Trevor Noah’s Offensive Tweets Should Be an Opportunity for Learning — Not Outrage

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Yesterday Trevor Noah was named the new host of The Daily Show, following in Jon Stewart’s very big and very obviously Jewish footsteps, and the Internet cautiously applauded the choice of a young, biracial South African. But by today, Comedy Central had to release a statement in his defense.

Last night, bloggers combed through the relatively unknown comedian’s long Twitter timeline, and what they found was not good. There were a trove of (mostly three- to six-year-old) facile jokes about women and Jews. These one-liners, particularly the older ones, reeked of stale prejudice and thoughtlessness, even if, to my eyes, they were mostly dull clichés and possibly meant to be tongue-in-cheek. (Sometimes tone is hard to discern on the Internet!)

In another time, of course, these lame LOLs would be lost to posterity, exorcised in grubby standup routines than no one recorded, save with a giant shrug: “Comedian makes dumb, offensive jokes: breaking news at five!”

But we’re living at an interesting moment for the convergence of rapid-fire Internet outrage culture and discussion of appropriate jokes — where is the fabled line, we ask frequently on rape jokes, on Jewish humor-laced New Yorker pieces, on anti-racist segments that use racist stereotypes to make their point? Meanwhile, our social media accounts leave a long and very mixed treasure trail of ill-conceived thoughts. Let he who has not tweeted stupidly cast the first stone.

So heady and mixed up are the layers of anger and suspicion around these issues that it leads to some interesting results. Comedy Central issued a non-apology asking us to withhold judgement, using the expected language: “Noah pushes boundaries.” Yet this morning I saw many people who aggressively tried to get Stephen Colbert fired for his racial insensitivity urging patience and good faith in the case of Trevor Noah. Conversely, plenty of white (and presumably white and Jewish) comedy fanboys who defended Stephen Colbert from the so-called mob of “PC hordes” are piling on against Noah, since Stewart is a modern Jewish hero of sorts and Noah’s Jewish jokes are a particular source of attention.

At the same time, conservative media pounced upon what they saw as hypocrisy from the progressive sphere — whether it’s Stewart, who loves using politicians’ old statements against them, or the social justice Internet community, which indeed may be more willing to give newbie POC comedians a pass than it is to grant said pass to powerful white men in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, leftists fires back, asking such questions as: if TV gives current, consistent Islamophobes like Bill Maher a platform, why all the ire directed at Noah?

But in between the “they’re just jokes, leave the dude alone” camp and the “this injustice [of old tweets!] cannot stand, #cancelthedailyshow” camp lies a vast and nuanced middle ground. And by treading thoughtfully across that ground, I hope we can treat the yecchy stuff in Noah’s old tweets with the moderate level of condemnation it deserves. And then we can return to our business, making the rather obvious assumption that he has evolved, and will evolve further. After all, he’s about to have a seasoned team behind him at Comedy Central, along with the spotlight settling on him permanently.

And perhaps in the past few hours, as the thinkpieces have piled up, Noah has already learned an important truth about being in the American spotlight in 2015; jokes about “identity,” whether it’s size, ability, race, gender, or sexuality, now bring a level of scrutiny that they once did not. And while that can be tiresome for those of us who sit by the gears of the outrage machine, cringing in anticipation of a whirring sound, it’s ultimately beneficial; it teaches those with a platform to be more sensitive, and if we’re funny, to be funnier and sharper without being bigoted or dismissive. This ongoing conversation has made an impact, I’d imagine, on Stewart, who has diversified his staff, and on Comedy Central, which replaced both of its white-dude hosts with people of color.

Now Noah will hopefully be another beneficiary of the right lessons wrought by that outrage machine. These lessons are: think before you tweet. Consider other people’s perspective. Don’t trash entire groups. Punch up when you can. Noah has his first great opportunity as the new Daily Show host to bring together humor and an intersectional analysis of power. Rather than demand he be fired, let’s demand he do his job well.