Oscar Wilde claimed that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’m not sure Kathy Griffin would agree.
The comedienne has made headlines with a photo in which she proudly held up a model of the decapitated head of Donald Trump. Widespread criticism ensued. She responded by tweeting, “OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the mocker in chief.”
Outrage continued to escalate. President Trump tweeted, “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” Chelsea Clinton called the picture “vile and wrong.” CNN‘s Anderson Cooper, who hosted the network’s New Year’s Eve broadcast with her, called the photo “clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate.” CNN fired her as co-host of the program.
Griffin eventually posted another tweet saying, “I am sorry. I went too far. I was wrong.” She added that she would ask the photographer to take down the image, although it has already spread across the Internet.
This is by no means the first time Griffin has offended people. For instance, in her acceptance speech for an Emmy Award in 2007, she said, “Now, a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you all to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit. . . . So all I can say is . . . this award is my God now!” (I’ve deleted the parts that were even more blasphemous.)
Griffin’s latest controversy is not surprising since her career has been built on insults and slander. And yet, according to her website biography, she is a #1 New York Times bestselling author who starred in “an unprecedented 20 televised stand-up specials—more than any comedian in history.” Her bio adds that “hundreds of thousands of people flock to see her perform sold out shows everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House.” It calls her “a towering figure on television, on tour and in publishing.”
If that’s true, what does her popularity say about us?
Philosopher William Irvine connects insults to “our participation in the social hierarchy game.” He believes that humans constantly compete for social status. We insult our competitors as a way of depreciating them and elevating ourselves.
We can extend Irvine’s theory to insult comedy: when a comic insults a successful person, we laugh at the person being ridiculed and vicariously feel superior to them. Kathy Griffin’s popularity shows the appeal of this shortcut to self-esteem, no matter how counterfeit and damaging its result.
The real path to significance lies elsewhere. The God who made us loves us passionately and unconditionally. Jesus could demonstrate that love by washing his disciples’ feet because he knew that “he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3). He based his identity on what his Father thought of him, not what his culture said about him.