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Unpacking Trevor Noah’s Non-Apology

Unpacking Trevor Noah’s Non-Apology

You may have heard, but Trevor Noah is on Twitter. 

Yesterday, he tweeted this assemblage characters in reaction to outrage over his sexist, anti-Semitic musings from the past:

“To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”

After phoning Viacom to check the status of their security deposit, Comedy Central released a statement to similar effect. I’d like to unpack this response line-by-line. 

In the first place, Noah’s views aren’t being “reduced.” I don’t think anyone expects him to take to “The Daily Show” with a monologue spun from misogyny and Jewish stereotypes. Quite the opposite, my guess is that we can expect him to be especially cautious about those subjects. What people are doing is questioning the wisdom of installing someone whose style is deeply at odds with the show’s mission.

He’s not just someone who made some disgusting jokes. He’s also the guy who’s taking over for Jon Stewart, a fallible but stalwart defender of marginalized people. 

And if anyone would reduce him, that’s their right. That’s the cost of doing business. 

Second, they aren’t “jokes that didn’t land.” They’re jokes that did and do land. They’re jokes that got thousands of favorites and retweets, and procured new followers for Noah. If the response to those jokes was uniformly negative, he’d have no incentive to make them. 

His words don’t represent amateur or unwieldy attempts at comedy. They contain the beats and observations of a popular Twitter comedian. The problem with his tweets is not the quality of the comedy, it’s the source and nature of the laughs.

People can argue that those things are inextricable: that no joke preying on overweight women or Jewish people can be considered “good comedy,” and it’s a legitimate point. But as a matter of taste, those jokes have an audience. 

We don’t know Noah’s “true character.” To say that his words are inconsistent with his values may be true. But to act as if those values are self-evident is ludicrous. It’s not my job or your job or Buzzfeed’s job to mine his material for evidence of “his true character.” We’re not responsible for constructing a defense of Noah’s character. 

One of the leading criticisms of Noah’s selection is that we don’t know him, or his comedy. He’s appeared on “The Daily Show” just a few times and won’t be a household name for months. What we do know: He hasn’t apologized. This was a teeball moment to show some of that “character” and Noah decided to get indignant and defensive instead. 

Rather than owning his contribution to ugly and harmful attitudes, Noah would have us believe that he’s besieged by political correctness. He retweeted a Seth MacFarlane line about how there are more important things happening in the world than Trevor Noah’s Twitter feed. I know! That old yarn.

The problem is that Noah’s new job is to talk about those things on “The Daily Show.” Many of those things involve Jewish people and women. If he wants to be taken seriously discussing those topics, he needs to get right with his history of offensive statements. 

Moreover, Jon Stewart has made his career eviscerating rationalizations like “there are more important things happening in the world than [blank].”

This isn’t about Noah’s “evolution as a comedian.” It’s about his evolution as a person.

Offensive remarks about Jews and women don’t illustrate the kind of comedian Noah is. They speak to the kind of a person he is, or was. And so rather than asking us to understand his evolution as a comic, it would be helpful for him to provide some insight about his evolution as a human being. 

In my experience, hateful attitudes are the result of feeling lost, angry, and alone. In some cases, they’re a sign of ignorance. Maybe he’s been through therapy, maybe he’s had a spiritual awakening. Maybe he was going through a really rough time. Maybe he got a stern lecture from his mother or a Chosen friend. I’m limitlessly open-minded to the capacity for people to become better people, but I need to be met halfway.

Noah forfeited his right to the benefit of the doubt when he elected not to apologize. Nothing he said is unforgivable, but he’s given me no incentive to consider forgiving him. This puts fans of “The Daily Show” in the uncomfortable and alarming position of talking reason to our incoming “voice of reason.” When public figures are untoward and downright wrong, “The Daily Show” holds them accountable. With few exceptions, Jon Stewart lives two steps ahead of these media fiascos, and so should his successor. It might be too late.

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