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Shane Gillis misunderstands what “pushing boundaries” means

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

Shane Gillis has been one of the latest figures to fall in the age of social media sleuthing, cancel culture and year — if not, decade-old photos, comments, and associations coming back to haunt people. Gillis had just joined the Saturday Night Live cast when videos surfaced of Gillis telling extremely racist jokes and using derogatory Asian-American stereotypes.

Like other people who may have received backlash, lost their jobs or received other consequences for their past offensive behavior, Gillis issued a lackluster apology that was meant to cover his behind and dismiss his behavior. 

Unlike other people in a similar position, Gillis mocked people’s outrage over his words almost immediately — a surprising choice. Although, coming from someone who described overt racism and homophobia as taking a comedic risk, maybe the move isn’t as surprising as it could be.

Satirical, boundary-pushing comedy — oh, what a burden to create! So many things have been said already (almost to death), and if you go too far, you risk hurting everyone’s increasingly sensitive feelings.

It’s not hard to remember a time when people could get away with saying very offensive things. After all, it’s all in the name of fun and games. So people should just be less sensitive, right? Wrong.

Gillis’s non-apology was almost laughable in the lack of awareness and remorse. He said he is happy to apologize to anyone who is actually offended without apologizing.

Aside from inspiring curiosity about what being “actually offended” means, Gillis’s apology showed that he didn’t understand the impact of his words. So let’s break it down just a little bit. If Gillis had said what he said in private, it would have been wrong but no one would have known.

Gillis spread his ignorance on a public platform. In this way, ignorance begets ignorance. He said what he said and after someone had the opportunity to take those stereotypes and that offensive language and apply it to someone sitting right in front of them. And so, with a thoughtless remark that may have seemed not to affect anyone at the time, he is dealing with real-world consequences that come with being dehumanized for something they have no control over.

That is just a piece of the reason that people are upset. Gillis claims that he attempted to push comedic boundaries, but it’s confusing how he expected to do that by using language and ideas that are entirely played out and should remain in history books.

To be clear, the social outrage that Gillis caused is not a result of people looking for reasons to be offended or because he expressed views that are different from theirs’. It’s because he sent a message that some people don’t deserve to be treated with the same level of respect. If he can’t attempt humor without hurting marginalized groups, he needs to choose a different profession.

As far as the reaction to his comments and behavior, it once again evokes questions about cancel culture. If you asked me should someone’s entire life be defined by one thing, be it one thing they’ve said, done, created or experienced I would generally say no.

But that answer would be to a question with no context, and the context here is that Gillis has shown the antithesis of remorse. Still, it’s unclear what should be done about such behavior. One thing that is clearly not an appropriate reaction is the death threats that Gillis has said he’s been receiving.

There are better ways to handle the situation because the goal shouldn’t be to make him afraid for his life. If your aim is to make people like Gillis regret their words and actions, then it seems you should show them that you are “actually offended” by informing them specifically why their words are harmful.