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Ruminations by Joanna Hootnick on the Nimesh Patel Incident at Columbia University

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

An Uninvited Editorial by Joanna Hootnick

The First Amendment has nebulous boundaries. It's so much more interesting and challenging than the clear-cut diagnosis of a broken bone or the straightforwardness of a restaurant order. The privilege of thinking about how we choose to think is super-meta and we should remember to appreciate that it's both recent and non-ubiquitous. Amen.

And here we are.

So this makes me sad:

For those of you who missed the story, an SNL writer had his mic cut mid-show while performing for Columbia students as a result of a joke about being black and gay; it was deemed offensive.

I could defend his joke from a variety of perspectives; starting with the fact that it was pretty funny. So let's move on; because you might not find it amusing. And our democracy affords you the right to such an opinion.

The comic tradition has served the purpose of levity and laughter when circumstances make us want to (insert whatever verb represents the current state of affairs in your mind, whether it be attending a MAGA rally or the opposite). Our reality is so polarizing that it's manifested a nickname in my industry: the "Trump bump." The coffers of environmental and civil rights causes have benefited; it has also provided comic gold. ('Amiright, Stephen Colbert? And Jimmy Fallon. And Bill and Seth and the other Jimmy and Samantha and James and Noah and John of the Olivers and all of SNL... you get it).

If given the choice between effective federal administration versus difficulty of trade, I'd hope most would decide in favor of the greater good: functioning institutions > funny jokes. However, womp womp, it's not an immediate choice. We are where we are. And our reality requires irony. So I defend Nimesh, regardless of whether or not you liked the joke, because the very purpose of this particular joke was to point out the absurdity of some current realities.

Another point in defense of the joke is harder to make because, at first blush, I'm just a white girl. My lineage is a teeny bit more nuanced when it comes to bigotry, but I appreciate that being brown or black obviates the ability to blend if so desired in a way afforded to me. So here goes: this is a person of color using irony to commentate on the way our (shared) society interacts with people of color. Hasn't he earned that right just as much as the fictional protagonist of his joke?

His name is Nimesh Patel. I say this without knowing Nimesh (though, Nimesh, call me). Maybe he was the captain of his high school football team (if that's still "cool"?) or part of glee club (if that's become "cool"?). But doesn't he deserve to have a perspective on minorities and their place in our society? Let's remember "our" society is what "we" make it. All of us.

C'mon, people. You go to Columbia. Your president is Lee C. Bollinger, a man who has dedicated his career to advocating for and defending the right to freedom of speech. (Remember how Ahmadinejad spoke on campus? Because I do...). You don't have to find Nimesh funny, but rushing him from the stage doesn't make the underlying realities of his jokes go away. It just means y'all are less equipped to debate them. Is the pen not mightier than the sword?

By Joanna Hootnick

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