Did We Learn Anything From Rainn Wilson's Twitter Rape Joke?

Did We Learn Anything From Rainn Wilson's Twitter Rape Joke?

The Internet has had quite a run of PC-police work lately, from the outcry against the ultimately fired ESPN writer behind that awful "chink in the armor" headline about Jeremy Lin to the backlash piled on Foster Friess shaming him into apologizing for his lame birth control joke. And, more recently, after Rainn Wilson tweeted a rape joke at 7 p.m. last night, the Internet fought back. He's deleted the offending tweet, though it's already proliferated around the Internet. 

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Ugh. Wilson apologized at approximately 11 a.m. today.

Apparently my poorly conceived date-rape tweet upset a lot of folks. Not a good topic to joke about.Sorry & won't do that again.

— RainnWilson (@rainnwilson) February 21, 2012

7 to 11 -- that's a 16-hour-offense-to-apology timeframe, a lifetime in the Twitter era. Surely, there will be those who say he should have apologized faster and not only that, that he never should have made the joke in the first place. But countless comedians have made their names with off-color, offensive jokes. And Wilson isn't person to have made a terrible joke on Twitter, nor is he the first public persona to get in trouble for something he said via social media. He's just the most recent.

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It's the frequency of these Twitter takedowns, punishments, and apologies -- the machine that gets put in motion almost by rote now -- that's both impressive and a little bit scary.

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This is not a defense of Wilson's rape joke; my personal belief is that he shouldn't have made it, and that he should have apologized. But there's also a risk of anger for the sake of anger, shaming just to shame. If there's anything we really should learn here, it's how to be better people in this connected world, not how to pile onto a popular cause, or anti-cause, with self-righteousness based primarily on the desire to be pissed off about something, anything. If we just look for outrage eruptions—ways to feel that spike of disapproval and the sense of community that comes from being in a virtual pitchfork-carrying mob—we're at serious risk of the PC-police preventing anyone from saying anything truly original, risky, or good. We're also at risk of perpetuating a culture of empty, meaningless apologies. This was a stupid, bad joke. But the punishment "machine" it sets in motion can be equally bad.

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Wilson still has 2,887,909 followers, in any case, so it's not like this has destroyed his reputation. Steve Huff wisely points out that it's Wilson's reputation that led to the ensuing drama in the first place: "If you’re a relatively obscure stand up comedian or just some dipwad with a few thousand followers, you might be able to get away with really tasteless or offensive joke tweets. If you’re best known as Dwight Schrute, strangely lovable egomaniac and weirdo on NBC’s The Office, you probably can’t. Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight, is about to find that out..."

Still, now there's also backlash to the backlash, with people on Twitter supporting Wilson. "I thought it was hilarious don't let the squeamish masses stop you from being funny," says one. Another responds, "NO JOKES ALLOWED ON TWITTER."

Wilson has, of course, apologized, and we'll probably forget sooner rather than later, barring any uncomfortable rape joke flare-ups. But you have to wonder if there's some middle ground to be found between 24-7 PC-policing and defending those who make rape jokes on Twitter.  Maybe the rule of thumb is that people can offend, but they should also be funny while doing it (and, yeah, avoid joking about rape). If they can't pull off that trick, stick to fishing for retweets by telling people it's your birthday.