Comedian Kathy Griffin has been taking serious heat for posing with a bloody effigy of President Donald Trump’s severed head in a picture by photographer Tyler Shields. Yes, President Trump is a polarizing figure but even many of his detractors have deemed Griffin’s actions to be a step too far. Consequently, Griffin’s tour gigs have been canceled and CNN (not big supporters of the current administration) fired her as co-host of their annual New Year’s Eve special, which she and Anderson Cooper have headlined for the past several years.
Griffin is complaining that the Trumps are out to destroy her, and it would be understandable if that’s in fact the case. (How would you respond if someone posed for such a picture based on a member of your family?) But it’s not just the Trumps who were upset with the photograph. There’s a consensus that Shields’ photo of Griffin simply goes too far. When Griffin’s attorney invoked other artists who have used images violent toward the president without invoking this kind of wrath, that just underscored that there’s something different about this situation.
What’s important to note is that Griffin is not being censored. No one is denying that she has a right to pose for such photographs. Some would even say that the job of art is to push boundaries and make people uncomfortable. That’s great but one must remember that when we push boundaries, the boundaries are going to push back.
There’s a history of art creating controversy, both intentionally and unintentionally. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which advocated alleviating poverty by selling the children of the poor for food, is today considered a classic of satire but it didn’t make Swift too popular at the time. Immersion, a photograph by Andres Serrano better known by another name not suitable to repeat here, depicts a crucifix, complete with a figure of Jesus, submerged in a vial of the artist’s urine. Award-winning though it may be, you can imagine that this piece of art is not universally loved. There are certain things you have to expect are going to ruffle feathers. How they may be viewed 10, 50, or 200 years later is anybody’s guess but there are things that any intuitive person should be able to anticipate are going to be unpopular today.
The law of unintended consequences should come as no surprise to anyone who makes their living in comedy. Lenny Bruce was the first person to be convicted of obscenity in New York City. Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice of the Aflac duck for tweeting an insensitive joke in the aftermath of a Japanese tsunami. George Carlin, Don Imus, Joan Rivers, Dane Cook, Stephen Colbert, Seth McFarlane, Louis C.K., and numerous others have been castigated for jokes deemed racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic or in other ways offensive. There’s no way Griffin didn’t know that certain things go over like a lead balloon. That’s the risk inherent in pushing people’s buttons for a living: you don’t get to dictate how people react to having their buttons pushed.
This is the part where I share a Biblical analog for whatever point I’m trying to make. When it comes to people making bad decisions and having to deal with unintended consequences, there is no shortage of examples. Achan didn’t expect to be executed with extreme prejudice for looting in the time of Joshua. Elisha’s disciple Gechazi did not anticipate being struck with leprosy as a consequence of pursuing Naaman for a reward. Yeravam did not expect his entire family to be cursed with premature death for setting up idols to keep his subjects from visiting the Temple. The list goes on and on.
I almost settled on King Saul as our Biblical exemplar but I ultimately decided that if Judaism had a patron saint of bad judgment, it would be Yiftach (Jephthah). Yiftach was a great military leader but he was not as esteemed for piety or erudition. In Judges chapter 11, he vowed to God that, if successful in battle, he would sacrifice as an offering the first thing to greet him upon his return. This was a bad idea to start with as Yiftach could have been greeted by a pig or a dog, which would be unfit as sacrifices. As it happened, Yiftach was first greeted by his daughter, which was exponentially worse. His poor decision-making skills continued to shine as he failed to have the vow annulled and the daughter agreed to honor her father’s vow. In his favor, there is good reason to believe that Yiftach did not actually offer his daughter up as a sacrifice, but that she became sanctified and never married. (Her friends specifically mourned “her virginity” rather than “her life.”) In either case, Yiftach is not held in the same high regard as Judges like Devorah or Gidon. He no doubt thought pledging a sacrifice to God was a good idea but he lacked the vision to foresee the consequences of his choices.
That’s the thing about unintended consequences: they’re unintended. We do our best to anticipate all the relevant factors but none of us can foresee every variable. However, if one is going to say and do things with the express purpose to shock, whether hoping for a laugh or to make a political statement, it would be foolish not to expect pushback. Shock is what one was hoping for and shock is what one received. At that point, any unforeseen negative consequences are merely the result of being more successful than anticipated. Satire is a dangerous game. If one chooses to play, it’s only a matter of time until one gets bit, so try not to be too surprised.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.