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I Got Kicked Off a TEDxWomen Event for Making a Joke About Not Being Allowed to Make a Burka Joke

I got kicked out of TEDxWomen. It is still unbelievable to me. And, if I'm honest, a little thrilling.

Jess Salomon performing at Comedyworks. Photo courtesy: Josh Baluyot

On Saturday, May 30, I was supposed to give a talk at TEDxWomen in Montreal. That is until I was removed from the speaker roster on Friday without any kind of explanation. I got kicked out of TEDxWomen. It is still unbelievable to me. And, if I'm honest, a little thrilling. The only time I've ever been kicked out of anything was once in music class in Grade 8. It was the triangle. I just couldn't take it seriously.

I wish I could say I got the boot for something outrageous. Like my talk was just a series of rape jokes or a subliminal organizing cry in support of men's rights activists or a long ad for Monsanto. But it wasn't. Even as I imagine staging my too controversial for TEDx talk, duct tape over my mouth, the word "CENSORED" splashed across the Facebook event invitation, I worry the biggest joke would be how innocuous the whole thing was. I see myself yelling after disappointed audience members as they file out of the theatre, "I swear, that was it! I'm sorry!"

The talk I submitted to the organizer was a mostly comedic and generally self-deprecating tale about making the switch from war crimes law to stand up comedy. I offer a step-by-step guide, with accompanying cartoons of myself making mistakes like standing next to the spotlight rather than under it, of my parents crying, and of my first album cover six months into comedy called Jessica Salomon: 10 Minutes. That's right, album cover. That's something I actually sent to club owners. I now go by Jess Salomon. I'm hoping no one will make the connection.

Everything was approved save for one joke. Quick digression: there were only two jokes from my act in my talk. I was originally invited to do stand up comedy and I said, "I don't think that's a good idea, why don't I do a comedic talk instead?" Because I've learned that despite what people will tell you, they don't really get jokes these days. Last point of order: The "E" in "TED" stands for "Entertainment." LOL. Last, last point of order: The theme of the day is "Daring Greatly!" Is there an irony emoji? If so insert it here.

The first joke was a dirty one. It was an example of what my act was like when I first started. I was told there was a risk that TED might not give my video as much play or that it could be removed, but that, if I wanted, I could keep it. No problem.

The second joke, the offending joke, was political. I included it because it's funny, but also because it represented a turning point for me in comedy when I started doing the kind of material I only hope to get better at doing. It came out of the debate surrounding the Quebec Charter of Values—legislation intended to outlaw religious clothing in the public sector. I was against this law, as was the voting public. Thankfully.

The essence of the joke was to say that I think people in a democracy should be able to wear whatever they want but that at the same time I understand the discomfort people feel around the burka and the niqab, or, as white people understand them, "the ninja and the beekeeper."

White people don't often know the differences between all of the various kinds of coverings, so I thought it was important to make it clear that I wasn't talking about the veil. A lot of white people aren't super culturally savvy. This is a joke about white people. I am white.

I then go on to act out how I deal with my personal discomfort in the rare event I see a lady in a burka or niqab, basically my back-and-forth inner monologue between the part of me that's like "You go girl!" and the other part that's like "Blink twice if you want to get out of here!"

It's a joke about me trying to be sensitive to the fact that although it's hard not to see these coverings as misogynistic or imagine that the woman underneath might be oppressed, it's important to also recognize that this could very well be her own choice. To acknowledge her power and agency in how she dresses and lives her life.

The organizer of the TEDxWomen conference was worried about how Muslims in the audience or people out there with Muslim friends or family that wear burkas might feel. She was especially concerned about the feelings of a speaker who wears a veil. When she asked if she could send the joke to this veiled woman I agreed because I assumed this was a case of someone getting offended on behalf of someone else.

I was wrong. The veiled speaker was very offended. Caps and exclamation mark offended. She was also worried that if I spoke before her in the lineup, my joke (not about veils) would affect people's perception of her and, as such, her credibility as a scientist. Her concern was that me talking about the burka/niqab would enter people's subconscious such that they wouldn't be able to focus on what she was saying. I don't know what it's like to wear a veil and present a scientific talk, but to my mind, the kind of people who would be distracted by her veil would be distracted by her veil regardless. That said, being able to keep my joke and go after her in the lineup would have been a great solution. What it didn't resolve was the larger issue the organizer had about protecting people from being offended by the joke.

I spoke to her on the phone in an effort to understand what it was that had offended her. In the first place, it seemed, she had an issue with my discomfort. With the idea of me needing to have an inner debate about what someone was wearing at all. The gist of her argument was that she never feels uncomfortable and never judges anyone: Not girls in short-shorts, or people who have tattoos or piercings. You know just a list of totally random examples. She thought it was only fair that if I was going talk about how the burka or the niqab might be oppressive (an assumption she disagreed with), I should also make a joke about how girls in short-shorts are oppressed. As if the absence of that joke was proof of my intolerance. The truth is, I just don't happen to have a joke about asses hanging out of shorts because my joke came out of a specific law targeting religious clothing and not Miley Cyrus inspired fashion choices.

It was made clear to me that if I wanted to speak I had to cut out the joke. This was supposed to be an inclusive environment where everyone felt safe. (Presumably until all of this was uploaded to YouTube.) But it's not about inclusion of viewpoints; it's about creating a safe space for the offended and potentially offended not to be offended. The reason or logic behind their offense isn't questioned. It's just enough that they say they are offended.

I was told I could replace the joke if I wanted, with a joke about Jews or Gays or Jewish Gays, because I belong to those groups so presumably no offence could be taken there. There is an understanding that people are allowed to joke about their own people. That doesn't mean though that those people won't get offended. Trust me, I've made jokes about Israel. I know. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't make jokes involving other groups. There are a million ways you can joke about a minority group you aren't a part of without making them the butt of the joke. Again, despite what they tell you, most people don't really understand comedy.

And so, I agreed to remove the joke. I still don't see it as offensive. Maybe I haven't tried hard enough. I've told the joke many times, including in front of Muslims. Including in front of veiled Muslims. And including in front of the organizers of this TEDxWomen talk who had no issue with it when they came to see my act at a local comedy club. The only explanation I've been given is that I'm not Muslim, so I shouldn't make a joke that references what I am not.

What I always have been is someone who makes fun of the kind of people who think the greatest threat we face today as a society is the "PC Police." The people who think political correctness has gone too far. And now, I have to agree with them. Not that this is the greatest threat—um, pretty sure that's climate change—but that political correctness has at least jumped the shark. Now these people that I always make jokes about, who can't let go of the word faggot, can use me as an example of how they were right, it has gone too far, and now I have to agree with them.

I told the organizers when I took out the joke that I would like instead to talk briefly about how I couldn't make a joke I wanted to make because it might offend people. I said I thought it was funny that a joke about trying to be sensitive to others is being censored on account of it being potentially offensive to others. I promised not to say the word Muslim, burka, or niqab. I resubmitted the text. I said these things and then I added this:

TEDx: A place for ground-breaking ideas, for DARING GREATLY, for speaking truthfully!!!! ... As long as you don't mention any ethnic or religious minority you aren't a part of!

They responded by removing me from the roster. No further explanation. It appears that jokes involving burkas or niqabs at least merit some discussion. A joke about TEDx, that gets you banned, no questions asked.

Fittingly, considering the theme of my talk, no experience thus far has made me feel as much like a bona fide comedian. It's kind of unbelievable and kind of thrilling. Like getting kicked out of music class felt that day in Grade 8. TEDxWomen is the triangle. Not worth being taken seriously.

My apologies to the people who play the triangle!

VICE reached out for comment on this column. This was TEDxWomen's response:

Jessica Salomon is a great talent. TED is a non-political, non-religious platform as stated in the TEDx Rules.

Please refer to the following excerpt:

  • No talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor for polarizing "us vs them" language. We seek to build consensus and provide outside-the-box thinking, not to revisit familiar, unresolvable disputes on these topics.

As per these guidelines, we were unable to move ahead with her proposed content.