On jokes

I’m not a regular reader of Shakesville, but I link-surf my way into their turf every so often. Today I managed to do so again, and found myself reading a very perfect analysis of humor, and why some things are funny and others aren’t, and when jokes about stereotypes used against marginalized people are okay and funny, and when they’re not. And, most importantly, why.

I’m always a little on the fence when it comes to humor and what’s okay to laugh at, and even what’s okay to criticize. It’s a hard line to draw, and an easy one to cross. But this post over at Shakesville really spells it out well. At least, it spells it out in a way that I am completely on board with.

Melissa McEwan responds to a post (I’ll try to find the link again, but I’ve link-surfed so much that I appear to have lost the originating culprit for this tangent) discussing what is off-limits and what is acceptable in terms of who/what to make fun of for the sake of comedy. She quotes the original post’s qualifications:

Off-limits:

Women
Homosexuals
Transgendered
Minorities
Illegal immigrants
Poor people
Mentally [disabled] people
Overweight people
Vegetarians

Fair Game:

George W. Bush
Christians
Evangelicals
Republicans
Conservative bloggers
Conservative pundits
Rich people
Stupid people
People who…
live in the South
live in red states
drive trucks
fly American flags
have “Support Our Troops” stickers
Joe Lieberman

There are a thousand and a half problems with this list and I cringe after the first line of the “Fair Game” section. But Melissa thankfully lays out just why we should not buy 100% into this idea of appropriate or PC comedy:

I would add “men” to the first one. If I made an “all men are pigs” joke—heck, not even a joke, but even a straight statement that generalized all men negatively—I would be (rightfully) taken to task for it. Similarly, I would add “straight people,” as we’ve had discussions around here before that the use of a dismissive term like “breeders” isn’t particularly nice, either. And I’m sure there are some other categories that could be added, as well, like the chronically ill, the disfigured, the disabled, victims of violent crime/sexual assault. (I’m not convinced that “vegetarians” belongs on the list, but wev.)

I appreciate that she agrees that making fun of privileged people based on their unchangeable qualities is also not cool.

Off-Limits: Women, men, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, racial minorities, illegal immigrants, poor people, mentally disabled people, overweight people, vegetarians, the chronically ill, the disfigured, the disabled, victims of violent crime or sexual assault.

Fair Game: Bush, Christian Supremacists, certain conservatives / Republicans / Democrats, greedy people, willfully ignorant people, people who are hypocrites, Joe Lieberman.

Spot the difference?

It’s all about intrinsic nature and choice. One has no control over one’s gender, sexuality, or race. The mentally disabled, chronically ill, disfigured, disabled, and victimized have no control over their circumstances. Some overweight people may; many don’t. Some poor people may; many don’t. And we don’t know by looking at them whether fat people are gluttons, or healthy but naturally overweight, or bloated by medication or disease, whether poor people are unmotivated, or lacking opportunity, or consigned by misfortune, so we don’t turn them into punchlines.

On the other hand, Bush has a choice whether to be a shit. Christian Supremacists have a choice about whether to try to force their views down everyone else’s throats. Certain conservatives / Republicans / Democrats have a choice about the way they approach politics and culture. Hypocrites, the avaricious, the willfully ignorant, have all made choices to lack integrity, self-indulge, or wallow in ignorance. Joe Lieberman has made a choice to take the positions he has.

To mock them is to mock behavior, not attributes outwith their control.

Yes. Making fun of intrinsic nature is just plain fucking mean and wrong and oppressive. Conscious choices and behaviors, on the other hand… well, you’re asking for it. Hell, I’m asking for it by writing a blog post. Making my blog posts or writing style or topic choice a subject of criticism is one thing; criticizing me because I am a woman or heterosexual or white is another entirely.

Anyway, please read the whole post. What is suggested is really… well, reasonable.

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4 Responses to On jokes

  1. desipis says:

    when jokes about stereotypes used against marginalized people are okay and funny, and when they’re not.

    One thing that bothers me about such discussions is the way funniness is equated with appropriateness. It’s quite possible for a racist/sexist/etc joke to be funny while also being offensive. Calling an offensive joke “not funny” is will just turn a conversation towards “what is humour” instead of “what is offensive”.

    Making fun of intrinsic nature is just plain fucking mean and wrong and oppressive.

    It depends on what you mean by “making fun of”; I think it’s possible to laugh with someone about their intrinsic nature. I don’t think it’s possible to define a given topic off-limits to humour; to me the appropriatenes of a joke is something that always depends on the context of it’s intent, delivery and the audience. Given the shakesville blog is aiming for a specific atmosphere its perfectly ok to define such limits for that blog, but I don’t see those limits as having any universality about them.

    Certainly criticising someone for something they cannot change holds little purpose, but there is more to humour than just putting something under a critical light. Humour is just a tool that can be used to ease communication, particularly where the subject matter may not naturally interesting or comfortable to deal with. Yes, it can be used to communicate a message of dehumanisation or hate, but it can also be used to communicate a message of acceptance, understanding, normalisation, and so on.

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  3. Bitter Scribe says:

    It’s quite possible for a racist/sexist/etc joke to be funny while also being offensive.

    Yes. In the thirties, James Thurber wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the malapropisms spouted by his African-American maid. It was funny as hell, but there’s no way the New Yorker (or any magazine this side of National Review) would publish it today.

    Is that a good thing? On balance, I think, yes. A few chuckles are not worth insulting an entire race.

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