So You Didn't Like Matt Rifes Jokes...

So You Didn't Like Matt Rifes Jokes...

Comedian Matt Rife's Netflix Special is taking some heat from the social justice mob, raising the question "Is not liking someone's joke worthy of the cancel culture mob?". In a world where holding a mirror up to society makes you the bad guy, here's Joel Primus' take on cancel culture and what social justice crusading really does to the world.

So, if you didn't like Matt Rife's jokes... this is for you:

The other week, Comedian Matt Rife told a joke that offended some people...cue the social justice mob going on the hunt to cancel him. He later sort of apologized and explained himself, which just added fuel to the already burning fire.

I’m not going to share the joke or his apology because I don’t think what exactly was said matters. What matters is our reaction to it.

So, why do I care?

Well for starters, Matt has had me on the floor in stitches I was laughing so hard. Laughing is a medicine I don’t serve myself nearly enough so I guess I’m grateful for that. He’s also an inspiration. Fit, smart, talented and a “started from the bottom…” kind of story that lights me up as I pursue my aspirational endeavours. This past summer, I asked our publicist if she thought he’d be open to doing an underwear campaign with Naked Revival. As I'm writing this, we haven't reached out to Matt (yet), but now I want to even more.

I’ve been writing about this odd anti-culture we share for a few months now. Actually, I’ve been writing about it for a few years—three, to be precise—but I lacked the guts to click “post” on anything. Simply, I feared being “cancelled” for sharing my thoughts! The act, unlike Lincoln’s famous angry letters that were left unsent in a desk drawer, wasn’t cathartic or unburdening. I felt a bit ashamed for not speaking up. I was also frustrated. I felt marooned. I felt like I was flailing for truth, and I was confused as to why so many people seemingly still could not see the insanity of the culture wars unfolding before them.

So, herein lies an attempt, in the spirit of trying to make sense of things for myself, to hit “post” on one such blog.

Before I start, dear reader, I must say I’m all bent out of shape these days. So, hopefully not much of that “bentness” ends up in here. I’m hoping to provide a rational opposing point of view to what seemed like a rational response to the events that transpired around Mr. Rife. Comedian says something that offends people, comedian gets canceled.

I saw it differently.

For me, comedy is a noble profession that upholds not only the true essence and philosophical purpose of free speech but also of truth and sincerity. It cuts through the layers of the façade and hits the heart. Because of the messenger, (the comic) the medium (entertainment) and the agreement we make by engaging in that entertainment, it's one art that allows us to laugh at ourselves. It offers a sacred haven where we are allowed to take the seriousness out of an otherwise serious life. Moreover, it challenges our beliefs and assumptions and in doing so breaks the ice that enables societal and cultural progress. At least, that’s my take on comedy.

So, hear me out. I’m going to macro this out beyond Mr. Rife and discuss cancel culture in general.

To be clear, although I do not want to live in a world where people call each other nasty things, I’d much LESS desire to live in a world where there are limits on what we can say short of inciting real harm to people and 2) where someone or even multitudes of people lose their careers because a few people were offended by hearing something that someone should not have said to them.

Instead, the world I want to live in is one where some words and jokes, even bad ones, can sometimes just be “words” and “jokes”— bursts of misguided energy or a bad moment — and not the connotative meaning we apply when we hear them. I want to live in a world where, when someone offends us, or even hurts us with vitriol, we can take a breath, step back and look in the mirror and say, “Damn, you know, maybe I was acting a tad difficult.” Or, “Damn, that person must be hurting deeply right now to say such a thing". Or “I wonder why they find that so funny?”

Failing self-ownership and self-awareness, at least let’s live in a world where we can take responsibility for the part we play in a bad outcome. Then our friends can call us out and say, “You know, you were being a bit of a asshole there…”

Instead, someone is offended when called a bad word, uses social media to validate their victimhood so they can feel better, and ignites other people—who also don’t feel great about themselves—to rally behind them, and the sentiment is: “If I feel bad, then other people need to feel bad with me.”

It’s like the line from Hunger Games where Katniss says, “You see that, fire is catching. If we burn, you burn with us.”

That very line was then propagated by the leader of the rebellion who turned out to be just as evil and tyrannical as the current overlord. In other words, mass hysteria often only serves the agenda of one, usually, the one asking for hysterics…even if those hysterics are rooted in a just cause. Further, whether our victimization is justified or not, it can still be weaponized. And when it is weaponized, more people can be hurt.

This is the moment we live in right now. Instead of dealing with our grievances and our perpetrators directly, we post to the world that we’ve been wronged. We demand justice from the court of public opinion. We ask them to weigh in on our problem or their problem and have people condemned and cancelled. It’s been years of this, centuries really. Have we not learned anything from our barbaric ancestors?

Sort of.

I’m old enough to remember a brief time when this wasn’t the case. Although certain circumstances and people require the court of public opinion to remain honest and just, politics and multinational corporations come to mind, to me this situation could have been handled differently.

It is after all comedy, to try to give our angsty selves the gift of laughter - boundaries must be pushed, that’s how they break through. Sometimes it works and sometimes it misses the mark. Ultimately, you don’t have to tune in.

Even if Mr. Rife shouldn’t have said this joke, does it really -- and I mean really -- mean this person should be made an example of? We stopped hammering people who said the wrong thing to crosses and burning them at the stake eons ago. Certainly, that was “barbaric” and we’re nothing like that now. But are our now more subtle and digitized ways of career-ending character assassination any different?

Again, this is antithetical to the very social justice and human rights movement being championed. When we cancel someone, we become the very thing we are fighting against. We become the disparager. We become the intolerant bigot. We perpetuate the cycle of pain and hurt that we felt.

We need people to push ideas and not be ostracized by society.

Of course, we do need to learn our lesson when we act poorly. Firing someone is certainly one way of teaching it; but character assassination, public defaming and cancellation rarely achieve their intended result. As an aside, sometimes I wonder how much of all this hysteria and cancellation is just theatre, a game we play to grab attention.

When did it become unacceptable for people to make mistakes, sometimes even small ones?

When did we lose consideration for the nuance of ALL the circumstances that may have led to the mistake in the first place?

When did guilt by association become the rule and not the exception?

When did viewers (and even non-viewers who don’t have a dog in the fight and don’t know all the details) get to decide who gets cancelled?

When did everything become so offensive that we need to make public displays of our being offended?

The argument I always hear is that social justice by virtue of cancel culture, as our story outlines, holds us to a higher standard of humanity. Policing each other makes us better citizens by making us aware of what we can and cannot do or say. Ensuring no one ever gets their feelings hurt makes workplaces and social spaces safer. Conversely, it also makes us more insecure and vulnerable.

I agree we need social progress. We need to continue our process of healing from the blatant mistakes of the past. Social progress is a good thing until it manifests as the very bigotry and intolerance it condemns. Until it amplifies the toxic polarization it aims to mend. Until it makes everyone so scared to open their mouths that they fall in line and self-censor. Congenial discussion and sincere questions are the lifeblood of progress and social justice, not gaslighting, vilifying and destroying each other.

And what, then, does the promised land of cancel culture look like?

Someone says something bad, really bad even, and is righteously crucified to a Twitter-shaped-cross as a harsh reminder to all those who pass by that transgression is punishable by public defamation.

I often ask if Matt Rife, or the like, was your child, knowing all that you know about “your child”, would you still think he deserved to be cancelled because of a bad joke? Probably not! That’s because mothers (and close friends) know that we are not one thing and not defined by one moment or action.

For someone to keep their job after saying something terrible to someone (or to no one specifically as in the case of Matt Rife) doesn’t mean you condone their action. The ultimate punishment isn’t always required. For one, you could just ignore it. Or Compassion can be just as powerful a teacher as condemnation. I’d argue it’s more powerful. As the saying goes: Hate begets hate. Love begets love.

Again, this is antithetical to the very social justice and human rights movement being championed. When we cancel someone, we become the very thing we are fighting against. We become the disparager. We become the intolerant bigot. We perpetuate the cycle of pain and hurt that we felt. We become modern barbarians, relishing in our version of the witch trials. Is the person who bullies the bully not then a bully themselves? Remember, there is often a fine line between vigilante and criminal, between protester and destructive mob, between crusader and crucifier, and between utopia and dystopia.

Maybe the person who said or did the bad thing had it coming. There are most certainly varying degrees of “wrongness” and “they got what they deserved.” We must tread carefully as we draw these lines, and before we take out our red marker, we need to take a good hard look in the mirror.

We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. That comes with being human.

And what about the cancel-culture crusader (or crucifier)? Once we’ve successfully cancelled someone, what shore do we wash up on? A happier one? A more peaceful one? Do we feel better inside? Or do we just keep on social crusading because A) So many misaligned people out there need social training or B) There is no number of cancellations that’ll ever fill the void inside? Is it not that our responses are more a reflection of how we feel about ourselves than of others? Does the world not reflect our own feelings right back at us? It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I’ve personally found that to be true in my own life. We cannot fix the external world, only the internal one. So we must ask ourselves: What is it inside us that feels the need to cancel this person?

Here’s another twist. What if, just maybe, one day the cancellation-culture crusade cancels you? Maybe we took our “crusading” a little too far, were not up with the latest in newly established taboos, and the mob we helped start turns on us. Will you not then wish you could justify your actions? Wish forgiveness from your perpetrators? Wish people could see the nuance in the error of your ways? Wish this all could just be settled person to person?

Maybe, like me, we’re all a little bent out of shape right now and need to take a breath before we join the cancel-culture mob. What was that axiom my parents always used to say? “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” They didn’t get everything right, but that one certainly rings true.

And if you’re still going to do it—hit that post button on your condemnation of someone, fire a hardworking service provider, or end a career because you’re worried about how it might be interpreted—then I leave you with two quotes from two other humans we also tried to cancel:

If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.

— Jesus


Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.

— Mahatma Gandhi

Feel free to disagree with me. But I think we could all stand to be a little gentler, take a joke a little better and be a little less involved.

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