Not too long ago I was sitting down for a meal with my family and an unexpected subject arose. My mom asked if any of us (me or my brothers) had heard of Daniel Tosh. We had all heard of the comedian, but weren’t sure where she was going with this. She then proceeded to tell us that she had seen the end of one of his acts while she was waiting for her show to come on and he had told one of the most offensive jokes she had ever heard. My mom couldn’t remember the setup for the joke, only the punch line which involved Daniel Tosh wanting to have sex with a baby. While I could understand my mom’s aversion to such a joke, I tried to make the argument that the punch line was out of context the way she was telling it to us, but I was promptly told by all the mothers in the room that there is no context for such a horrible joke.
I’m not good at thinking of things on the fly so I fold like a cheap lawn chair if I’m in a face-to-face argument. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to make my point that day. Shortly after leaving I finally figured out what I wanted to say, but by then it was too late. For those wondering, the joke was about two hot celebrities that, if they had a baby, Daniel Tosh would want to have sex with it (I think the celebrities were two men; Brad Pitt and David Beckham, who couldn’t have a child together anyway). That, however, was not the context I was trying to explain to my mom. The context is that Daniel Tosh was trying to offend his audience. I’ve seen a few of his stand up routines and they all revolve around saying things to get that *gasp* reaction from his audience. Many comedians, and other public figures, use this technique in what I call ‘manufactured controversy’. Obviously Daniel Tosh isn’t going to go out and have sex with a baby, but look what his offensive joke accomplished; it got the attention of someone who would never have given him a second thought (my mom) and then spread his awareness to everyone sitting at that dinner table. And, in my case, I went home and looked up what joke she was talking about. Basically she just made Daniel Tosh more popular by being offended by him. I’m not saying I became an instant Daniel Tosh fan, but in today’s world, clicks equal popularity, and I clicked on the videos of his standup. But the reason I was trying to explain this context to my mom was because when you realize someone is trying to offend you, it takes the power away from it. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when they discover the ‘man behind the curtain’. It deflates the big bad image that was causing so much trouble.
This isn’t to say that everyone in the public eye uses controversy for free advertising, but I am seeing it more and more. Just recently I saw a Lady Gaga music video where she was proclaiming her love for Judas, the religious figure who betrayed Jesus. Jesus was also in the video, both of them portrayed as leather-clad bikers. I’m not religious, but I can see how someone who is religious would be offended by Judas pouring beer onto Lady Gaga’s butt while she fawns over Jesus in a hot tub. But Lady Gaga is a big user of manufactured controversy. Everyone always talks about the weird dresses she wears or the elaborate stage performances. But if you stop and think about it, that weirdness has translated into millions of dollars. Wouldn’t you wear a silly outfit if it would net you serious cash? So the next time you see a singer doing something weird, just remember that they’re doing it because weird things grab your attention. You sit down at the table and talk about how weird they are and, thus, give them free advertising via word-of-mouth, which is exactly what they want.
Politics is another major offender of manufactured controversy. Surely you remember the ‘death panels’ that were supposed to be a part of the healthcare overhaul? Where celebrities use controversy to make more money, politicians use it for leverage in the next election. If they can make you think the government is trying to kill you, then next time around, you’ll vote out the opposition. These controversies are all about catchy titles that stick in peoples’ minds much easier than the complex issues really on the table. All of us remember phrases like ‘nuclear option’, ‘obamacare’ and ‘death panels’ because they’re so simple. And, since they’re so simple, we remember them and a manufactured controversy is born. That’s not to say only one political party is guilty of it; these are just some of the more recent examples (as of the writing of this article).
But again, not all controversy is manufactured; I don’t want to give that impression. For example, I don’t think Mel Gibson was intentionally ruining his career when he got drunk and denounced Jewish people. And there are musicians who really are that weird in real life. But more recently I’ve found myself arguing on the side of whatever offensive material someone is denouncing. The television show Spartacus is a repeat offender for portraying graphic scenes of violence, sex and rape. The debate, in that instance, was about whether or not the show glorified such violence and encouraged it, but the controversy yet again spread awareness of the show. It’s a little bit of a different argument for television shows and video games because the controversial things are fictional and are in the interest of telling a story. So at least in these instances they admit their controversy is manufactured. As for the argument about whether or not these forms of media encourage bad behavior; that’s an entirely different debate.
I’ve brought all this up because I think it’s important not to let yourself get offended by things that aren’t really worth your time. When you realize someone is going out of their way to offend you, it suddenly isn’t so offensive anymore. When there are real problems in this world worthy of our attention, should we really care what Daniel Tosh said, or what Lady Gaga was wearing? And, shouldn’t we dig deeper into issues before accepting buzz words as facts? This is all just my personal opinion, but between real controversies and manufactured ones, I’d much rather worry about the real ones.