by John Ellis
NBA Hall of Famer and current analyst for TNT’s Inside the NBA Charles Barkley finds himself in hot water over a “joke.” According to Axios reporter Alexi McCammond, the retired athlete told her, “I don’t hit women, but if I did I would hit you.” After McCammond tweeted out the exchange, the Twitterverse exploded. Calls to “cancel” Barkley were met with accusations that people can’t take a joke. For her part, McCammond published a thread on Twitter reminding people of how vast the problem of violence towards women is in this country. While Alexi McCammond has not even hinted that she believes TNT should fire Charles Barkley, the handwriting is on the Twitter wall – Barkley’s days on the set of Inside the NBA are probably numbered.
Should Barkley be fired? That, I don’t know. That’s a decision that only his bosses can make. And while I’m not a fan of “cancel culture,” Barkley’s “joke” deserves condemnation.
Alexi McCammond is correct; violence towards women is an epidemic in this country. While her stats focused on spousal abuse, the ways in which many men in this country view women contribute to a culture that is, frankly, often unsafe for females. The #MeToo movement didn’t arise in a vacuum.
The number of anecdotes my wife shares with me about what she endures in her profession because she is a woman runs roughshod over whatever amount of incredulity I may have once harbored in my heart about the systemic nature of the problem. The ways in which men treat her, talk to her, casually touch her, and look at her fits (un)comfortably in the larger narrative of how women are mistreated in our society. Thankfully, by God’s grace, she has not experienced outright violence (in her words/perspective), but she has suffered the groping on public transit, crowded elevators, crowded rooms, etc. that many other women suffer. She endures the downward gaze of men as she makes presentations and business-related proposals. It’s not infrequent for her to relate to me how a new business acquaintance or even a co-worker has propositioned her, or how they have bragged about their sexual conquests to her (that’s a form of proposition, for the record).
None of that is funny to me.
Years ago, during a fund-raising campaign, I partnered with a nonprofit that serves abused and assaulted women as an advocate, safehouse, and through counseling and other support services. Researching statistics of spousal abuse and listening to women willing to share their stories of the violent abuse they endured was heartbreaking. Over the years, since then, I’ve heard and read the stories from women I know – women I went to high school and college with and women I’ve worked with – who have suffered great violence, both physical and mental/emotional, at the hands of men. I’ve learned that while we sat in class together during high school, some of my friends were being physically and sexually abused. I had no idea.
None of that is funny to me.
There is a long history of professional comedians and satirists using the tragic and disgusting to unmask the hypocrisy of society, to call leaders and officials to act, or to simply confront a mostly ignorant audience with the unseen horrors that exist around them. While enticing laughter, though, those “jokes” are not intended to be jokes. They’re a form of social commentary. What Charles Barkley uttered, and what is often excused as “locker room talk” by men indignant that their violent speech is being “censured,” is not a form of social commentary. Unlike satirists and professional comedians who turn violent words back on the guilty or to confront a complicit society, Barkley and those who enjoy “locker room talk” are adding to the problem. Barkley’s “joke” and “locker room talk” not only prop up the systemic problem of misogyny and violence towards women in our society, they contribute to it.
Making light of violence towards women is not funny. It’s not a joke because violence towards women is not a joke. Treating it as such reveals how far we still must go in combatting the problem. Charles Barkley didn’t tell a joke to Alexi McCammond; he committed an act of violence towards her and all women. Regardless of how his employers respond, I pray that Barkley will listen to women like Alexi McCammond, recognize how his words are a part of the problem, repents, and seeks forgiveneness. Likewise, those who are excusing Barkley because it was a “joke” need to listen, learn, and repent. Violence towards women is not a joke.