a priori/a posteriori

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Patrice O’Neal, 1969-2011

Patrice O'Neal was a comedian, and a human being, who died yesterday. I realize his life was a complex one, but I want desperately for people to understand why the world is less without him. I hope you take a few minutes to read about him.

Patrice was a misogynist. By definition, that means he was dismissive, disrespectful, and demeaning toward women. I think at times he was all of those, and I think that was a major shortcoming of his for much of his life. In that sense, he never fully became the person he could have been.

Here’s why I miss Patrice O’Neal, and here’s why you should too: Because if I truly believe that about him, then Patrice would have wanted that said. Even a day after his death. Even at the time when it’s most uncomfortable, and most inappropriate, to be fully honest about him.

Patrice believed it was never the wrong time to be fully honest, if you were willing to deal with the consequences of your own honesty. And so I honor him by admitting that while he had some of the most insightful thoughts and revelations of his generation (think about how big a deal that is for a second), he also had a number of opinions that were simply dead wrong - especially when it came to his thoughts about women.

If you want to disagree with that, you have every right to. But even if you agree, I still think you lost something when Patrice died yesterday. Because I love and miss Patrice O’Neal. And the fact that I knew he was a misogynist makes me love and miss him more.

Let me say that again, and then explain. The fact that I knew Patrice O’Neal was a misogynist makes me love and miss him more.

Now, “misogynist” is a loaded word. It can overpower the words around it, and it often becomes the focus of whatever sentence it’s a part of.

I understand that. But go back to what I said, and if you can, don’t focus on the word “misogynist.” Focus on the word “knew.”

I knew. I knew some of Patrice’s thoughts were, in my opinion, stubborn and ignorant.

Okay. So how did I know? Because he was caught whispering it to a friend when he thought there were no cameras around? Because he made a joke once he looked around and made sure nobody would challenge it? Because it slipped out once when he let his guard down, and it offered a window into his mind?

No. I knew because he wanted me to know. I knew because his entire adult life, hundreds of times every year, he told as many people as he could exactly what he thought. He lived the life he lived, he evaluated what he saw around him, and he did his best to tell us what he thought about it all.

There are two kinds of people that are trying to understand the world around them. Most of us are trying to understand the world so that we can understand it better. We gather up all the information we can, we develop opinions and theories, and then we keep them to ourselves. We try to understand the world so that it gives us an advantage. Otherwise, what’s the point of us doing all the work?

For whatever reason, Patrice O’Neal was the second kind - the kind that is much more rare. Patrice was trying to understand the world, but he wanted to understand it so that we could understand it, too.

That’s why for him, it made sense to express opinions even when most people - certainly most women - understandably found them offensive. That’s why he said what he thought was true, even as he realized it was likely hurting his career.

Because him understanding the world wasn’t enough - he had to get the word out, too. For him, figuring out how the world worked - but not telling anyone - would be like learning to play football, practicing every day, but never playing a game. For Patrice, being smart was never the point - being able to connect was.

He understood: You could build the greatest invention ever made, but if you built it on a deserted island, then you better be able to build a boat, too. Patrice was a brilliant thinker, but his true passion was building boats. He was obsessed with finding a way to get his thoughts to a place where others could see them, too.

When he met someone else that was fully honest, he loved it, because it was like getting to hear about a different island. And that helped him figure out what was right and what was wrong about what he’d thought up until then.

If Patrice sensed you weren’t being fully honest (and most of us weren’t), he was brutally honest with you - but not without cause. If you never came into contact with Patrice, then whether or not you were lying to yourself didn’t affect him.

But Patrice wanted to understand his world, and one of his tools was listening to what the world looked like to someone else. So if you talked to him, that meant if you weren’t being honest, you weren’t just hurting yourself anymore - now, you were throwing him off the scent of truth.

That was maybe my favorite thing about Patrice O’Neal. Patrice had no opinion that could be changed easily. But he also had no opinion that couldn’t be changed. For Patrice, it was never about him being right - it was about him knowing the truth.

In many ways, Patrice was not a humble dude. But in the most important way, he was. He was never more important than truth.

If you ever saw him live, you understand. It was easy to sense arrogance during his sets - the tone that said “I know the truth.” A lot of people heard that and stopped listening. But if you stuck with him, you heard the rest of the message: “...and you have a right to know it, too.” Understand the difference: Patrice never thought he was better than anyone - just more right.

I won’t go on too long about his stand-up, since I already wrote about it when he first had his stroke last month. But there was a different feel to his sets. It almost felt like he had gone exploring, and he was back, and reporting about what he’d seen. And he wanted everyone to feel like they’d been there, too. Every set felt like him saying, “This is everything I’ve found so far - I hope it helps.”

For audiences, I’m sure it was cool to hear about everything he’d seen. But for me, and for many comics of this upcoming generation, it made me want to explore. It made me want to spend my life telling people everything I’ve come up with so far, and hoping it helps.

That’s why it doesn’t bother me that I didn’t agree with all of Patrice’s beliefs. I didn’t cry yesterday because Patrice’s beliefs are gone. I cried because his willingness to share them is. He was willing to be seen as wrong. He was willing to be wrong, if it meant the rest of us would figure out what was actually right. Do you realize how rare that is?

THAT is why every comic lost something yesterday. That is why if you’ve ever had a gut feeling that something was bullshit, but just couldn’t quite prove it - you lost a friend yesterday. A fellow soldier, in the war to understand everything that’s happening around us. We lost one of the best.

I know this is too long. But I want so badly for people to get it. To get why it sucks that Patrice died.

As I look for a way to sum up what I’m trying to say, I’m realizing how obvious it is. Why I loved Patrice because of his flaws, not in spite of them.

All of us are flawed. Patrice was one of the few that enjoyed it. He loved being imperfect, because that meant he was alive, if that makes any sense. He loved that he got to be a human being. For him, life really was a roller coaster. And he loved being on the ride. These last few years, he was trying to keep more of life’s change in his pocket. But that’s tough to do when you’re holding your arms straight up the whole time.

The fact that he’s not on the ride anymore...it just sucks. I know that’s how it works. I know those are the rules. Believe me, I get it.

It just sucks, that’s all.

I’m glad he was willing to share, because we can all be better explorers for it. And shame on us if we take points off because he took a few wrong turns. You can’t take a wrong turn unless you’re leading.

I’ll shut up now. But I miss Patrice. And I want you to understand why you should, too.

I hope this helps.


  1. Ooh, I feel compelled to jump in on this one. (Not to go semi-meta, but I think that's exactly your point -- Patrice made you want to jump in and have a dialogue, to dissect every point, to "contribute a verse" if I can put two poets together for a sec - http://j.mp/WaltWhit)

    I'm a feminist – a loud, unabashed, and uncompromising feminist at that. You and I have had plenty of arguments over other comics' material - I don't care how funny you are if you dehumanize* an entire group and put us a step further away from being able see each other and to connect.

    But I still love Patrice. And that is not a compromise to my feminism.

    For me, it was less important that he was honest about his misogyny -- it's not like I have more respect for a white comic who goes onstage and spews racist crap at me just because he has the guts to admit he thinks I'm less human than him. No, that wasn't it for me.

    It was because he was so open about being a work in progress. He owned up to knowing he was wrong, or in some cases that he might be wrong, but that at this point in his thinking he still believed x and here's why. And then he listened and engaged with you when you challenged it. You're absolutely right -- he was always looking to understand, to evolve. That's why I loved him.

    When I went up to him after my first live experience with him, he at first totally wrote me off because I was wearing a Darfur t-shirt and he said any woman wearing that needed to take it easy a bit, get laid. We had fun sparring for a bit, but then he actually listened to me when I challenged what he had said onstage about women. We had a dialogue with a genuine exchange of ideas.

    Before he left, he told me, "That's what life is all about - we're never going to be right, evolving is getting it less wrong."

    How do you not love a mind like that? Who the hell thinks about anything important and doesn't get things wrong? Patrice was wrong about women, but because he was committed to pursuing understanding and not to his views, he was on the road to being less wrong - to evolving.

    I miss him.


  2. *Footnote from my previous comment:

    Come to think of it - it's worth noting that Patrice's material never made me feel dehumanized. There are different brands of misogyny and sexism. He wasn't advocating any lesser social standing, rights, or protections for women -- his women issues weren't the kind where he would want to affect any life outcomes for women. And it wasn't that creepy insidious kind of misogyny like what reared its head when I saw this other comic burst into a rant about sluts in short skirts being a tease and mockingly imitate the woman's protests against his attention in a high-pitched nasally voice. So yeah, it definitely helps that I never felt like I should be reporting a future rapist when Patrice was onstage. His sexism never had the edge of advocating lesser life chances for women, and was never seething with some festering, unstable, horrifyingly creepy anger. At least from his material I've seen, his sexism stemmed more from a problem in how he approached women and went about interpreting us.

  3. Well you did a good job with this article. If I was to criticize one thing, I would challenge the notion that Patrice Oneal was not a misogynist, as much as he was radically pro-male, kind of like a comedic Ayn Rand.

    The nature of Patrice Oneal's philosophy towards women was that he believed his happiness was paramount in his life, and he believed that too many men nowadays put the happiness of their women over their own (look at your married male friends and tell me that's not true!). And the reason so many guys were drawn to his ideas, was because he was able to say things that guys felt, but were unable to say because of the fear of backlash from girls like @Vijaya lol.

    Patrice Oneal had something that was rare nowadays, something that men used to believe but have lost over several decades: he was a man of principle: he had uncompromising rules that he lived by. Principle was why he didn't make it the way he did; principle was why he was a misogynist because as he admitted, that it wasn't until he developed his attitude towards women after going to Brazil, that he was able to find the possibility of happiness with American women. Was he wrong? Depends on your debating skills and ability to reason. Most women he encountered didn't have principle (like the woman in the Fox News Bit), and when they came into contact with Patrice, talking to him like how they talked to most men, it was hilarious how he would completely dismantle them and show them the flaws in their thinking.

    As for Patrice's ability to change his mind, or learn from his mistakes, it should be made quite clear that Patrice was no pragmatist, he submitted to people, who made BETTER arguments than he did, he was always OPEN to listening to other arguments, but if they were flawed or illogical, he would attack the opponent with the fury of a pit-bull. Patrice loved the thought process and even alluded to the fact that he wanted women to think more so about the consequences of their own actions, something that is missing from mainstream feminism (which is more focused on the consequences of male behavior.)

    Patrice was a great man because he thought and spoke on what he thought. Whether his thoughts or ideas were right or wrong, reality will be the judge. What I do know, is that Patrice Oneal had a mind that comes around rarely, and I'm glad to have been in the presence of it.

  4. How rare is it to have a voice? To have the attention of the masses. What a privilege! What a responsibility. The world doesn't need yet another mysongonist giving ignorance a safe haven. He was a "work in progress?" Yeah, I'm sure. "But he's just an entertainer." Ok fine. So let's bring him down to the level of just a guy telling a joke. That being said, who gives a shit, the world is no worse off without him.