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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, April 16, 2012

A million laughs at the GAC

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.


Brian said...

Jim Jeffries' routine also included a bit during which he said that couples who have had their babies die are bad parents and should've had their child baptised. It was preceded by a joke about kicking dead babies.

If people can't see beyond the words themselves and notice the facetious and satirical nature of his jokes, then they have no business calling themselves critical thinkers.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay - so ironic impersonation?

Anyone want to argue the other side? Or that there is a problem with this kind of ironic impersonation? (It did strike me as odd when Marion Maddox seemed to think, in calling out Jefferies/the organisers, that we should (and did) take the whole thing entirely straight. Surely we need a more sophisticated interpretation than that, given some of the other thimgs that Jefferies apparently said.

In a way, now that it's all over, I'm now glad I wasn't there, since I can genuinely ask questions about the act, while genuinely not having a view of my own about Jefferies.

Bruce Everett is also critical of Ben Elton in his post. Once again. I don't have an opinion, having not seen it. Elton went a bit stale for me a long time ago, which was one reason why I was not in a huge hurry to see the Friday night acts.

Margaret said...

I definitely think it was ironic impersonation, and was really disappointed that other feminists didn't see the joke in context, as it was really very apparent to me.

My expectations for Ben Elton were not high, because I'd also formed the view that he was stale these days. But I actually got a mild asthma attack from laughing so much at his performance. So on the Asthma Scale, it seems he's still funny!

Brian said...

Despite the varying political and social views of atheists, there's obviously a tendency towards feminism at these events. The fact that these jokes got massive laughs from such a group should speak for itself.

Neil said...

If you think there is a debate to be had here, that should be grounds enough for excluding this wanker. You err on the side of being unbiased. Actually I don;t think there is a reasonable debate to be had here. If you think that a sane woman could sit through this and feel deeply uncomfortable than you need to get out more.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, some sane women did sit through it, feeling deeply uncomfortable (in some cases even if they "read" it as ironic impersonation). So I don't see why anyone needs to get out more for thinking that that can happen. Perhaps someone who thinks that no sane woman could sit through it without feeling deeply uncomfortable needs to get out more!

But then again see Margaret's comments above ... so people are not dividing about this along gender lines.

rorschach said...

I have no hesitation in calling Jefferies a misogynist who is hiding behind plausible deniability. Plenty of his routines are available on the internet, for anyone who wants to take a look.

Neil said...

Russell, I left out a "without"; I had the same interpretation of what a sane woman would feel (and what someone who needed to get out more might possibly think) as you. My point about feeling uncomfortable is that the atheist/sceptic movement has a problem with gender, and this kind of thing - even if it is reasonable to disagree about whether it is misogynistic - can only hurt.

Not surprised that reaction is not following gender lines. Women are not more intelligent or sane than men.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, that might be right - i.e. that even if the show was best interpreted as not misogynist it may have been an unnecessarily controversial choice for such a convention. Maybe that's all we can say.

But some commentators elsewhere - now that Ophelia's thread has grown quite large and I see there are other threads, including one created by Greg Laden, are now going much further.

I don't think it would be smart to invite Jefferies again. On the other hand, we all know that irony can be ambiguous, unstable, etc., and that whatever Jefferies was doing it is unlikely that he was simply reporting his actual opinions and attitudes. Surely it wasn't that simple.

His humour could work by satirising a certain sexist mentality while also showing - shockingly - how that mentality has a kind of crazy logic to it. At some level, the audience then gets all this and laughs ... partly with discomfort.

If that's how it works - and, remember, I haven't see it and am relying on other's accounts - it's not an unknown phenomenon for stand-up comedy to work like this. How far do want to go in denying platforms to this kind of performance art, if we assume, at least for the sake of argument, that this is something like how it works with Jefferies?

Btw, any opinions on the more general issue raised in the original post?

Rob Gerrand said...

I would certainly hope that Jim Jefferies is invited again. He roused gales of laughter throughout the auditorium. A great pity Russell and Bruce weren't able to be there to see him first hand. It's so difficult to form a view from others' reports. Reminds me of the blind man's description of an elephant, having felt a tusk, its skin, its tail, etc.

He actually was having a virulent go at the preposterous and harmful views of the religious. For example, talking about heaven and hell, he asked, if hell is the creation of satan, and satan is god's enemy, then why would we believe god's word for what he'll is? Etc. One comment I heard was that Jim was channelling Lenny Bruce.


Jean Hollis Weber said...

I didn't find Jefferies' jokes particularly misogynous. I thought his jokes about men balanced out the ones on women. His whole routine was not really to my taste, but that's a different matter.

However, I do agree that fewer comedians and more substantive speakers would have been preferable. Also, I find that a whole evening of comedians using "f**king" as their primary adjective and adverb gets a bit tedious. I'm glad those at the dinner had a more varied vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

Russell, most of Jefferies' material isn't new, so you can go to youtube and view and decide for yourself. Personally I thought it was very funny. I was just moaning last week that many of the acts at the comedy festival weren't edgy enough, and Jefferies made up for it!

Anonymous said...

Russell, most of Jefferies' material isn't new, so you can go to youtube and view and decide for yourself. Personally I thought it was very funny. I was just moaning last week that many of the acts at the comedy festival weren't edgy enough, and Jefferies made up for it!

Mitch Sullivan said...

I saw the routine. I'm not a huge fan, to be honest. I thought the repetitious misogyny, ironic or otherwise, became unfunny. Some of this other content was, indeed, funny to me. People's mileage clearly varies, and that's great, epsecially in light of the point I want to make:

Just because YOU found it funny does not preclude the reactions of others. Brian says anyone who didn't like it has no business calling themself a critical thinker. Neil said any woman who felt uncomfortable could not be sane.

I'm sorry, but that is preposterous. To have an opinion on the routine yourself is fine. To prescribe your point of view across an entire group - especially one to which you do not belong - is, to be charitable, ignorant and, to be up front, stupid.

I'm not here to tell anyone how they should interpret Jeffries and I've put my own opinion on his act aside. But it seems that what we have here is a failure to understand that opinions legitimately vary about these things. Those who didn't like the routine were not insane simpletons.

Thanks for starting the discussion, Russel.

Russell Blackford said...

Neil actually clarified that he meant no sane woman would not have been made uncomfortable - just a point of information.

Mitch Sullivan said...

Sorry, Neil. Thanks, Russel. Somehow skipped that one comment.

Jacques Rousseau said...

On the substantive point, Russell, I agree that it would have been preferable to have a lower proportion of comedy. The non-comedic presentations were (in general) of a very high standard, and more of those would have made a very good conference even better. Hell, given Maddox's comments on the panel, a talk by her would have been interesting - not to mention you or Ophelia.

Jean Kazez said...

It looks to me like the guy is just an all around misanthrope--happy to spew hatred in all directions. For example, have a look at this--


I think that's what we're supposed to find funny--all the stepping over the bounds. Ha ha! Other people are good at that (like Russell Brand), but I'm not about to join this guy's fan club.

steve oberski said...

There seems to be a fair amount of sentiment that Jeffries should never been in the conference and those that invited him should be taken to task.

Given that the 2012 Global Atheist Convention program has been available for some time is it reasonable to ask why the outrage after the fact ?

And if the organizers are to be taken to task, in the future should there be a mechanism in place so this sort of thing can avoided ?

And should such a mechanism be implemented should it apply only to stand up comedians or should it apply to all the speakers and panels in the conference ?

You can probably see where I'm going with this, does this sort of thing become a tyranny of those who take offense, where you end up with no events or speakers that could possibly offend some group of people ?

Lee said...

Watch the embedded video in Ophelia's post to the end, as she has apparently been unable to do. Frankly, I think if she could manage to finish it, she would probably rethink her position. Then again, having browsed the first 30 or so comments on her blog, probably not.

Comedy is about style and timing. You don't become successful as a comedian without having a unique style. This is his, and to be honest, Jefferies is downright tame compared to others (Doug Stanhope comes to mind). If, as has been reported, he drew storms of laughter, he's doing it right; further, whoever booked him knew what they were doing too.

Lets assume for a moment that his act is a straight up representation of his personal views on the matter. I find it so ironic that atheists make such a fuss about how the term 'atheist' does not imply anything further than disbelief in theism, and yet a Global "ATHEIST" Convention hosts a comedian like Jefferies and suddenly this is an affront to atheism and skepticism. Huh? Since when did atheism and skepticism entail puritanism?

I'm an atheist, and I think Jim Jefferies is hilarious. Who defines what is acceptable at these conventions?

Russell Blackford said...

Jacques - it seems odd to me that Graham Oppy wasn't on the program on either occasion. He's a good speaker and one of the world's leading philosophers of religion. And he's an atheist. And on the gripping hand, he lives in Melbourne so there wouldn't even be any significant expenses.

If you were choosing just one Australian speaker for such a convention, Graham would be the obvious choice - certainly well ahead of me (though with FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE now published I may have caught up, well, slightly). Indeed, he'd be the obvious choice over almost anyone from overseas.

That said, I should also say that I am grateful to the organisers for providing what were, on balance, very good collections of speakers on both occasions. Any suggestions or criticisms coming from me are intended to be read in that context.

Ej Freckles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ej Freckles said...

I found Jim offensive and nasty. His comic timing was excellent, but having gone off and looked more at his other work, I see nothing at all that indicates that he respects women.

But let's think about the context in which he was presented. Two years ago, the GAC came roundly under fire for having only token women's representation, a women's panel, and two featured speakers across two days. They have clearly worked hard and had many more women thinkers presenting.

However, this was marred by the opening night. What we had was two men making dick jokes, the fabulous Stella Young, and then a misogynist rant, with a few insults to religious folk thrown in. It didn't come across as a great way to welcome and celebrate women's contribution to atheism. It didn't make me feel comfortable or welcome. It put me on the defensive from the get go.

And this isn't his nastiest stuff. Have a look around youtube, you'll find gems such as "women are like toilets, they're all dirty except the disabled ones". And "If I go out with a religious chick, one day she'll come home and find me raping her mother and I'll tell her I'm being mysterious".

He might appeal to some audiences, but he's not a good choice for a diverse crowd in a movement that is still proving it can welcome, honour and celebrate women.

Anonymous said...

I found his act hysterical in parts but I found his misogyny deeply distressing. Would those who were not so bothered be so comfortable if it were blacks or gays he was making fun of?

Perhaps all the nice middle class people at the convention need to get out more so they can put "jokes" such at these into a broader context. I hear stuff like this from men locked up for battering women, from hyper masculine sportsmen and from ordinary men in pubs. They reflect a real hatred of women among some significantly large groups of men. For those of us working at the sharp end of men's violence against women, this shit isn't funny.

I look forward to his ironic jokes about the Iranian massacre of atheists.


Lee said...


I see nothing to indicate that he respects religion in his routines, either. Yet this is not a problem. The bits that are offensive to you are unacceptable, but the bits that are not offensive to you are acceptable. Once again, I must ask: who determines what is acceptable at these conferences?


Same as above. You "found his act hysterical in parts" and yet you do not seem to recognize that his entire act is offensive to one or another group. Should you, perhaps, "get out more" so you can "put "jokes" such as [the ones that did not offend you] into a broader context"?

Of course, the true irony here is that he is being deliberately offensive as part of an act tailor-made to create humor, and, lo and behold, you find yourself sometimes entertained and sometimes "offended". All I can say is, cool story bro; you don't have the right not to be offended.

Where do you think the justification for Blasphemy Laws originates? The more I think about the kerfluffle around this guy's act, the more I think that his was the most important message of the whole conference.


Gerry said...

Looking at a few of his videos online I see no obvious signals of ironic impersonation; contrast that with someone like Louis CK, whose glances and body language make it clear that his offensive jokes are actually mocking those who say or do such offensive things in the real world.

But perhaps Jeffries is just crap at ironic impersonation. Either way, I agree with Russell that in booking him the organisers made a strategic error and with Ej about how this choice undermined what we had hoped was a genuine effort to be more inclusive of women.

Gerry said...

@ Lee

So there really is no difference between jokes made at the expense of the rich and powerful and those made at the expense of the abused and disadvantaged? It's just a neutral, level playing field where everyone will eventually be offended in turn, and that's just the way things are?

March Hare said...

His appropriateness at the GAC is something for the organisers and attendees to discuss, I am neither so won't comment.

Jeffries himself, whether an act or not, appears to be a caricature of the typical Australian bloke, one slowly coming to terms with equal rights for women and finding himself completely lacking any sort of vocabulary to get his points across.

Many of his jokes are misogynist only due to the terms he uses, the actual content is often fairly equality-based.

Someone asked if we'd be comfortable if similar humour was aimed at blacks or Jews (aimed is a loaded term here) and I think he's the perfect character to do just that. An Aussie bloke, seeing his worldview turned upside down (blacks are just like us white blokes?) and not having the vocabulary to cope, constantly talking about us and them and making standard observational comedy about the differences between stereotypical black and white people but inadvertently using politically incorrect language while having no actual malice.

Gerry said...

@March Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rNRHPr7Gabk.

Seems just like an average Aussie bloke inadvertently using politically incorrect language while having no actual malice toward women to me.

March Hare said...

I think Alf Garnett would be the appropriate comparison rather than Louis CK. Perhaps Al Murray, but I think The Pub Landlord is toned right down (compared to some London landlords I've met!)

If you strip the words used out of that clip, the ideas themselves are not offensive or malicious: Sex is a two way thing; men are much easier than women to turn on; men often get the blame for bad sex; and the payoff - women need a load of foreplay to be ready for sex, men only require to see a woman naked hence it's men that take the relationship seriously. The only part that was borderline was that women should look uncomfortable (while giving) oral sex.

I am a great believer in over-using words so that they lose their power. If we can do this with racist and/or sexist words then that's all to the good, or you can take the approach that they're best avoided and hope they'll go away.

Peter Beattie said...

» Russell:
It seems that Jefferies uttered numerous misogynist comments.

Um, no, what does seem to be the case is that some people took Jefferies’s act to be misogynistic. As you haven’t seen the video, nothing else can really seem to be the case, I would submit. ;)

Anyhow, if you (the generic you) don’t understand that a bit was not to be taken literally when the comedian explicitly says that it was meant to be an outragreous joke, then you shouldn’t be commenting on such things. Especially if you have to run for the smelling salts three minutes into the video and don’t watch to the end when the explanation is given.

What is really hilarious, though, is the congregation of uptight self-appointed moralists in the comments who get the vapours at the first mention of the word “cunt”. It’s hard to tell which is more psychologically revealing: being so incredibly repressed or wanting (needing, almost, it seems) to see misogyny in everything and anything.

(Which I would have said over there if Ophelia hadn’t banned me for even milder criticisms of her over-reactions.)

Ophelia Benson said...

"What is really hilarious, though, is the congregation of uptight self-appointed moralists in the comments who get the vapours at the first mention of the word “cunt”. It’s hard to tell which is more psychologically revealing: being so incredibly repressed or wanting (needing, almost, it seems) to see misogyny in everything and anything."

That's quite a misrepresentation. It's not "mention" - it's use as an epithet. I "mention" it all the time myself; it's not "uptight" or "vapours"; it's opposition to misogyny. There is a difference. It's not "repressed"; it's seeing misogyny in the use of the word "cunt" as an epithet. As an epithet. It's not an epithet if Joe tells Jane she has a lovely cunt; it's not an epithet if Jane tells Joe her cunt is dripping. It's an epithet when someone on Twitter calls Jessica Ahlquist a worthless cunt who should be killed.

Konrad said...

» Ophelia:

It's not an epithet if Joe tells Jane she has a lovely cunt; it's not an epithet if Jane tells Joe her cunt is dripping.

So, in your own words, Jeffries’ use is not as an epithet.

It's an epithet when someone on Twitter calls Jessica Ahlquist a worthless cunt who should be killed.

Nobody here (heck, nobody in their right mind) argues this point.

Russell Blackford said...

Anyone want to discuss the larger issue raised in the original post? I.e. the balance of the sort of presentations at the GAC? Not that I know if there will even be a third one.

Lee said...


No, Gerry. The rich, poor, powerful, powerless, men, women, christians, muslim, jewish, black, white, no one has the right to not be offended.

I wonder, how many of you currently crying wolf came out in support of the Muslims right to not be offended when the prophet was caricatured? How many of you thought it was a serious problem to be remedied that artists are free to publish "offending" satire?

One of the issues that bothers me most about religious intrusions into politics is the implicit assumption that the rules they hope to legislate presuppose that their religion will be the majority. However, rules and laws that oppress other viewpoints are double-edged swords; they are as like to cut you as to cut your enemy. The same applies to this reflexive push to smother views you don't agree with, not by social pressure but actual exclusion.

The only way to ensure that you continue to have a voice at these things is to ensure that those who disagree with you also have a voice. Don't like what they're saying? Welcome to the free marketplace of ideas: hash it out like an adult.

Oh, and this equivocation between a comedy routine and abuse of women is unprincipled nonsense. Either produce some evidence that Jefferies is abusing women, or can the libel.

Hypocrisy like this is why I steer wide of the "freethought movement". You can't institutionalize skepticism any more than you can commercialize punk; the result is self-destructive in either case.

Jamie said...

I think there was probably more comedy than was necessary, and would have preferred some of those slots to go to non-comic speakers - either that or have one or two comedians that tend toward a more cerebral style than the ones we had to balance it out a bit.