The new Joker movie doesn't hit theaters until Thursday, but it's already proving controversial. Joaquin Phoenix's version of the legendary Batman arch-nemesis is a frustrated, psychologically disturbed white man, akin to an incel or a mass shooter. Vanity Fair wondered if the film will be treated as "propaganda for the very men it pathologizes." A mother of a victim of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting called the movie a "slap in the face" that could encourage the next James Holmes. The U.S. military circulated a memo warning servicemen about Joker-inspired violence.
Now the director of that film, Todd Phillips, is getting dragged on social media for pointing out something that rings true to me: Cancel culture has made it more difficult for comedians to engage in thoughtful provocation, especially if it offends progressive sensibilities.
"Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture," Phillips told Vanity Fair. "There were articles written about why comedies don't work anymore—I'll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, 'Fuck this shit, because I don't want to offend you.' It's hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can't do it, right? So you just go, 'I'm out.' I'm out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they're irreverent. So I go, 'How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let's take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.' And so that's really where that came from."
Phillips is essentially raising the same issue as Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and a host of other comedians. They all worry that the social media shame mobs are a negative trend, and give power to those who believe it's never okay to make light of subjects that are sacred to the political left—and that offenders should be shunned, silenced, and fired.
It's true that invectives against cancel culture are often too broad. Sometimes, people who complain about being canceled are actually just complaining about being criticized. Sometimes, the supposedly canceled actually profit from the controversy. On this basis, The New Republic's Osita Nwanevu has declared cancel culture a "con." (For a good rebuttal, read Jesse Singal here.)
Cancel culture is sometimes a con. Other times, it's very real. Ask Nimesh Patel, whose perfectly benign comedy routine was ended mid-act at Columbia because of absurd student complaints. Ask Aziz Ansari, who had to spend a year hiding from the spotlight after being lazily smeared by a now-defunct gossip site. Ask Kyle Kashuv, who managed to make enemies on both the far-left and the far-right, and was jointly canceled by both.
These are examples that come to mind because they involve famous people, but plenty of average folks can land themselves in circumstances where they are viciously attacked (and often do not stand to profit from those attacks in the same way that Chappelle can). The Carson King debacle—in which the canceler quickly becomes the canceled—should at the very least be counted as proof that this phenomenon is in some sense real.
For more on this subject, read The Stranger's Katie Herzog.