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The Right to Joke

— Filed under: People & Culture, Opinion
Hear no evil. Speak no evil. See no evil

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At a social gathering recently, a friend of mine made an off-color joke; a slightly naughty comment which contained an element of race but wasn’t centered around it. It didn't play on stereotypes, but it certainly wasn't PC either. It might have offended some people, but to me it was so ridiculous that I didn't take it seriously.

Immediately, we were told that we couldn't joke about such things. One of several reasons given was that it wasn't appropriate because of our status - white males, with associated benefits. It wasn't right for us to make jokes involving people who hadn't had the same advantages that we had had in life. Despite the fact that the joke seemed relatively harmless, the entire topic was off-limits. One litmus test that we agreed upon to determine the acceptability of a joke was whether we'd say it to the face of a person of that race.

TV shows like South Park and Family Guy regularly trot out various stereotypes for shock value or to get a laugh. Standup comedians also incorporate racial elements into their routines. Certainly every situation is different, and some instances are simply racism dressed up as comedy. But in many cases the stereotypes are used satirically, to mock the silliness of the stereotype and to recognize it.

GC LIWL

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George Carlin, comedian

Getting these topics out into the open and acknowledging them is more important than protecting the feelings of everyone who might get hurt. Certainly, some people are not ready for these jokes, and might be offended, but then they probably aren't ready for an honest conversation about the topic either. Everything must be on the table, discussable, debatable. If certain issues are too “taboo” to discuss then it does no one any good, and free speech is dealt a blow.

Furthermore, everything must be “joke-able.” Comedy is the bellwether of a society’s health, and as progressive people we need to be able to laugh at anything. Comedian George Carlin once said that rape can be funny if you picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd, after which he discussed the justifications that men use to commit rape. To say that some things can’t be joked about is to shove your head in the sand and refuse to think. You may not find a particular joke funny, and certainly I run into jokes which I find repugnant or offensive. But "I will defend to the death your right” to make that joke (Voltaire), because we can’t be afraid of things we disagree with or dislike.

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Anonymous's picture

"Getting these topics out

"Getting these topics out into the open and acknowledging them is more important than protecting the feelings of everyone who might get hurt."

**Not necessarily. We all know that child sexual abuse happens, and making a joke about it does little to increase anyone's knowledge about the issue, nor does it "inform" people. Furthermore, a joke about rape or sexual abuse made in front of a child who has experienced such a thing can be psychologically damaging to that child, and far more detrimental than any "good" that comes from making people laugh.

"To say that some things can’t be joked about is to shove your head in the sand and refuse to think."

**Not necessarily. It could actually be proof of having thought quite well about the subject, and to have realized that TRULY engaging in a sensitive subject and truly "getting these topics out into the open" is very hard work, and can not always be accomplished through simply making a joke.

Personally, I don't buy the whole "we have to be able to talk about it because it really happens" line of reasoning that people use to justify joking about whatever they want. If people were truly concerned about the issue, they'd be involved in other ways.

However, in the USA, your freedom of speech permits you to make those jokes, so carry on...:)

All that being said, a good joke can certainly lighten the mood, or help people to see things in a different way. But when a joke simply reinforces a stereotype which we all already know (which is the only reason it solicits laughter), then it isn't really illuminating anything, other than reinforcing a stereotype we all already know...

Kuncen's picture

Clarifications

Anonymous wrote:
We all know that child sexual abuse happens, and making a joke about it does little to increase anyone's knowledge about the issue, nor does it "inform" people.

That's a fair argument - it doesn't inform people. My argument is that it makes the topic more accessible in the future, as opposed to being a "taboo" topic that can't be discussed.

Anonymous wrote:
Furthermore, a joke about rape or sexual abuse made in front of a child who has experienced such a thing can be psychologically damaging to that child, and far more detrimental than any "good" that comes from making people laugh.

I agree that children should not be subjected to this kind of humor, especially considering they don't fully understand it. In general, your children shouldn't be watching things that are intended for adults.

Anonymous wrote:
All that being said, a good joke can certainly lighten the mood, or help people to see things in a different way. But when a joke simply reinforces a stereotype which we all already know (which is the only reason it solicits laughter), then it isn't really illuminating anything, other than reinforcing a stereotype we all already know...

I apologize for not being clearer about the type of joke I was referring to. I wasn't referring to situations where people just hang out and tell racist jokes - I certainly can't support that. I was referring to satirical comedy which references race but doesn't revolve around it.

Kuncen

Cindy's picture

head in the sand

Apparently to you, my head is in the sand and I refuse to think.

I agree with the previous commenter completely.

It is not about whether you have permission to say a certain joke because you are a white male - you, of course, have the privilege to make almost any joke. You don't even have to question this right, because the world you live in was built to favor you. Until you're able to uncover that reality and own it everyday, we will always feel differently about this issue. But the argument that somehow anything goes when it comes to jokes and humor is ridiculous to me. Racist, homophobic, exploitative, sexist, and other kind of jokes are hurtful and harmful to the joker and those around them. Homophobic jokes make me feel angry, sad, and like shit. People ARE actually dying of hunger in Africa, women ARE raped on a daily basis, children ARE sexually abused, and gay people ARE having the shit beaten out of them - is it funny to create satires about it for a white audience?

For example, I have definitely laughed at and made racist jokes before, but I think they were wasted moments of laughter with little intelligence on my part, and I do think it was racist. Rarely do I see this kind of joking become an actual catalyst to bringing up genuine concern on the issue, that provokes debate and discussion. Often what happens when someone voices that they find a particular racist or inappropriate, is an attempt by the joker and others to shut that person down. The joker's response is usually, "Oh you're just too sensitive! Why are you sensitive? It's just a joke... etc, etc." It's an attempt to redirect the joker's shame onto the person who voices dislike. This is an example of what I have seen happen, not my perception on recent events. But I do believe this it what should happen - that we have a responsibility to call out people on jokes that are racist, etc. If people are shut down this way, I don't see how this opens any doors to a real discussion. Are you ready to have a real discussion about rape, racism and homophobia, or are you not wanting to "open that can of worms"? It seems the latter.

Why not have a discussion period, with out the joke? Why not talk about why we make these kinds of jokes? The logic here makes little sense - why would making racist jokes equal putting it on the table? If anything, it takes it off the table. These jokes to me denote insecurity and an inability to engage in more witty and intelligent humor. It's like when you see a comedian on stage who falls back on a racist joke because he/she knows it'll get an easy laugh. It's so easy to make. I think of it as really just putting crappy energy into the air.

Again, I just don't buy anything about the argument that making "stereotype" jokes bring things out in the open and therefore is a good thing. Who watches Family Guy and South Park the most? And how the hell do these jokes do anything but reinforce stereotypes? Have you ever made this kind of joke and hurt another person? Or knew it would hurt them? Does making light of stereotypes help them disappear or deal with why they exist? You can think that I'm too sensitive, too PC and take things too seriously. I don't think you're taking them seriously enough.

Kuncen's picture

Apologies

Cindy wrote:
But I do believe this it what should happen - that we have a responsibility to call out people on jokes that are racist, etc. If people are shut down this way, I don't see how this opens any doors to a real discussion.

I don't know if you meant to say it that way, but that's exactly my point. If you tell people that they are racist, it kills all chance of a rational discussion.

Cindy wrote:
Are you ready to have a real discussion about rape, racism and homophobia, or are you not wanting to "open that can of worms"? It seems the latter.

Yes, I am ready, and that's why I posted the article in the first place. This website is all about "opening that can of worms". In my experience (and I'm speaking only for myself), the people who tell me I "can't joke about that" are generally not ready to engage me when I want to discuss the topic further.

It's become clear to me that I haven't stated my position very well in the original article, and I've certainly made some people very upset. I suppose that's not surprising considering that we're talking about race (mostly). Furthermore, it may not have been clear to everyone that this is an Opinion article, meaning I'm stating my personal belief... I'm not even trying to be objective. Of course this is how Op-Ed pieces work. They can't be proven or disproven, they're just the columnist's belief. But perhaps I should have made it clearer that it was just a column.

I'm not in favor of racist jokes... but I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with satirical jokes that reference racism. I feel that they serve to lift the veil of taboo that constricts us from expressing our true feelings.

Again, this website is designed to generate heated and intense debate. Discussing these issues is the hallmark of a healthy society, and the ability to defend your belief is the sign of a well-formed opinion. Certainly some of the opinions expressed in the comments thus far have made me rethink my own opinions, and I'm thankful for that.

Kuncen

Cindy's picture

satirical jokes on racism (or other 'isms')

My first post was very heated, as I feel strongly about the issue, but my apologies if any comment pushed the limits of appropriateness. I don't know how to do the cool little quotation in a box thing, so this will have to do :)

Kuncen wrote: "I'm not in favor of racist jokes... but I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with satirical jokes that reference racism. I feel that they serve to lift the veil of taboo that constricts us from expressing our true feelings."

Since we've referenced racism enough times, I'll stick with that as an example. I think I understand what kind of satire you're referring to...it usually pokes fun at our racism by showing it in a way where our own racist tendency are sort of viewed. It intends to make the viewer laugh because it shows the racist behavior we've seen in ourselves and others, and how it's clearly stupid. I guess I'm not convinced, may never be convinced, that even though satire may have the intention to not be racist, that it isn't racist itself by making the jokes in the first place. I guess it seems to me like the message is: we're pretending to be racist to make a point about it. But I just wonder how many viewers pick up on that point, and is it the best way to make the point? Finally, I think we can work towards other ways to express our true feelings, if your view is that taboos restrict us.

I have the belief that we all have some racism to uncover in ourselves, particularly those of us with white skin, but I would not want to shut down any person by making a joke by telling them, "You're racist." I would say, "That [the joke] is racist." It's also perceived as a taboo to be considered a racist. I have to deal with my own racism. If you're in a room full of all white people and someone makes a racist joke and everyone laughs, it would feel hard to say something to the contrary, but I think calling each other out is needed, even with the people you're closest, in order to have honest relationships. I want to say in the end it comes down to actions, not words, but then, words incite action all the time in our world, so they hold a lot meaning too. And do we really want nothing to be taboo? Here come the Furries and Plushies. That in of itself is an interesting discussion.

Well, clearly the issue generates a lot of reactions and hopefully this site continues to facilitate discussions. Thanks.

P.S. to timedesign - a ton of parents curse in front of their kids, and watch far more violent movies than John Claude Van Damme with them. Most kid movies have a ton of sexual references for the adults who take their children to see it.

Kuncen's picture

Good points

Those are very good points, and I can't say I disagree with any of them. I agree that we need to constantly be asking ourselves whether the joke is worth making, or whether it might be offensive to someone in the room, and whether it's just outright racist and a shitty joke.

I also agree that we should call people out when they say something inappropriate, but of course we need to be careful how we phrase it.

Cindy wrote:
P.S. to timedesign - a ton of parents curse in front of their kids, and watch far more violent movies than John Claude Van Damme with them. Most kid movies have a ton of sexual references for the adults who take their children to see it.

These things do happen. If a young child watches programming that's intended for adults, and picks up some inappropriate ideas, is that the TV show's fault or the parent's fault for letting them watch? I believe it's the latter. And a person who curses in front of their children has no one to blame but themselves.

What if a 6 year old read this thread? It wouldn't probably be helpful for them, and might even be harmful. So should we shut the site down? Of course not... but that child's parent should be monitoring so that they aren't exposed to things they aren't ready for.

Kuncen

timedesign's picture

Adverbs Are Good

I only picked JC Van Damme movies because children should not be subjected to crushingly stilted dialogue and mind-numbingly predictable plot-arc's, it's our responsibility to sheild them from the worst of society.
Stick to Spongebob small people!

anonymous's picture

I feel that people tend to

I feel that people tend to polarize around the issue of freedom of speech. Some believe that absolutely nothing should be censored. On the opposite side, others impose strict limits.

Always, children and the defenseless come to our minds. I cite this website as an example of a good balance.

timedesign's picture

A joke

Personally, I believe that no-one has the right to go through life without being offended.
Jokes are one of the ways in which we deal with situations that are difficult or socailly unacceptable, in a similar way to theatre or visual art. Humour can be a powerful tool.
For me there are no subjects that should be off limits for humour. The only difference is if it is a good joke or a bad one. It is possible to make a good joke about say, rape or genocide as it is to make a bad one. The bad ones cause offence, the good ones illuminate (and cause a bit of offence too).
It's not the subject matter that people should get offended by, it's block-headed, spiteful and ham fisted jokes.
And to that poster who said you shouldn't tell certain in front of children, well, yes that is blindingly obvious. You don't swear or have sex or watch Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in front of children do you?
Also, in my experience, the abolute best homophobic jokes come from the gay community themselves. Yes, bad stuff happens in the world but if you can't make light of it you're just left with a lot of people taking themselves very
very
very
seriously.

Q: Why do women wear make-up and perfume?

A: Because they're ugly and they smell.

Ritrat8's picture

I agree.

"Q: Why do women wear make-up and perfume?

A: Because they're ugly and they smell."

Well, beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.
That being said, I've seen beholders, and boy, are THEY ugly!

In the furry fandom, a lot of the better jokes about furries are written by them.

For example;

"A Fox: 'I'm for sale for only 200$!' Some Guy: 'Why would I buy YOU when I could get any fox I want by lifting up my shirt?'"

"That same Fox: 'I can't seem to think straight lately.' That guy again: For a fox, there IS no thinking 'straight'.'"

Yeah. Ironically, my fursona's a fox, and I'm straight.
Come to think of it, I've defied loads of stereotypes.

*smug look*

EDIT: Also, I actually found those two jokes funny, and wasn't the least bit offended. Just so we're clear.

Ethan's picture

privilaged?

"it wasn't appropriate because of our status - white males, with associated benefits. It wasn't right for us to make jokes involving people who hadn't had the same advantages that we had had in life."
I don't believe this to be necesarily true especially if you are a white male in Zimbabwe or trying to get a college scholarship in the USA. I've had plenty of friends from other cultures that make fun of white people, I knew they did not mean the jokes in a hateful manner however and was not offended. But If the joke is hateful then it is wrong. Lots of people will have different opinions on this but in America especially there is always a double standard when it comes to this sort of thing.

Ritrat8's picture

How did that joke go, anyways?

I mean, gimme the joke the way you remember telling it.
Maybe it'd help a bit, I dunno.

funny quotes's picture

I like the way you thoroughly

I like the way you thoroughly wrote about it :)