Louis C.K., Paige Patterson, and the White Male Forgiveness Charade

Redemption of the man who has done bad things is dependent on this principle: The men involved are not bad men at heart. They are mistaken or misled. They just didn’t realize what was wrong.

[photo: Louis C.K. performs a stand-up comedy routine.]
The idea that C.K. did not realize that what he was doing was wrong—especially after rumors flew in 2012 about how bad his behavior was—is absurd on its face, and is yet another attempt to frame the discussion as a good man who simply didn’t know that what he did was wrong. Photo by Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for The Bob Woodruff Foundation

In 2012, the now-defunct online magazine Gawker published a celebrity blind item about a famous comedian who liked to pass his time by masturbating in front of and exposing himself to young female comedians backstage at shows. It was quickly surmised, due to reports from within the industry and from people in the know, that the item referred to established comic heavyweight Louis C.K., whose eponymous FX comedy show was in the second year of a five-year run. Some other comedians attempted to take the heat off Louis by claiming the item was about them (most notably, Doug Stanhope), but it was generally understood that Louis C.K. was the comedian who exposed himself to the comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates.

Around the same time, Paige Patterson, then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (and former Southern Baptist Convention president) was advising women to stay in abusive marriages and to forgive their rapists. In a sermon in 2013, Patterson advised his congregants that matters of abusiveness between husband and wife should be kept within the church and that no outside judges or authorities should be involved.

And then, in 2017, the #MeToo movement, initially begun by Tarana Burke in 2006, gained new energy on Twitter and elsewhere. The open secret about Louis C.K. led to the cancellation of a series he was developing and his shunning from the stand-up comedy circuit. Meanwhile, an avalanche of testimonials, demonstrating a penchant for encouraging women to stay in abusive relationships and blaming women for their own rapes, led to Patterson being stripped of his position as the President of SWBTS.

Under a year later, both men are returning to the limelight. Louis C.K. has begun testing stand-up material at New York’s famous Comedy Cellar—including, reportedly, a joke about rape whistles. And Patterson who has already preached since his ignominious firing, is slated to co-teach a class called “Christian Ethics: The Bible and Moral Issues” at Southern Evangelical Seminary alongside seminary president Richard Land.

Both returns have been met with consternation and controversy. C.K.’s surprise act at the Comedy Cellar was met with both support and criticism—with the support mostly coming from fellow white male comedians and the criticism largely coming from women. Patterson’s return has likewise been met with questions about whether or not such a move is appropriate or reasonable—especially for teaching a course allegedly designed to shape the ethical decisions of future pastors.

The parallel lines here are of two men trying to return to the only thing they know, the careers at which they feel gifted, suited for, and accomplished in. Richard Land, with whom Patterson will teach the course, stated that Patterson is an “asset to evangelicalism” in America. Likewise, male comedians and club owners seem to believe that Louis C.K. is an asset to comedy and that he deserves a second chance.

These are two men who come from quite different backgrounds: Patterson is a Southern Baptist who began preaching when he was a teenager; Louis C.K. is an acerbic comedian from Boston who grew up speaking Spanish in Mexico and has made a career out of being an awkward and offensive comedian. Despite their differences, these two men have arrived at starkly similar situations in the #MeToo era, with jobs lost, reputations destroyed, and a trail of hurting women in their wake.

Both, too, are depending on cultural narratives of forgiveness to revive their careers and rescue a bit of their reputation.

It’s so common now that it’s almost become a joke: any time a prominent white man commits sexual assault, participates in a cover up, or gets called to the carpet for their behavior, there’s often some immediate action from an employer—they get fired from their current role or current position—and they go into hiding for 4-6 months. After the story has faded and people have allowed their memories to soften, the white man returns to the scene of the crime, picks up the mic and reinserts himself into the cultural discourse. But this time, he is a new man. He’s served his time and now, truly, he understands the power of redemption.

We’re so accustomed to this pattern that any apology is taken as proof that they’ve repented and are ready to move on to the next stage in the process. Patterson’s is perhaps the weakest, blaming his problems on a good faith attempt to interpret scripture half a century before, followed by commentary that essentially implores his audience to continue to believe that he is a good man. Louis C.K. got a little bit closer, admitting guilt and correctly noting that power dynamics meant any consent he obtained was not necessarily willingly given. But the idea that C.K. did not realize that what he was doing was wrong—especially after rumors flew in 2012 about how bad his behavior was—is absurd on its face, and is yet another attempt to frame the discussion as a good man who simply didn’t know that what he did was wrong

Redemption of the man who has done bad things is dependent on this final principle: the men involved are not bad men at heart. They are mistaken. They are misled. They believed the wrong things. They acted rashly. They just didn’t realize what was wrong.

All of this ignores the facts of the matter, which is that both Patterson and Louis C.K. knew better. It would’ve been nearly impossible for Louis C.K. to have had the career he had completely unaware of power dynamics at play in these scenarios—he didn’t flash his penis in front of female comedians who had the power to push back at him, for example. Patterson, likewise, would’ve been entirely aware of arguments against the theologies he espoused. He would’ve at least known of feminist arguments about abuse. And really, he wants us to believe his theology hasn’t grown or shifted in 54 years?

It’s patently ridiculous on its face. But the truth is that they believe they can get away with it. Because we let them. We believe that the calling out of their misdeeds is punishment enough and that, by the time dust settles, it’ll be time to welcome them back with open arms.

Michael Ian Black’s comments parallel Richard Land’s in that they both seem to be asking the same question: “Haven’t these men done enough suffering?” The goal of leaning on that redemption narrative is a simple one: to shame people who would still hold men who behave badly to account for their behaviors. It’s a guilt trip that depends on a person’s desire not to be perceived as vindictive. But a redemption without repentance, as both theology and cultural narrative tells us, is merely sweeping the bad deeds under the rug.

Patterson has not repented. Nor has Louis C.K. But both are depending on the idea that they are forgiven and redeemable because they are white men with power in a system that believes first and foremost in the redemption of white men. We believe that what a white man did to a woman at 17 isn’t reason enough to keep him off the Supreme Court, but that a 12-year-old black child with a BB gun deserves to be shot. We can call the 38-year-old son of the sitting President a “kid” with absolutely no irony because we fundamentally believe that white men deserve as many chances as they need.

Which is how we end up with a teacher of ethics who once celebrated a woman whose husband gave her two black eyes for persevering through abuse. Men can only fall so far, and there will always be plenty of other men, eager to lean on this redemption narrative, to pick them back up again.