-one is allowed to impose their views on others. Moreover, what about the unrepentant atheists (like Jefferies)? Should Humanists seek to ‘convert’ them? Again how is this not imposing their view on others? Given this situation, it’s hard not to see Humanism as a fairly weak and arbitrary ethical system.

4. Should other atheists accept his view because morality is ultimately all subjective? If this is the case, then on what basis is religion (or anything) condemned for being ‘immoral’? In this view there is no right or wrong, misogyny cannot be condemned and no ultimate morality.

5. How is this consistent with Seth Andrews’ blithe assertion (in this presentation) that humans are all basically good? I cannot see how Jefferies blatantly (and unashamedly) misogynistic joke is consistent with the assertion that people ‘have the goodness’.

This is a very puzzling issue and I’m very keen to hear some responses. How should an atheist ‘rebuke’ Jefferies, if at all?

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7 Comments
  1. He does resonate with me, I would not personally put any of his ideas forward to the religious and expect them to change, I do on the other hand repeat and show his videos to fellow Atheists/Anti-theists and they generally find the humor..

    I do not think he ought be engaged in any other way than he intends, ie not seriously lol

  2. Lighten up. If society were not all panties in a twist over the things he talks about they wouldn’t be found funny by anyone. The fact is, he and other comedians highlight the things about society that are wrong and it is funny because we know it is wrong to be like that. The American show “All In The Family” with Carroll OConner did exactly the same thing. He played a horrible misogynist and bigot. By highlighting these bad behaviors in a humorous way he changed American society in some ways. His contribution to the world we live in today is huge and is directly due to his portrayal of a bigoted misogynist. Jefferies is continuing this tradition. Society needs this outlet.

  3. To briefly address your points:

    “1. Should an atheist condemn him for misogyny? If so, on what basis? Why is your brand of atheism more morally acceptable than Jefferies? It’s unclear how that could be without resorting to some arbitrary rule.”

    – Yes, we should condemn it on the basis of consequential morality. This is not arbitrary as it attempts examine and catalogue all the consequences of an action and measures the ratio of benefit to detriment. Ironically what seems to be arbitrary is assuming everything one character says and does is perfectly moral by definition.

    “2. Could a ‘well-being’ case be made against his joke?”

    – Yes, a well being case could be made against is jokes. People laughing at a joke or pressing a “like” button on a Youtube video only forms part of the consequences of Jim’s actions. You may want to include the myriad of negative consequences such statements have before you determine any conclusions. Utilitarian views consider all the consequences, not a subset as you suggest.

    “3. Would Jefferies adopt the same stance if he were a Humanist?”

    – Humanism and atheism are compatible, so i am not sure why you are dividing them into two mutually exclusive camps.

    “Given this situation, it’s hard not to see Humanism as a fairly weak and arbitrary ethical system.”

    – Placing human considerations at the centre of our concerns is a weak ethical system because it does not seek to forcefully impose its views on others?

    “4. Should other atheists accept his view because morality is ultimately all subjective?”

    – Subjective, by definition, means it comes from a mind – even the mind of a god. Consequentialism draws on an objective empirical view of reality to draw conclusions about the consequences of people’s actions.

    “If this is the case, then on what basis is religion (or anything) condemned for being ‘immoral’? In this view there is no right or wrong, misogyny cannot be condemned and no ultimate morality.”

    – The Bible contains many misogynistic verses. Is this the kind of “ultimate morality” you are referring to?

    “5. How is this consistent with Seth Andrews’ blithe assertion (in this presentation) that humans are all basically good? I cannot see how Jefferies blatantly (and unashamedly) misogynistic joke is consistent with the assertion that people ‘have the goodness’.”

    – One case of a person acting badly in one situation (to make people laugh) does not undermine the statement that all people are basically good.

    • Andrew. I appreciate your comments and questions, great to have your thoughts. Responding to them.

      1. How do you measure the impact of misogyny? What measures do you use and how do you come to the conclusion that it is detrimental? Keen to hear your thoughts on that.

      2. Agreed that utilitarian views must consider all views, but what do we consider as the alternative metrics to measure against? A strong case could be made from a utilitarian perspective that misogyny is good based on the enjoyment and laughs created (and YouTube likes). Is utilitarianism a kill-joy?

      3. I’m dividing the two into two camps because many atheists seem to divide them into two camps. Is that unwarranted? I thought you can be an atheist but not a humanist. i.e. one has a clearly articulated moral framework (a humanist) and one doesn’t. That was how I was dividing them – is that illigitimate?

      I’m also not quite sure what your point is about placing human considerations at the centre and imposing views on others.

      4. It’s true that subjective comes from the mind, it also implies that morality is not binding – i.e. I cannot impose my view on others. The problems with drawing an ‘objective’ view of reality as you propose (which seems similar to Sam Harris’ moral landscape) is that it depends so much on the assumptions you use – what things are more valuable? Laughter, offense, or domestic violence and how can we measure the combination of these in any real objective way? Some atheists assert that without God there is no ultimate ground for morality – it is just the ‘will of man’ (to paraphrase Sartre).

      Which verses in the Bible are explicitly ‘misogynistic’ i.e. woman hating. Do the Scriptures say as Jefferies says, ‘I hate women’? I realise that there are some Bible verses which demonstrate differences between men and women, but I’m unsure that these could be understood as misogynistic.

      5. “One case of a person acting badly in one situation (to make people laugh) does not undermine the statement that all people are basically good.” How come? This is a curious admission – are you suggesting that the context of making someone laugh is somewhow different to other contexts? Hence is this somehow suggesting that misogyny in the context of a joke is somehow better than in other contexts?

      Thanks for engaging with the substance of my article and offering some answers. I’d be very keen to hear your responses. Hope you’re going well anyway – it was nice to meet you at the Unholy Trinity.

      Rob

  4. Michael Wells permalink

    The profound mistake in your reasoning is assuming that an entertainer’s statements during a performance are his actual beliefs. A writer might write a novel that includes a character who is racist. That does not mean that the writer of the novel is racist. A comedian’s jokes are no different.

    • Thanks for the comments Michael. Appreciate them. I agree with your sentiment, although there are some topics for which the comments made are so sensitive and so provocative that the jokes are just inappropriate (regardless if the person believes them or not). If the subject were say, ‘bashing gay people, or killing Jewish people in gas chambers’, would that be appropriate humour – even if the person saying them were just joking? I just don’t think that there is an appropriate forum for misogynistic humour ever. Do you think that there’s a place where it would be appropriate?

      Thanks for the comments.

      • Arctic-Hunter permalink

        “If the subject were say, ‘bashing gay people, or killing Jewish people in gas chambers’, would that be appropriate humour – even if the person saying them were just joking? ”

        Well, I could enjoy comedy with such topics. I have even laughed at racists slurs threw at me because they were genuinely funny. I get this type of comedy is not tasteful for you at all, it could also make someone feel offended, but that doesn’t make it non-comedy. It’s just a really black humour and somewhere, someone enjoys it.

        For example I think I could never find gay porn enjoyable, some people might find it offensive and I would definitely never allow a 5y old to watch it. Still I would never qualify it of being lesser porn or to be banned or to say that there is no place for it in society.

        I know you might say “gay porn is not pernicious, misogynist humour is”. But that is not the case either, misogynist actions and morals are pernicious, comedy is not. I suggest you to check dead baby humour. Everyone knows killing babies is wrong, the absurdity of the statement is what lights the humour in this case. Dead baby jokes have never caused children to perish nor have affected the minds of anyone or turned them in baby killers.

        PS: Sorry for necro-posting I am aware this was written in early 2015

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