(RNS) Many comedians imagine themselves as edgy boundary-pushers — cultural critics who can hold up a mirror to society in ways that make us laugh even as they convict us.
But Louis C.K. takes this approach to a whole other level.
As one critic put it, C.K. ignores even the most tightly held cultural norms to “get people into an uncomfortable place where he can use humor to confront difficult topics.”
I think he goes way too far in many circumstances, but at least as often he has thoughtful and important things to say. More important, he says them in ways that can often break through cultural and psychological barriers for those who need to hear them the most.
It was with significant anticipation, then, that I sat down to watch Louie C.K.’s “2017” Netflix special. What cultural norms would he ignore and which issues would he force us to uncomfortably confront?
I got a good idea from his first line, “So, you know, I think abortion…”
This opening was met with a sustained groan, something he no doubt predicted, as he paused for several beats to let the discomfort ripple through his D.C. audience.
Here was the perfect C.K. issue, the one that most persistently resists authentic public engagement. Given that I have spent a good chunk of my own career attempting to authentically engage abortion, I was obviously all in.
Would he actually confront our culture on this issue with the same incisive irreverence that he has with other issues?
“I think abortion is exactly like taking a s—,” he said, “100 percent the exact same thing.”
“Or … it isn’t. It is, or it isn’t. It’s either taking a sh– … or … it’s killing a baby,” he said, scrunching up his nose and attempting to feel the uncomfortable truth along with his audience.
“Only one of those two things. It’s no other things. So if you didn’t like to hear it’s like taking a s—, then it’s killing a baby. That’s the only other one you get to have. Which means you should be holding a sign … in front of a place … ”
Yes, he was going there. Trying to engender sympathy for despised pro-life activists.
“People hate abortion protesters. ‘They’re so shrill and awful.’ But they think babies are being murdered. What are they supposed to be (saying)? ‘Well, hmmm … that’s not cool. I don’t wanna be a dick about it, though. I don’t wanna ruin their day as they murder several babies all the time.’
“I don’t think it’s killing a baby, though. I mean, it’s a little like killing a baby. It’s a 100 percent killing a baby. It’s totally killing a whole baby.”
But just when you thought you got where he was going, true to form, C.K. turned the tables.
“But I think women should be allowed to kill babies,” he declared.
At this point a very clear cheer went up from the crowd. And as is his custom, C.K. mocked their reaction: “Wooohooo! We get to kill babies! Let’s do some shots and kill some babies!”
The crowd mocked, he then got down to bioethical business, offering three defenses of his view.
1. Life isn’t “that important.”
2. Women are important evolutionary deciders.
“Abortion,” he claimed, “is the last line of defense against s—-y people in the species.” He noted that other female animals perform this task very late, even after birth.
But given how much he clearly values the lives of his children, and presuming he isn’t for infanticide, these first two reasons were almost certainly a bridge for riffs on other issues rather than expressing an actual view on abortion.
3. If there is someone inside your body, “you get to kill him.”
After all, you can kill an intruder simply because “they’re in your house.”
C.K.’s view here is similar to the most famous pro-choice argument of all time, known by bioethicists the world over as “the violinist” by Judith Jarvis Thomson.
The argument tries to draw an analogy between pregnancy and a thought experiment in which someone has her body attached — against her will — to a famous violinist who requires use of her kidneys for nine months.
Here, Thomson attempts to elicit the intuition that even when we agree that a being is a full and equal person, a woman need not be required to offer the use of her body.
Analogies to a home invasion or to the forced attachment to the violinist invoke the exceptional cases of rape and health of the mother — cases where even clear majorities of pro-lifers have pro-choice views.
But this weakness is not even close to the most important thing about C.K.’s abortion bit.
Despite agreeing with reasonable restrictions on abortion (at least when the questions are asked the right way), many good people (especially if they are young) find the pro-life movement so repugnant they simply cannot take its views seriously.
But C.K. somehow found a way to get his young D.C. audience to a place where he could confront (and even mock) people’s problematic views. And do it in a way that preserved a relationship of goodwill.
In our current political climate, this is an absolutely astonishing achievement.
The Atlantic recently described C.K. as “America’s unlikely conscience.” For pro-lifers frustrated by the movement’s inability to reach those who do not think like us with even our most basic premises, we can only hope he will continue in this unlikely role for many years to come.
(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation”)