The removal of Nimesh Patel in the middle of his set, due to the contentious nature of one of his jokes, has generated a variety of responses. It’s important to first disclose that I was not an attendee of cultureSHOCK and can only speak on the story as I’ve read it in Spectator. As quoted by Spectator, “Patel joked that being gay cannot be a choice because ‘no one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘this black thing is too easy, let me just add another thing to it.’” Breaking down this joke, I perceive its premise to exist in two parts: that homosexuality is definitely not a choice, and that it is difficult to be a black person in America (granted, expressed in an edgier way). Some people felt personally offended by this joke, and others throughout the performance. I don’t wish to deny this. My personal opinion cannot, and should not, rationally be used to invalidate another’s. In fact, the purpose of this letter is not to argue whether or not the joke was offensive, because it’s almost beside the point. Even if the joke was one that personally offended me, I still would take issue with the way Patel was treated—and how comedy was treated as a whole.
There is no such thing as “objective” indecency. Comedy, and public speaking in general, comes with the idea that some audience members are bound to disagree––it is inherently subjective. While my individual experience of the joke wouldn’t be enough to make a holistic argument about its objective decency, I would like to propose the idea that none of our experiences should. At its best, this campus is a place for active debate about universal questions: What is justice? How do we achieve it? At what point do our efforts for justice sacrifice freedom? While those who feel offended by a joke should certainly be a powerful part of the conversation, their voices shouldn’t automatically nullify any dissent.
The debatable rudeness of kicking a comedian offstage mid-set is also beside the point, because Patel’s feelings are not what’s most at stake. What is most at stake, I’d argue, is the comedy itself. Comedians make up an integral (though often undermined) pillar in society—they have operated a specific role since well before the age of George Carlin and Sarah Silverman. From the court jester to Aristophanes to Jonathan Swift, the duty of the comic has consistently been to challenge expectations.
Of course, during the lifetimes of each of these comedians, their controversial productions were often abhorred by people within rigid societal structures, as in Aristophanes’ many trials for accused slander. Retrospectively, we’re able to identify the importance of their outspokenness against societal rigidity. Yet when it comes to modern comedians—the philosophical and stylistic descendants of their predecessors—we too often fail to apply the same logic, thereby creating a collective cognitive dissonance.
Similarly, it seems reasonable to believe that many of those who objected to Patel’s performance would embrace an equally provocative—or perhaps even more aggressive—joke about the Trump administration, conservatives, or others on the right. Calling on this hypocrisy is not to say that conservatives and Trump should be spared mocking. However, this mocking only holds up so long as we’re able to maintain consistency across the board—even if it makes us uncomfortable sometimes. We can’t propose restrictions on one side of comedy and not on the other.
Some have expressed that Patel should’ve known better than to joke about race and sexuality at the identity and acceptance-themed event of cultureSHOCK. This is surely a fair point—it makes sense that the context of the event could exacerbate discomfort around his jokes. However, inviting a comedian to speak is also inviting the risk of possible offense, since we all have unique and specifically defined comfort zones. The event coordinators know the organization’s comfort levels far better than any of their guest speakers could. So why was responsibility shifted to the comedian to protect them? The Asian American Alliance seems to have had an unwritten policy that certain things couldn’t be said at its event. Given this, it likely would have been wiser to not invite a comedian at all, or at the very least, to inform him of these boundaries before the set. And if these boundaries were too broad or ill-defined to explain, it is wholly unfair to expect the comedian to intuit them.
This incident demonstrates a troubling attitude at Columbia—one that threatens the presence of comedy as its own branch of free speech on campus. A comedian’s job involves speaking freely and with some edginess. If we wish to keep comedy alive on campus, we can’t invite comedians to do their job and then cut them off as soon as it’s not being done in precisely the way we like. The survival of comedy depends on the principle that if comedy is to remain good for you, it must sometimes be not good for you. It’s required of us as audience members to accept that sometimes we’ll laugh hysterically and sometimes we’ll shift uncomfortably.
Each one of us must be willing to risk a certain amount of discomfort, or else not attend events with comedians if the risk seems too great. If a comedian dedicated their time to navigating every single person’s individual line of comfort, there would be no jokes at all. It’s because of this that we get the harmonious idea that comedy is not made for me, nor for you, nor for anyone, but only for itself.
A medieval court jester’s offensive joke might cause him ruin from a king who arrogantly believed comedy was made for himself. But here at Columbia, I believe we are beyond quickly dismissing what doesn’t fall within our own margins of comfort.
The author is Malia Simon, CC ’22, and is a lover of writing, philosophy, and good old Columbia jokes.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.