Bruce Everett writes about the first night of the Global Atheist Convention. Funnily enough, as it were, I did not see the comedy shows. Someone had asked me if I could give her any advice about a book she has written, and I ended up having a long conversation about it while the comedy acts were on.
This means that I cannot give an opinion of my own about Jim Jefferies' routine, which Everett comments on, which became a matter of controversy through the convention, and which Ophelia Benson comments on here. Perhaps I'll watch the video that she has embedded in her post when I have time.
It seems that Jefferies uttered numerous misogynist comments. The issue seems to be whether his act is constructed in such a way that we are supposed to laugh along with these comments, as if recognising them as taboo truths, or whether he plays the role of a misogynist character - so his act is one of what we in the English department (well, I'm in the philosophy department these days, but you know what I mean) call "ironic impersonation".
I did talk to several people of both sexes who had seen the act. Some people, not all of them women, favoured the taboo truths theory. Some people, not all of them men, favoured the ironic impersonation theory. The latter did seem to me to have more detail in their favour - they seemed to think that he said at least some things that could only be said in character and could not possibly apply to the real Jim Jefferies. Still, there is a further theory possible, that he used a character as a megaphone for his real views, making the ironic impersonation interpretation available for the purpose of deniability. I suppose the important question is who in the audience was laughing at what they considered taboo truths and who was laughing at a character who thinks this way. If it's really this difficult to work out, maybe Jefferies needs to rethink his act to make the irony a bit more obvious. But that's all I'm going to say, since I wasn't there.
It does raise a more general question, though. Why were so many of the presentations in the very limited time of the convention comedy routines? Over the 48 hours, about a third of the presentations took that form. This may be written off as sour grapes on the part of someone who was not asked to speak at the convention (a number of people asked me why I wasn't on the program, but that wasn't my decision). But I genuinely do wonder.
I know that we (many of us) think religion is funny and all, but couldn't we have used some of the 48 hours of the convention for some presentations that might have challenged us in some way (other than by making us wonder whether we were laughing with or at misogyny)? Tamas Pataki was sorely missed, for example. He did a great job in last year's IQ2 debate, arguing the atheist side, but he also did a great job at the last GAC, probing uncomfortably at some of our assumptions.
Fortunately, Richard Dawkins did a wonderful job of this in the final session - a panel in which he conversed with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. In fact all four of them asked some hard questions about the future of the atheist movement.
Still, in a conference with only one strand of programming and only about 48 hours of time (it started on a Friday night and finished on a Sunday afternoon) is it really a great idea if about a third of it is comedy acts? I guess I'm the only one who feels this way, but we'll see.