Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's Just a Joke

Let's just put this out there first:  I understand that you made a joke and that it's supposed to be funny. I'm not stupid; if they're done properly I will in fact recognize them.  I understand that it was lighthearted, that you just wanted to infuse some humor into everyone's day, that it wasn't intended to be taken seriously, that it isn't literal, that I'm putting way more thought than you did into your joke, and that you think my job is to just laugh and move on.

All of that is beside the point.  Jokes don't exist on some magical plane where meaning disappears, critique is irrelevant, and analysis breaks down. 

Of course it was a joke...but it's not "just" a joke.  

Its being a joke doesn't somehow excuse it from being offensive the way it would be if you just flat-out said something nonhumorous with the same content.  ("What do you call a blonde with brains?  A golden retriever." vs. "Blondes are dumber than dogs."  Those are saying exactly the same thing, except one of them is (also) a joke. They are both offensive. (And yes, I deliberately picked a blonde joke because it was the least offensive kind of offensive joke I could think of, and I didn't actually want to Google rape jokes or racist jokes.) )

Jokes aren't objective bundles of funny. Humor is subjective...but that's not an out; it's a tell.  The whole reason you find a joke funny is that you more or less agree with the assumptions being made.  Otherwise it wouldn't really make sense.  You wouldn't really get it, or you'd at least have to make an effort to perspective-shift before you did.  Jokes that you find funny work because they fit into your conception of the world.  So if you find yourself laughing at rape jokes, you might want to check and make sure you're not actually kind of an entitled misogynist inside somewhere.

It's also kind of the case that all jokes are offensive.  Freud (as far as I understand, not actually having read the relevant work myself) definitely pegged humor.  He said that all jokes were motivated either by eros, the sex instinct, or thanatos, the death (aggression) instinct.  Seems about right.  Pretty much every joke in the world (except (some) puns, which usually aren't funny anyway) is about sex or aggression at the core, and sometimes both (any joke that involves a husband coming home to catch or almost catch or not catch his wife's lover).  Jokes almost always turn on putting someone down.  Someone's stupid, or someone gets beaten up, someone's powerless, someone's a member of some group that can't do X or always does Y.  Most jokes don't work if there's not a butt.

And so yeah, that sucks, because humor is an important force in the world.  That means you have to figure out a way to do it well.  Which is hard! But when you don't, that's your fault, not the fault of the people who got offended.  You don't get a free pass to be an asshole just because you're trying to create something to make people happy.  Especially when it doesn't actually  because your privilege gets in your way of understanding that not everyone interacts with the world in exactly (/at all) the same way as you and so not everyone is going to think you're hilarious, or is going to be able to (or want to) ignore an aspect of your joke that is immensely problematic to them.

But if it comes down to it, I firmly feel that not making other people feel like shit is more important than adding giggles to other people's lives.  Humor is important, but it's not as important as not feeling like everyone else on the planet wishes you would disappear, or actively wishes you harm.

But humor is supposed to push boundaries, and it helps us work through terrible things that happen to and around us.  True!  I don't actually think there are subjects per se that shouldn't be joked about.  But there is a huge difference between joking about something to work through it or make a point about it and joking about something to make it worse.
You can talk about controversial subjectsin fact, you should talk about controversial subjects, because comedy is an incredibly powerful subversive toolbut if you want people like me to stop bitching at you (a dream we share, I promise!), you need to stop using your comedy to make those things worse.  You don't have to make things betteryou are under no obligation to save the worldbut if you are actively making things worse for people, especially when you are not a member of the group whose existence you are worsening, don't be surprised when people complain.
For instance, race jokes.  A lot of jokes about race are racist and offensive.  But they don't have to be.  A Dave Chappelle joke about race that is not itself a racist joke:  
You know the only time racism is really good for black people?  Terrorism.  Terrorismnever take black hostages.  You know it's true.  You know why they don't take black hostages, don't  you?  'Cause we're bad bargaining chips.  They call the White House, "Hello!  We have got five black people, and we will kill them, too!  Hello?  Hello?"
See?  Racism is the butt of the joke, not black people! It critiques how little public attention crimes against black people get as compared to similar crimes.  (Gun violence in white suburbs = neverending news story.  More black kids dead in Chicago?  Not so much.) 

Same works for rape jokes.  See:  How to make a rape joke.  So I actually don't really think the Louis CK raping Hitler joke is all that OK, but the part immediately after it (which actually sounds more appalling) I think is perfect:
Now I'm not condoning rape; obviously you should never rape anyone.  ...unless you have a reason, like you want to fuck somebody and they won't let you, in which case what other option do you have?  How else are you supposed to have an orgasm in their body if you don't rape them?
Because, of course, it's an explicit disavowal of what he just implied about rape being OK (even for Hitler), and it perfectly makes fun of rapists' thought processes and horrific entitlement, not of women who get raped.  (The tone of voice and facial expressions help; it's much less funny in print than in video because it's increasingly possible to misread the emphasis.  Which is why Facebook is a bad place for controversial jokes.)

Bonus:  15 Rape Jokes that Work (Except I actually feel a lot more ambivalent about most of these.  Wanda Sykes and Dane Cook, yes; all the Onion stuff I'm a lot more on the fence about.)  Rape jokes about how much you want to rape someone:  not cool.  Rape jokes about what it feels like to be a woman afraid to go anywhere or do anything:  useful to the discussion.  Race jokes about how stupid/lazy/watermelon-loving black people are:  not cool.  Jokes about what it feels like to be a black person who likes fried chicken (because who doesn't?) or about all the racist things people have said to you, or what it's like to be afraid to have any interaction with the police:  germane.  Jokes about putting babies in blenders:  not cool.  Jokes about how people treat you after you have a miscarriage:  I've never heard any, but there is at least room for them to make good points.

Kind of on a basic level, even apart from how people feel when they're the butt of a joke, or how making certain kinds of jokes makes the climate worse by normalizing terrible attitudes and making it seem like a safe space for them, it's a matter of quality and complexity.  Racist/sexist/ableist jokes just aren't very good.  They're simple; they're lazy; they show a lack of imagination, they tap into the obvious.  Taking it a couple layers deeper?  More complexity means better jokes.

Mark Twain is full of crap ("Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog; you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it")*.  If your  joke can't stand up to analysis, it's not worth making.

* Except it seems it was actually E.B. White, and he said "Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."

1 comment:

  1. Read this today and it reminded me of this post: