A few days ago, Patton Oswalt made a string of tweets in which he apologized for tweets with purportedly racist, transphobic, and sexist content. The “joke” was that the unacceptable tweets he was apologizing for didn’t actually exist. Anyone who voiced concern or anger was retweeted onto his timeline in ridicule and portrayed as a gullible buffoon who “fell for” his little joke. Predictably, people started describing what Patton had done as “genius” and “masterful” and “epic” for proving just how overly sensitive people are. Here are those epic and masterful tweets:
Yikes. Had to delete another Tweet. I crossed a line on that one. Also, I thought 12 YEARS A SLAVE and THE BUTLER were brilliant.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt)
May 7, 2014
PLEASE disregard last Tweet. Already deleted. Transphobia is hurtful, and I’m a big fan of HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt)
May 7, 2014
Forgive me. Previous Tweet deleted. Sorry. Yes, we all know what “grape”, “ape”, “tape” & “cape” rhyme with. I’m an asshole.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt)
May 7, 2014
Patton Oswalt posted satirical apologies, and insufferable whiners got offended over nothing. That was the prevailing narrative of this little event. Too bad that isn’t what actually happened. Many of the people who Patton ridiculed via his retweets knew perfectly well that the fake tweets he was apologizing for didn’t exist - in reality, they were upset by the awful implications of the faked apology tweets themselves, which obviously did exist. And Patton’s tweets, far from being “clever” and the mark of a true master of satire, were all too predictable and merely smokescreens for criticizing people fighting against racism and sexism.
Getting Mad About “Nothing”
Patton Oswalt certainly didn’t intend to be an apologist for racism and sexism. What he was trying to prove is that people “look” for reasons to get upset, and will get upset over nothing. So he pretended to have deleted racist and sexist tweets via faked apologies, and anyone who took offense was thus taking offense to tweets that did not actually exist. That is, they were getting mad about nothing.
The problem with this interpretation is that Patton Oswalt didn’t post “nothing”. He posted a string of tweets that were clearly aimed at a particular demographic and clearly mocking them. But how could that be, you ask, if he did not actually post the offensive tweets he was pretending to apologize for?
Language, you see, can transcend its literal meanings, wrap itself in layers of sarcasm and irony, contain hidden implications, even reveal biases the author never intended. Patton’s tweets weren’t just literal references to nonexistent tweets; they were attacks on people who care about social justice issues like racism or sexism, implying that they are overly sensitive, actively searching for things to be offended by without good reason, and humorless buffoons who do not comprehend jokes or satire. But he couldn’t just come right out and say that feminists and the people concerned about these issues are idiots. That would be too brazen, too easily criticized. Instead, what he had to do was put together tweets that were clearly insults aimed at this community, but which were disguised as satirical apologies. And then, to put the icing on the cake, those who could see through the smoke screen to what these tweets actually implied, and thus criticized him for it, could then be cast as idiotic reactionaries who didn’t understand the joke, and who indeed are humorless husks of humanity with no conscious inner life beyond their need to feel offended.
To illustrate Patton’s sleight of hand here, imagine I wrote the following tweet:
"I deleted the tweet calling you a big steaming pile of shit who whines a lot. I’m deeply sorry for insinuating that your head is capable of going into your anus while you cry like a big baby. I’m a terrible person."
Obviously, this statement isn’t meant to be taken literally. For one, presumably the apology is fake because the original tweet I claim to have deleted does not exist. This leads you to believe that I am not in fact sorry for anything, and certainly do not believe that I’m actually a terrible person. And from there, you can only assume that in fact the tweet is meant as an insult, targeting you. What the tweet would be implying is that I actually do think you’re a whiny, steaming pile of shit, that I think it’s ludicrous that I’d have to apologize for thinking it, and that I’m not a terrible person at all for having that opinion.
The sleight of hand comes in when you rightly get upset by what is obviously an insult aimed at you. I’m basically calling you a whiny piece of shit, so it would be natural to get upset. But at that point, I can claim that I did not actually make a tweet calling you a big steaming pile of shit, I merely pretended to apologize for one. I can then claim that you are a silly buffoon just eagerly searching for reasons to get upset over nothing, because I didn’t actually post a tweet saying that, and that you are in fact proving my point that you are whiny. Most onlookers (who would happen to be my fans) would agree with me, seeing that I didn’t actually say the tweet I pretended to apologize for, no doubt calling this cunning ruse “brilliant” and “genius” for tricking you. What they wouldn’t understand is that you aren’t actually upset at a fake deleted tweet you conjured up in your own mind - you’re upset by the fake apology tweet itself, because it implies you’re a whiny piece of shit. But because I hid this insult within a fake satirical apology, and also implied you were whiny, any protesting you do can be twisted to seem as if you’re an overly sensitive imbecile.
Who Was Patton Targeting?
Was Patton really trying to target people and insult them with those fake apology tweets, baiting them into replying and getting upset, so that he could then spring the trap where he could portray them as idiots who don’t “get” humor? Yep. Who was he targeting? Well, that’s rather obvious when you stop to think about it. His fake apology tweets mention offensive topics such as transphobia, racism, rape jokes, etc. He even includes the handle for Lindy West with the sarcastic tag #tolerance. And prior to all his tweets, he had retweeted this:
It’s amazing how many people spend their lives in paranoid preparation for an assault by forces that don’t give a fuck about them.
— Barry Crimmins (@crimmins)
May 5, 2014
With all that context noted, it’s clear that he’s targeting the “social justice” and feminist communities of Twitter. These are the people who care about transphobia, racism, and rape jokes. These are the people who are all too often accused of being “too sensitive” and “getting mad about nothing”. These are the people who are perceived as spending their lives “in paranoid preparation for an assault by forces that don’t give a fuck about them”. These are the people Patton proceeded to assault and show that he didn’t give a fuck about.
Knowing that these faked apologies were targeting them, mocking them, and implying they’re overly sensitive, many people naturally called Patton on this. These people’s criticisms were swiftly retweeted as examples of rubes who didn’t get the joke, and as an invitation for Patton’s more idiotic fans to descend upon them with insults. Many of Patton’s fans were too dense to see that the fake apology tweets themselves are actually incredibly insulting and aimed squarely at people who care about sexism and racism. Most people still don’t understand this. But it’s incredibly obvious that’s what he was trying to do.
Worst of all, Patton’s satirical tweets ended up embodying the very sexism and racism he would normally decry. Regardless of what his intentions were, these tweets clearly rely on implicit sexism/racism for their humor. Avery Edison (@aedison) showed just that by diagramming one of his tweets and laying out the message implicit in his “fake” apology for a rape joke:
And given that his tweets were aimed at insulting people who deeply care about preventing racism/sexism, essentially implying they are overly sensitive fools for caring about people who make “jokes” about these issues at the expense of their victims, and that such jokes are acceptable and okay, all the while relying on the racism/sexism these tweets lead you to conjure in your mind for their humor, it’s safe to say that these tweets themselves are, in their own way, implicitly racist and sexist.
People think that Patton showed just how overly sensitive and gullible people are, and they’re right: a large number of gullible and overly sensitive people thought that Patton Oswalt did nothing wrong, and were horribly offended that people would suggest his tweets were problematic for suggesting racism and sexism are acceptable. They thought Patton’s tweets were good when in fact they were bad. I can’t believe those idiots fell for that joke.