The tweet went as follows:
“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a (expletive), right?”
The missing word is a four-letter bit of verbal sewage sometimes used to disparage women. Its target here, however, was not a woman. Quvenzhane Wallis is the actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Hushpuppy in the celebrated film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She was all of 6 when the movie was filmed. She is 9 now.
The tweet, penned by a so-far anonymous writer and posted by the Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, was intended as a joke, a meta commentary on the sniping and backbiting of Hollywood.
Yes, the Onion snatched the tweet back an hour later. Yes, it promptly apologized.
And yes, funny covers a multitude of sins. The problem though, is that this was not remotely funny. It was, however, profoundly illustrative.
There are some things you just do not say. Not because there is a law against them, not because you don’t have the right. No, you don’t say them because you don’t. You know better. Or at least, you did.
These days, there is a good chance you don’t. These days, we worship at the altar of edgy.
You know edgy, of course. It is the sine qua non of pop culture, represents rejection of the straitjacket of propriety and political correctness, celebrates the freedom found in bare-knuckle, impolitic truth. As such, it has become a value unto itself, a synonym for good.
Once upon a time, a comedian worked to be funny. Now, it seems they work to be edgy.
There is nothing wrong with edgy. Some of us can tell you how Lenny Bruce invented it, Richard Pryor perfected it and Norman Lear gave it a TV show.
Some of us applauded as the new ethos made hamburger out of sacred cows, gave grandma the vapors and drove bluenose prudes to arias of apoplexy. Some of us knew that “edgy” allowed the saying of necessary things.
But what was said about Wallis, not to put too fine a point on it, was even less necessary than funny.
This is not a prayer for the resurrection of Bob Hope and Milton Berle or a plaint for the return of the day when Lucille Ball could not say “pregnant” on television. It is not a screed against potty-mouthed language nor even a rant against the Onion which, most days, hits the mark squarely with satire sharp enough for surgery.
No, this is simply an observation that something is lost when going too far becomes both the end and the means thereto. And that, in making “edge” its defining value,
American popular culture increasingly winds up embodying what it purports to lampoon. This is what happened with the Wallis “joke” which, it bears repeating, was meant to satirize the nastiness of Hollywood gossip. Instead, it becomes an example thereof.
Something similar happened when Oscar host Seth MacFarlane performed a song about women who have played nude scenes on film. “We Saw Your Boobs” was no spoof of misogyny. It was misogyny.
In making “edge” the prime directive of American culture, we lose the ability – and willingness – to tell the difference. In embracing tastelessness for its own sake, we coarsen our own selves and embrace a self-perpetuating mind-set under which to even take offense is to render yourself irrelevant, a pious naif who doesn’t get the whole concept of self-aware humor for a self-aware age.
But it is possible to get that concept, indeed, to have been laughing along as it was invented – and yet feel there is something broken about a culture and time where it is possible to call a 9-year-old girl a hateful thing and expect laughter.
It suggests a culture that has, indeed, gone to the edge – and fallen off.Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.