Drawing The Line

29 December, 2013 08:46AM · 7 minute read

Angry Mac Bastards (AMB) is (was) a popular [Tech] comedy podcast that I was not a regular listener of. If you wish to dismiss my thoughts as a direct result of this, please go right ahead, but you shouldn’t. Their final controversial episode is number 235 and I strongly recommend you listen to the podcast episode IN ITS ENTIRETY: it is currently cached here and a transcript  of the offending section ONLY (it is accurate) is contained here.

Over the course of four years a group of internet personalities created something unique: a podcast to critique the different tech writers/personalities on the internet. If you are aware of the Macalope, think of AMB as an audio show along those lines. There was however, one key difference. The Macalope endlessly mocks and pokes holes in the arguements/opinions of writers or companies written works on the internet. The AMB went one step further in some instances and critiqued aspects of their personas as well. Many people looked on with an uncomfortable feeling as the silent onlookers watching someone being yelled at from afar, whereas others saw it as humour. Some saw it as bullying but perhaps bully is too strong a word: were their critiques intended to be constructive criticism? Let’s look at each in turn.

Bully: The definition of ‘bully’ from the Oxford dictionary states that a bully is ‘a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker’ and the Merriam-Webster dictionary states that a bully is ‘one (that is) habitually cruel to others who are weaker.’

Constructive (feedback): Again from Oxford being constructive is ‘having or intended to have a useful or beneficial purpose’ and MW says constructive is being ’helpful to someone instead of (being) upsetting and negative’. Irrespective of whether feedback is constructive or not, there’s also the question of whether the feedback was solicited or not. Unsolicited feedback is often much more difficult to accept as the recipient did not ask for said feedback and may not be particularly receptive.

Humour: Unfortunately this is the toughest one to define. I found an interesting take on different types of humour here of which clearly AMBs humour would be classified as type 8: “Jokes at others expense”. The biggest problem here is that whether or not you find something funny is relative to your own personal tastes and/or background. Worse than that if you’re making fun of someone specifically, if that person chooses not to take it “with good humour” then that can be considered defamation. Comedians are often sued and defamation laws in each country are referenced here and particularly in the US that site states that “opinion is not considered defamation in the U.S. and plaintiffs must have an extremely strong case…” in order to get a positive result for the claimant. The individual in this case was Canadian and recently (2008) there was a case where it was made clear that Canadian defamation laws are moving more towards a more US approach rather than a soft-censorship approach of Europe and Australia1.

Whichever theory you choose to subscribe to, it’s difficult to see how comments regarding clothing choices and his relationship with his mother are constructive given that they were unsolicited it the first instance and especially when delivered amongst expletives and not directly to the recipients face. Be that as it may AMBs behaviour technically wasn’t bullying by the dictionary definition and in North America at least it’s not legally recognised as defamation. The only choice left is a form of degrading humour. This is where we will now all essentially disagree.

Some people find that sort of humour to be funny. I personally don’t but then I recognise that many others do. For those that say the AMBs said lots of nice things earlier in the recording that’s true, but making mean jokes at anyones expense devalues any previous positives. Each transgression must be judged on its own merits apart from what came before and after.

Where this whole saga gets more interesting is the outcry over the suspension of the show. In short, one of the hosts was sacked from their day job as a direct result of comments made on the show. Although the sequence of events is unclear the hosts collectively agreed to end the show and offered somewhat of an apology and explanation for their departure. The ‘public’ backlash was too much for them to bear. Many people that enjoyed the show argue that the so-called victim of the show and the public at large were effectively the ones that bullied AMB into shutting down however their behaviour does not fit the definition of a bully any more than AMBs behaviour did.

There have been many ‘public’ outcries over many different issues over the years but let’s look at two key ones that illustrate the power of the vocal minority (or majority depending upon your viewpoint). Famously in 2006 Michael Richards (the comedian best known for his role as ‘Kramer’ in Seinfeld) let fly what was described as racial abuse at a Comedy Club and the incident was a key driver behind his withdrawal from stand-up comedy. More recently in 2012 Daniel Tosh made a rape joke that went down very badly and he was required to make a public apology and sparked a great deal controversy. There are many, many more examples of comedians that have been in that position.

Before you say, ‘but AMB didn’t do anything THAT extreme,’ I agree: they didn’t. The point is that if you’re putting any form of comedy out there, especially jokes at others expense and especially jokes directed at one individual, then expect some kind of backlash at some point. Each subsequent podcast was continuing to roll the dice again and again - it was only a matter of time before someone took it badly and there was a serious consequence.

No Reason To Be Sacked, Right?

One doesn’t have to look far, just look with your search engine of choice to find examples like this, this and this, where people have been sacked by what they have written online. The trap is simple: if it’s obscure enough, you might think your personal commentaries online would go unnoticed by your employer. The AMBs commentary was in audio form but was quickly transcribed and real-world employers found out. Whatever we post online we have to ask the question: ‘What if my boss read (heard) this?‘ For the self-employed that think this doesn’t apply to them: ‘What if my customers read this?‘ If you’re not applying this principle, inevitably you will come unstuck. It’s just a matter of time. You have to protect your personal brand - it matters.

If the AMB did one thing wrong, they misunderstood the risks of maintaining their full time jobs whilst being comedians in their spare time. Perhaps that would be a lower risk if they chose a different brand of humour, but I fear that inevitably with humour, someone will be offended eventually.

Finally to address those that piled on the afterthoughts when this all went down. For those paying attention that includes me2.

If You’re Going To Be Indignant About Something, Do It When It Counts

The time to stand up and say something about inappropriate humour or harassment is WHEN IT’S HAPPENING, not after the alleged perpetrator has been confronted by others for you. What value did you add by not standing up for what you believed in at the time? In essence if you don’t, you clearly didn’t mind all THAT much and then perhaps you should have nothing to add when the alleged perpetrator goes away.

We all draw the line of what we’re prepared to accept where we choose to. It’s arbitrary and often set by our upbringing, experiences with friends and family and tainted by how we’ve been treated at work. Where we choose to draw the line is our business and it is never our place to question where others draw theirs.

If we are to get indignant about something (anything) can we all agree to be a little bit more up-front and useful about it? This knee-jerk, after-the-fact indignation is superfluous, vacuous and completely pointless.

AMBs Non-Apology


  1. Feel free to read through the laws if you have a few spare weeks. I’m not digging further than that for the sake of this discussion - let’s just say, it isn’t recognised as defamation in North America and doesn’t apply in this case. [return]
  2. I suggested that bullying was present in this case and clearly by its definitions it wasn’t. Consider this my retraction and clarification. [return]