Stop Being So Sensitive, Penn Jillette.

Almost daily I find myself thinking, “I sure wish men would stop being such sensitive crybabies!” That might seem odd, considering the “stop being so sensitive” line is often levied at women, people of color, LGBT folks, or other oppressed groups – it’s not typically hurled at mostly-privileged white dudes. After all, they aren’t the sensitive ones! It’s those awful women, complaining about sexist jokes and the misogynist assholes they have to put up with.

Perhaps it is the men who need to stop being so goddamn sensitive. To make my case, we need look no further than two of our movement’s most prominent people: American Atheist’s Dave Muscato and The Apprentice‘s Penn Jillette. When Dave recently posted on Facebook about a woman’s tactics to responding to sexist jokes, Penn Jillette had this to say:

Who fucking made you the god of jokes? Who gives a fuck if you think a joke is sexist? Does anyone care? Or care if you pretend not to get it.. I mean, does anyone care you think they’re misogynist? And why do you have to have strategies for social situations? How about just dealing with your friends? You really think you’re protecting someone by “getting in someone’s face” about a fucking joke? Is that noble? And what do you know about comedy? I didn’t think you were a pro, or any sort of expert on that. Why would you be better at articulating how a joke works socially than the person telling the joke? Understanding the exact POV of a joke on a sexual, or racial, or religious subject — is something that a team of pros would have to think about a lot. And then have different opinions on. If you can do this, off the top of your head, in a social situation — you should be making a metric shitton of money doing this professionally. Just an amazing post. Insane.

Wow, Penn. I feel like you need to stop being so sensitive! Your language is really harsh, and I think you probably need to be a bit more civil. Maybe take it down a notch – you’re never going to bring people to your side with that tone! Chill out, man!

I was extremely surprised to see Dave Muscato, a proponent of civility, fail to call him out on what was clearly a very hostile comment. It’s obvious that Penn was being hysterical, and needed to be talked off his emotional ledge. In an attempt at humor, I tried telling Penn (in his own words) that he should take his own sage advice:

Apparently this crossed Dave’s civility line, as he stated:

I’m about to start a live podcast so I have to go, but Courtney Alexandra Caldwell I don’t allow people to tell others on my wall to shut up—I’ve deleted your comment. There are appropriate ways to disagree and inappropriate ways and that’s the latter

Jillette posted a rambling, nearly incoherent post about how nobody should tell him what kind of jokes are inappropriate or not. He calls people who think jokes can be sexist (be it by lived experience, or because what the person said was sexist, or anything else), “insane.” According to Dave Muscato, that’s an appropriate, civil way  to disagree with someone. That’s frank discussion. Sending them a gif of their own words? That’s crossing the line.

To quote my friend Aaron Underwood, “It’s like Dave can say basically anything if he extrapolates a horrible idea just so far and delivers it in such superfluous and neutral language that it is seemingly inoffensive.” At the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to: Perpetuate whatever horrible idea you want, just please, for the love of all that is good, don’t upset the status quo. This is why civility politics are horse shit – they are used to police the justified anger of women, people of color, disabled people, trans individuals, and other oppressed groups. It’s rare to see someone shout, “Be Civil!” at the privileged majority (and certainly not at atheist heroes that major organizations like American Atheists want to cozy up to). Civility is nothing more than a word that gets tossed around by pontificating assholes with zero actual experience in the oppression being discussed. Perhaps it isn’t the oppressed groups that the word “sensitive” should be leveled at. Maybe it’s the ones who can’t bear to be told to shut up every once in a while.

EDIT 6/19 7:30pm: It appears Dave Muscato has removed the original post from his Facebook page; however, you can still view screencaps of some of the conversation here.

Courtney Caldwell

Courtney Caldwell is an intersectional feminist. Her talents include sweary rants, and clogging your social media with pictures of her dogs (and occasionally her begrudging cat). She's also a political nerd, whose far-left tendencies are a little out of place in the deep red Texas.

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  1. Nobody on this planet is as easily offended as white cis men.
    Seriously, they usually tell us that “we” need to toughen up, that we need to stop being offended, that we’re just over-emotional when actually the smallest suggestion that they might not be god’s gift to the human race sends them into a mouth-frothing temper-tantrum that puts a hungry and tired three year old to shame.

    1. I’m offended by this comment. I’m also offended by the fact that I’m offended by this comment. I’m also offended by the fact that my being offended proves your point. Argh!

      Wait, if being easily offended is something us white cis guys are good at, shouldn’t we decree it a good thing and revel in it?

    2. I honestly think it’s because we don’t get enough practice. When we do get offended, especially by people who aren’t supposed to offend us (women), it stings a little extra because we’ve been taught not to expect it.

  2. I’m sick of the tone argument or civility police because I don’t want to be civil to people who don’t even think I’m a full human being who gets to decide who to have sex with, whether I procreate, or thinks I should just take their abusive bullshit in general. What’s more offensive, their opinion that I’m a walking incubator with no right to my own body, or my calling them an asshole for thinking of me that way? Thinking queer people don’t deserve the same rights everyone else has, or calling someone an asshole for thinking that way? Shoving your religion down someone’s throat, or calling someone out for trying to impose their beliefs on someone else?

    I do not get how the words asshole or fuck make what I’m doing worse than the people who want to abrogate my rights.

    1. Understandable, but – personally – I believe you don’t maintain civility for the benefit of the other person: you do it because that’s what differentiates decent human beings from trash like Penn.

      It ain’t easy, though, and I can afford civility as a matter of some culturally-ordained advantages granted my species. I certainly don’t blame anybody for meeting wanton, domineering assholery with all the vitriol it’s due.

    2. When I see anger like this… I start reading it normally, but then I start to trail off. Word by word, the anger speaks louder than the actual words that have been written. And by the second sentence, the only thing I have taken away is “I am extremely mad.”

      You may as well just replace the entire post with profanity aimed at whomever you are displeased with, it would be as effective.

      I am not familiar with the tone or civility police, but I can tell you that it is possible to go too hard, too fast and end up not getting your point across. Just an observation.

  3. Penn Jillette is a over-privileged dickhead who, with the exception of magic, is a talent-less hack. And his more-skeptical-than-thou attitude gets real old real quick, especially considering that his skepticism evaporates when it comes to the things he just “believes” to be true.

    Like so many libertarians he is solely concerned about the things that effect him and his and fuck everyone else. It’s selfish and frankly I’d rather spend time with a theist who disagrees with me but respects me than one of Jillette’s type of self-important self-absorbed brand of holier-than-thou, oh-so-above-you bullshit artists. That goes for Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins and any number of “skeptics” that refuse to see you as a human worthy of their air the moment you deign to disagree. (I’m looking at you Dunning)

    This is after all the man who, when the whole “women aren’t funny” ridiculousness came around put his two cents in by attacking a woman blogger (columnist, I can’t remember which) who gave 10 examples of how women are funny for daring to use the “same joke” more than once in the article. The same man who produced a movie where the sole premise was to tell ONE JOKE over and over and over again. Wow what a putz, we really need to stop looking up to turd-munchers like this just because we agree on one or two points. Pathetic.

    1. And he’s even an asshole about magic. When he pushed Apollo Robbins to demonstrate his pickpocketing skills (because Jillette thinks pickpockets are lame-ass performers), and Robbins pulled it off beautifully, he was just as gracious and admiring as you might expect:

      “Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

      “Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.”


    2. He’s a bold personality. And he talks out of his ass. But he talks out his ass boldly, and I guess that’s an alright substitute for knowing what the fuck you’re talking about.

      Particularly love his stance on vaccines and whether or not they can cause autism. He doesn’t waste time with studies, or even anecdotal evidence… he just looks into the camera and shouts “THEY FUCKING DON’T!!!”

      He’s a modern marvel.

  4. Wow, sounds like Mr Jillette had a bit of a temper tantrum, there. He really needs to grow a thicker skin if he wishes to be in the spotlight like that. Maybe he’s just acting hysterical and playing the victim card for attention. Perhaps someone can get his bottle and pacifier ready. I suspect it’s past his bed time.

  5. On a more serious note, can someone explain to me why Penn Jillette gets to be an atheist hero of truth, dispensing scientific, social, and economic advice as though he were an expert (or even moderately educated) in any of those things? He’s a goddamn stage magician. He went to literal clown college. His whole schtick just screams “Famous personality says things I like, therefore he’s a genius” and I’m really sick of everyone acting like Mr Vegas Sideshow’s opinions are sacrosanct scientific truths. How do we lower the unemployment rate? Let’s check in with Gallagher, see what he has to say about it.

    1. I think it was Asimov who said something like there’s a vicious anti-intellectual streak in the American psyche – it begins with the premise that all people are deserving of equal consideration and ends with the notion that everybody’s opinions are therefore worth the same.

      But that just ain’t how it works: some opinions can be supported with rational, reasonable arguments, at least in part, with some evidence. You may not like them, but they’ve got plenty of good reasons being what they are – like vaccinations, or anthropogenic climate change, and what to do about them.

      Other opinions are just opinions. Like the beauty of the color blue, the tastiness of anchovies on pizza, or the relative stupidity of Bono’s sunglasses.

      For some reason beyond my mortal comprehension, lots and lots of people can’t tell the difference between these two kinds of opinions.

  6. Penn Jillette is a bully and an asshole. He’s useful for one thing, though: as a litmus test for what to expect out of people. If someone says they love him, you can bet that they are most likely a slymepit-friendly libertarian atheist who scoffs at the idea of formal harassment policies at conferences and thinks that Dawkins is the guiding intellect of a generation.

    1. A few episodes of Bullshit were entertaining and informative. But whenever he started to deviate from the scientific community, it became less laughing with him and more laughing at him. Kinda like Dunning, except I can add “-Kruger” at the end of Dunning’s name.

  7. Oh, come on, I read part of one of his books. I know he has expertise. If ever I needed to have an opinion on the quality of silicone breast implants, he’s the man.

  8. The difference between Penn’s and Courtney’s posts is that Penn expressed an opinion, while the Courtney, rather than responding to Penn’s opinion, simply says he should shut up. I didn’t read anything in Penn’s comment that suggested he was offended by Dave’s original post, nor did I read anything about a lack of civility in Dave’s response to the Courtney. I don’t think Dave’s decision to delete Courtney’s post has anything to do with her lack of civility, I think it’s a lack of argument. Telling someone to shut up is inappropriate, mainly because it adds nothing to the discussion.

    1. Sorry, but Jillette’s comment was as close to saying “shut the fuck up” as you can get without mouthing the actual words, all the while implying that he knows comedy better than those who point out misogyny. You’re welcome to believe there was nothing wrong with his comment but please don’t insult our intelligence by insisting that it was anything other than dismissive whining.

    2. Boomer says:

      I don’t think Dave’s decision to delete Courtney’s post has anything to do with her lack of civility, I think it’s a lack of argument. Telling someone to shut up is inappropriate, mainly because it adds nothing to the discussion.

      Dave said: “I’ve deleted your comment. There are appropriate ways to disagree and inappropriate ways and that’s the latter”

      It never ceases to amaze me how people see what they want to see.

    3. What mrmisconception and Will said, but also: you may be right that simply saying “shut the fuck up” is a “lack of argument.” But using an animation of Penn Jillette, a person who is known for, and an apologist of, aggressive incivility, saying it in response to his own angry, uncivil comments is a pretty obvious and pointed commentary.

  9. What’s this? Penn Jillette waving his baby fists and screaming his baby head off? *yawn* Nothin’ new there. His usual MO is to pitch a fit, then delete all his comments and go back to his private feed where all his sycophants will massage his ego. And if anyone does it wrong, he won’t invite them to his sooper sekrit cool kids only shindig at TAM. I get sick to my stomach when I think of how I used to think he was awesome.

    1. I was lucky. The first time I encountered Jillette, my thought was ‘he’s right about the point but what a douchebaggy way of making it.” So, I took it that the douchebaggy part was an accurate reflection while the being right was of the stopped clock variety. So far, I haven’t seen evidence to disabuse me of that opinion.

      1. Being a douchebag doesn’t keep him from being right, it just makes people not want to point it out when he is wrong so as not to active the special douchebag powers. He is wrong on many, many things but there is no brakes on it since the wall of douchebag makes confronting him difficult, he has no qualms about being wrong very loudly as long as it insulates his opinion.

      2. Amusingly enough, I happened to be in a diner last night where a TV was on CNN (ugh), and Anthony Bourdain (ugh) was talking with Penn Jillette (ugh). I wasn’t really watching, but my partner called my attention to Jillette saying something about new Vegas nightclubs like, “I can’t tell if I don’t like them because I’m too old or because I’m not douchey enough.”

        I said, “If those are the only two options, it’s definitely that he’s too old.”

      3. Penn Jilette is a walking, talking example of Walter Sobchak Syndrome.

        “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”

        with of course the added disadvantage that he’s often wrong.

  10. No big surprise about easily offended white men. Look at Fox News some time, with new PC terms like “homicide bomber” and “death tax”.

    Sadly, I know of a sandwich shop that’s really good, but the TV shows Fox News constantly, so I feel like I’m killing brain cells there faster than at the bar next door.

    You notice how a lot of these guys (and yes, they are mostly guys) like Penn Jillette are also evopsych true believers?

  11. Penn Jillette is not only an asshole but he’s lousy skeptic who let himself get used like a sucker by Steve Milloy and the CATO institute, yet continues to associate with them. The second hand smoke fiasco wasn’t even him using minority opinions to be contrarian, he was repeating lies bought and paid for by the Tobacco Industry for the purpose of being disseminated by him and John Stossel (another piece of work), so as to obscure the real science. Yet, despite being made a fool of, he still hangs out with them. That the JREF still considers him a valuable member of their team is yet another reason I don’t associate with them.
    But, what Penn knows is that nothing can be considered offensive until it offends straight white males, such as myself. We love to call ourselves “easy targets” because there’s no group that will protest in our behalf, but if I say something that angers feminists, or the LGBT community (or whoever), I won’t get into actual trouble (with consequences) if it’s just GLAAD and NOW protesting me. But, once straight white men start showing up on TV talking about how offended they are by what I said, then I’m done for. Until then, all the outrage will be directed against those who dare to have a problem with anything I said. I’ll be in “trouble”, but since everybody has my back, nothing will come of it and I’ll get to pretend I’m brave by standing up to people with no power. tl/dr: There’s a difference between being in Donald Sterling trouble and Steven Colbert trouble, The best thing about being in Steven Colbert trouble is you get to pretend you’re in Donald Sterling trouble, so idiots admire you for being brave.

    1. Cigarettes? Please. Who gives a shit about people dying of cancer?


      That’s how you do it.

  12. Jillette is a committed libertarian/Randroid. This, like any other religion, contaminates his thinking in ways that are hard to see if you don’t know this.

    If you can hold your nose long enough to read some background on Objectivism, you can recognize and anticipate most of Jillette’s deranged rants.
    1. no restraint on ANY behavior is EVER justified
    2. Cigarettes are the healthy hobby of all people who believe in REASON.
    3. Addiction and compulsion don’t exist.
    4. ‘Passion’ justifies ANY sexual behavior.
    5. Crime is caused entirely by silly people making theft, murder, rape etc. illegal. If we let rich people steal (oops! ‘accumulate’) everything that isn’t nailed down, they will watch over us with their Invisible Hands….or something like that.

    1. You forgot ‘progress’ (by the Rand definition) being an end in and of itself.

      In the 70s, one of Ayn Rand’s followers even wrote a book called Hanta Yo, supposedly translated from ‘archaic Dakota’ (which is a lot like ‘Old High Egyptian’) into 19th-century English (with literal translation of idioms, and even inventing new idioms for things we already have words for) to make it more ‘authentic’, which was apparently another word for ‘silly’ in the 70s. (For instance, well, she translates hanta yo as ‘clear the way’, when a better translation would be ‘scram’.) The entire book is bullshit (and poorly written), but it’s hilarious, just for trying to project Objectivist values onto people who value humility to the point of a whole bunch of ‘evidentiary’ particles to indicate whether this is something directly observed by the speaker, common knowledge, or hearsay (among others), people who consider the individual as just one organ in the ecosystem, albeit a self-aware organ.

      And that’s why you should never believe wannabe Indians are motivated by anything more than their own egos.

  13. Why hasn’t anyone ridiculed Penn’s laughable idea of assembling a panel of comedy experts? This is far and away the dumbest thing he’s ever said, and he’s said a LOT of dumb things. Does he think these experts sit in a darkened situation room watching the joke over and over again in slow motion? Do they wear lab coats and goggles to safely inspect the setup? Do they zoom and enhance the punchline? Do they scrawl technical jargon across a notebook while silently scrutinizing the timing?

    “We just can’t wrap our minds around this joke. It’s POV is too advanced.”
    “Don’t worry. CSI CPT (Comedy Pro Team) is on the case. We’re going to think about this joke… a lot!”

    1. @delphi_ote:
      You’re completely right here. Penn Jillette’s rant is quite incoherent, but I think he’s also trying to say that “funny joke” and “offensive joke” are mutually exclusive, so that a provably funny joke cannot possibly be offensive. So, not only does the CPT dissect the joke, they then descend on the offended person and mansplain why it’s so hilarious.

      I would say that it’s not only possible for jokes to be offensive AND funny, it’s the really insidious thing about humor. People try (and sometimes succeeed) with the “I was only being funny” offense, and even when we know better, a funny-and-offensive joke will often worm its way into our memory where it otherwise would not.

      I also thought it was self-evident that, in the workplace, the points of view that matter are all of your co-workers, all of the time. If, from their point of view, your “joke” created a hostile work environment, it doesn’t matter if everyone else on the planet thought it was the funniest thing ever. You apologise (and not a “sorry you felt offended” not-pology), and you don’t tell that type of joke in the future.

      Now I think about it, Penn Jillette has a lot in common with Scott Adams (the “Dilbert” cartoonist). He too is generally libertarian and cultivates a “smartest guy in the room” persona. Then, whenever someone points out that Scott Adams is fractally wrong about race and gender issues in the workplace, he rants about how he was just being satirical and the world is too stupid to understand his humor. (A safe place to find a summary is the RationalWiki article on Scott Adams.)

    2. Clearly, determining what’s funny requires a panel of experts in the field of jokes: A blonde who flunked out of middle school, an alcoholic priest and rabbi, a tribe of cannibals, and a family act that, trust me, you don’t want to see. Oh, and a chicken who bought an Atari 2600 just for Frogger.

  14. Penn is a rich, entitled idiot who wants for nothing and has, let’s face it, an extremely easy career. He’s not so much known for his magic these days as for yelling really loudly and having strong opinions. Even the one thing that does make him a marginalized minority – his atheism – is a sham: he is granted tons of privilege as the “token atheist” who is willing to go on conservative or religious programs and gladhand the host with bullshit about how he believes the USA was, in fact, founded as a Christian nation, etc. (seriously. he is an atheist and prides himself on being well-read and intellectual and yet promotes that obvious falsehood). He is so far removed from anything even approaching oppression that he has literally no place in the conversation at all, regardless of what side he falls on. It is just par for the course that he, of course, lands on the side of defending sexist, racist, etc. “comedy” because, again, he’s a rich, white, entitled, privileged simpleton who is about a light year removed from even the fringes of oppression.

  15. Man, Penn Jillette is still a thing? Color me impressed, I thought he was retired or dead or something. I think your response was appropriate, Courtney. His tone was out of line and, besides, if he were true to his “libertarian” ethos, then he ought to respect that you’re entitled to express your opinions, up to and including thinking he’s an asshole for his, and saying as much.

    That’s how it works, no? Sure, you can say whatever you want. You can joke about whatever you want. You can criticize whomever you want. And so can everyone else.

    Kind of disappointing your post was removed on civility grounds and his wasn’t – his tone was definitely uncivil.

  16. “Perhaps it is the men who need to stop being so goddamn sensitive.” But why, when we have such incentive to be that way? :) Actually I think it’s pretty context-dependent. Most of the time when we get rewarded for whining it is for whining at the expense of people we’ve wronged, for some reason.

  17. Yeah, Penn Gilette is a choad. People like him are one reason I used to avoid the skeptic community–it seemed the main goal was to feel superior to other people because of their beliefs. I’m glad I discovered this place, and that a lot of skeptics are better than that.

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