The (Im)moral Police: A Defense Of Lena Dunham


I played the word “JEW” in scrabble the other day. And my wife challenged it because, according to her, it’s a proper noun. So I said: “Are you sure? ‘Cause you’re trying to jew me out of forty-five points right now.”

This joke might lose something in print, but whenever I do it on stage at a comedy show, it kills. As in: “makes a diverse crowd of the usually politically-correct denizens of Washington, D.C. laugh,” not “causes lethal acts of anti-Semitism.” Perhaps they feel safe to laugh because by that point in the set they know that I am Jewish, and my wife is not; that I am appropriating the stereotype in order to fling it right back at the persecutors. Or maybe they just find it funny. I never had to defend myself or my jokes before, but then I was never as famous as Lena Dunham.

Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” published a humor piece in the New Yorker titled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz.” The reaction should have been predictable by now. In the opening salvo titled “Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dogs & That’s Not OK,” Jordana Hall of the Jewish parenting blog Kveller called Dunham “AN ASSHOLE. And a bigot. And a huge, huge jerk.” She proceeded: “Lena, you’re not the first one to think that [Jews and dogs] should be addressed in the same piece, or equated to one another. You don’t even have to go as far back in time as Nazi Germany,” adding “(and yeah, I can call her Lena).” Jordana gives Dunham no pass for being (or dating) Jewish and challenges anyone to call her “a stick in the mud” for being easily offended, “because check it.” Twitter, of course, went bananas. Witness Ben White of POLITICO: “How on earth did the New Yorker decide it was OK to publish this disgusting @lenadunham antisemitic garbage?”

Then came the equally predictable, half-hearted defense. Andrew Wallenstein, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Variety magazine concludes: “Funny? Not really. Anti-Semitic? Hardly.” Mark Oppenheimer’s piece in Time magazine is titled “Lena Dunham’s Not an Anti-Semite, She’s Just Clueless.” And so this controversy gets framed within the now familiar dichotomies: Dunham is either unethical or merely oblivious, and her prosecutors are either flag-bearers of social justice or sticks in the mud. But the truth lies entirely outside of this framework. It is Dunham’s accusers, not Dunham, who are behaving unethically, and we as a society must finally hold them and others like them morally accountable for their actions.

Regardless of your preferred school of philosophy, you are likely to judge an action as morally sound if it meets two criteria: its intent is clearly not malicious, and no negative consequences to others can be reasonably anticipated. Let us first apply this test to Dunham’s article. Dunham asks the reader to guess whether a series of statements like: “He has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background,” refer to “(a) my dog or (b) my Jewish boyfriend?” As a Jewish male who once had his whole torso waxed (the things comedians do for comedy!), my guess is fifty-fifty (for all I know, Dunham’s dog is a Xoloitzcuintli). Other answers are more clear-cut. “He doesn’t tip” and “he never brings his wallet anywhere” clearly refer to (a) the dog. Since the instructions state that it’s either (a) or (b) but not both, it follows that they do not refer to Dunham’s boyfriend. Dunham subtly yet definitively refutes the “Jews are greedy” stereotype in this joke. It’s her dog who is the “Jew” of racist lore, not her Jewish boyfriend. At least not entirely or all of the time. She is a better comedian than I am, but our jokes are the same.

Dunham’s comedic virtuosity went entirely over the heads of her critics, but I understand that formal logic is not everyone’s strong suit. And maybe I am trying harder than necessary to disprove Dunham’s malign intent. Even the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), whose job description is to scour the zeitgeist for every evidence of malign intent against Jews, stated in a press release that they “doubt that Ms. Dunham had any intention of evoking [Jews-to-dogs] comparisons.” As to the potential to incite anti-Semitism in thought or deed, no reasonable person will argue (nor has the ADL argued) that Dunham has enabled skinheads to use her piece as propaganda. The ADL does call the article “tasteless” and “troubling” ostensibly for two reasons. First, because it “evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs.” Sure, but so does Schindler’s List. The more serious allegation is that “some will certainly find Lena Dunham’s stereotypes about cheap Jews offensive.” Even setting aside the aforementioned fact that Dunham actually tramples all over these stereotypes, the offense taken by some people cannot condemn the article as wrong. Because what if taking offense itself were morally wrong? Then indicting Dunham is equivalent to prosecuting a victim of a home invasion for leaving her door unlocked.

So let us now examine the moral value of this one of the numerous recent instances of moral outrage. Based on the discussion above, the lynch mob is clearly misrepresenting Dunham’s intent and not paying attention to the context, in which her article is set. Might people do this with a selfish purpose, albeit subconsciously pursued? It is possible. The mobsters have nothing whatsoever to lose, but something to gain from the lynching. I, for one, have never heard of Jordana Hall or until they piggybacked on Dunham’s celebrity to their fifteen minutes of fame. And what if you don’t have a blog audience or even a kvelling mother to validate your opinions and emotions? No problem. As long as you have a Twitter account and know your way around #s and @s, why you can pour down some mud and surfride it on Dunham’s coattails all the way to CBS! Yet why do the rest of us not see that it is not Dunham who is getting dirty in the process?! Whether or not you’re a stick, Jordana, you are playing in the mud. But who am I to judge – here I am as well, self-indulgently barbing you with your first name in print.

Perhaps we simply give our fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt and assume that they truly do feel that they are shame-mongering for the benefit of society. If so, we must still examine the consequences of their actions. After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps instead of refusing to see context, Dunham’s critics are simply being too intellectually lazy to look for it. This is probable. But when you use a powerful, emotionally charged label like “anti-Semitic,” and compare someone to the Nazis, the burden is on you to make sure that the accusation is deserved. The dark side of the Twitter revolution (Twitter Revolutions being the bright side) is that the stakes for lazily and falsely indicting someone for the whole world to see are now absurdly much lower than doing so at a house party. The essence of moral responsibility should be to become even more judicious in order to balance out this increased ease of intellectual laziness. Instead, the mob has completely abdicated this responsibility, and the rest of us have abdicated our own responsibility to hold the mob accountable. To use a legal analogy, it would be as if the courts simply stopped considering defamation of character a crime because defaming became more profitable.

It is possible that some commentators are vaguely aware that they are misrepresenting Dunham, but believe that censuring even a remote semblance of anti-Semitic speech is for the greater good. Presumably to spare the intellectually lazy their moral outrage. But suppose we generalized this principle to all our causes célèbres and every subject-matter of every statement we make that can potentially be misinterpreted by someone. Would justice be served in a society where each of us is liable to be punished for the moral failings of others, while those others get off with an empathetic pat on their outraged, oblivious heads?

All things considered, should this witch-hunt be deemed a moral failing or merely an intellectual one? Oftentimes, and certainly in this case, the line we draw between the two must be erased. If a literally-minded justice system put a man to death for kvetching that he “could just strangle his boss sometimes,” we would not hesitate to call this system unjust, no matter how self-righteous the executioners feel. If I were one of Lena Dunham’s critics though, I would want to keep this distinction intact. Because if I found myself being judged either (a) ignorant or (b) immoral, I would pray that the answer is (a).