November 21, 2006  ·  Lessig

I love examples where ontology is necessarily trumped by epistemology. The Richards case is one of those.

On Letterman, Richards says he’s not a racist. Is that possibly true?

Well sure. He’s a brilliant stream of consciousness comic. That requires constantly putting your head into the heads of the audience, and tweaking it. He blows his top, and then begins to watch himself and the scene through the eyes of the audience. He sees them see him and his targets — two African Americans. He then gives voice to what at least some in the audience are likely — he believes — to believe: all the racist stuff. And then he sees that no one would see him as expressing anything except his own ideas, and he’s trapped. He shuts down, and leaves the stage.

All possibly true. But totally impossible to credit. Even if true, no way for us to know it’s true. Look for examples like this. There are millions.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    One thing more powerful than freedom of speech is opprobrium.

    Whether an experiment in method acting the audience’s repressed, subconscious racism, or an excursion into his own racism for shock value, society will judge according to its ability – and rarely chooses the option that incriminates itself.

    NB I of course recognise that incitement to violence or hatred (among other things) is not included within freedom of speech.

    When you flirt at the boundaries between acting and being, especially if you blur the distinguishing characteristics, then you may be judged by a confused audience.

    What I’m confused by is Richards’ triplication. Is this a ‘thrice is truth’ superstition of his or something?

  • http://demonstrativeevidence.blogspot.com Charles Thomas

    Racist? Doubtful- the better part of his tirade was subtle meta-comment on the nature of the back and forth (evidenced by the “Does that shock you?” jag he took). As any Borscht Belt comic would tell you, never give a heckler the last word.

    However, he should absolutely not have gone that route. While it’s definitely possible for comics to do a routine about race (see the Dave Chapelle/Wayne Brady sketch) , that’s not what he was doing. He was essentially shouting the n-word at people, which is completely unacceptable.

  • http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk Crosbie Fitch

    It may not have been acceptable (and apparently wasn’t), but if a racist would use that language, then presumably an actor would use it too – especially an improv method actor.

    If you are religiously devout can you still blaspheme in the pulpit whilst parodying a hypocritically atheist audience? At what point would a congregation feel accuracy became indistinguishable from enthusiasm and committed them all to sacrilege?

    Leaving aside the question of whether Richards is a racist or not…

    Another question is: is someone who fails to make it clear they are method acting a racist, nevertheless guilty of racism and incitement to race hatred? Does this constitute negligence of equivalent harm?

    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it forgivable for people to shoot it for supper?

    If there isn’t equivalent harm then a shelter is created – unless it is explicitly prevented from re-use, e.g. pretend to be a racist once and it’s challenging, but twice and it’s a point of view?

    Conversely if there was ample evidence that someone was on stage with their scruples left in the dressing room, with a no-holds-barred license to manipulate and challenge the audience, perhaps there should be a lesser offense?

    Can you tell a deliberately controversial, envelope pushing, fringe comedy act from a racist comedian invited to perform at a political rally?

    I have been to shows where poor comedians insulted and offended the stunned and silent audience who were obviously wondering if perhaps their horror was supposed to entertain the comedian. But, I wouldn’t necessarily want to prohibit spaces in which people had the freedom to summon all manner of demons by way of experimentation. You’d only prohibit this being exploited as a political platform.

    At the end of the day, maybe we can only deduce that Richards did not amuse his audience as much as some of them had hoped?

    That his performance has now been taken out of context, his act may more easily be misconstrued, e.g. as a washed up comedian who in self-recognition of his inability to amuse outed himself as a closet racist.

    What will end up being recorded in the history books eh?

  • http://sleepyhead.org Judson

    Interesting idea, it reminded me of a argument going on in wikipedia now on the homophobia article. The debate is basically whether the term homophobe can be a category we put people in based on their actions alone, or if their own personal dislike for the term requires them to be excluded. For example, if you say, “I hate gays” are you a homophobe, even if you don’t accept the category at all?

  • http://www.kintespace.com/rasxlog Bryan Wilhite

    “Racist” is a highly-specific target. It confines the argument down to a simple object any “good” soldier can hit. But eventually someone says that the study of war is over and the question, “Is he a racist?” is a waste of time.

    Here’s my new question: Does he take for granted the Greek concept of the polis?

    Answers:

    Lessig: yes
    Stupid comedian: yes
    Almost every person that will post comments to this Blog: yes

    Once Greco-Roman consciousness in particular and imperial thought in general (because imperialism is multicultural) is taken for granted and mistaken as “natural,” then we are ready to “defend our country” and represent the sole “voice of reason” in future conversations.

    Lessig, dude, I write these notes for future researchers hundreds of years from now… I think I’m putting “easter eggs” in the giant web application…

  • http://bright-green.com Alan Green

    Merriam-Webster on “ontology” and “epistemology“. Unfortunately, reading the dictionary definitions makes me feel even more stupid. :)

  • http://www.DonnysRamblings.com Donny Pauling

    I seriously doubt he’s a racist…

  • http://www.webexperts.co.nz Ben

    interesting just stumbled across it. What is freedom though? and what responsibility comes with that?
    cheers,
    http://www.webexperts.co.nz

  • Anonymous

    I’m with Alan. Can someone explain, in plain english, what ontology and epistemology mean in this context?

  • http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/bonobo-conspiracy/ Matthew Skala

    CONTEXT PLS

    I don’t watch US television, and it’s quite often the case that when you post items about current US news stories here, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Searching in Google News gave me a rough idea for this one, but that’s problematic because what’s on there right now is reactions to the reactions to the reactions to the incident, instead of information about the actual incident itself (which is now yesterday’s news and long dead). You generally do a pretty good job of summarizing the context for the law-related items; that would be welcome for the “current events” type of items also.

  • http://www.webexperts.co.nz Ben

    Yes I agree…
    “I’m with Alan. Can someone explain, in plain english, what ontology and epistemology mean in this context?”

    What is the meaning in context for normal folk like myself?

    cheers,

    http://www.webexperts.co.nz

  • Friedrich

    racisim is dead. racism remains dead. and we have killed it. how shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?

  • ACS

    I was going to write a long post about freedom of speech and the oppresion of hegemonic control of language and ideas through political correctness and shaming but in the end you’re right – he’s a twat.

  • Steve

    Multiple definitions might help make the terms a little clearer.

    1. Epistemology

    2. Ontology

  • http://unthirsty.com Jason

    Regardless of Richard’s intent and thoughts, things were said that will be hard to forget, and his image of fun-loving Kramer will be slightly muted.

    Malcom Gladwell has some really interesting thoughts on this here:
    http://gladwell.typepad.com/gladwellcom/2006/12/defining_a_raci.html

    Due to his multi-ethnic heritage, I am always interested in his observations on race, and I feel he does a remarkable job weighing facts without personal or emotional bias.

  • ACS

    From Letterman

    Theres a new doll out this christmas – heckle me Kramer

  • ruidh

    Some of the most successful comics earn their success by disconnecting their self-censorship mechanism and by literally saying anything at all that pops into their head. The late, great Jonathan Winters and the still active Robin WIlliams utilized this stream of consciousness method. But sometimes this approach to comedy goes horribly awry.

    I don’t believe Michael Richards is racist because it appears that he is very sincere in his apology. He just went in the wrong direction and was unable to tell he had gone too far.

  • http://blog.outer-court.com Philipp Lenssen

    For some context, see
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdhkUtx0LHM

    … and see Google News for [laugh factory], [richards letterman] etc. (I had to research too being outside the US).

    Hard to judge what happened here though even with above video, ’cause you can’t see what performance he started with. The possibilities without knowing more context seem to range from “badly delivered but non-racist ‘racist guy’ routine” to “plain racist comedian”. E.g. Sacha Baron Cohen aka Borat also has a racist/ sexist impression routine but he does it very well — this is the heart of satire. Another example of “racist guy” satire is, for example, Douglas Hofstadter’s http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html — or take a look at the song of prejudices by Sarah Silverman http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2415875145808534146 . It seems that the satirist/ comedian however must respect the logic of their chosen setting (impersonating the enemy to exxagerate and thus unveil the enemy’s line of evil thinking) to deliver the point, i.e. enter the stage as ‘racist guy/ gal’ and leave it as such.