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A friend asked me to write some about problematic jokes. - A bed of nails or a bed of roses. [Winterdream] [@Frappr] [@MySpace] [@LinkedIn]
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November 24th, 2010
09:18 am
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A friend asked me to write some about problematic jokes.
[Not because they want cover to tell problematic jokes, but because they want to be able to lay it out for other people why they shouldn't.]

Question: Why are *ist jokes a problem?

Short answer: Because they hurt the feelings of people who have done nothing to merit such pain, whether you meant it to or not.

Longer answer: Because they are based on either validating or making light of something that’s been used for a very long time to hurt a whole lot of people. The ability to remove that thing from its real world context and treat it only as a source of humor is a privilege some people have, and exercising it hurts other people. Further, acting as if one’s audience is composed solely of people who have that privilege marginalizes those people who might be in one’s audience who don’t have that privilege, which compounds the harm being done.

Quibble: But I don’t actually mean it!

Retort 1: Yeah, you do. You’re just not honest enough to come right out and say it, so you leave yourself an out by calling it a joke. If you didn't mean it, the fact that it's hurtful would be sufficient reason for you to stop. You’ll have to figure out if you’re lying to yourself or only to everyone else.

Retort 2: So what? Your not meaning it doesn’t make it any less hurtful.

Retort 3: There’s a real good chance that someone in your audience does mean it. Why would you want that douchebag to think for a moment that you’ve got his back?

Quibble: But people say mean things about Dan Quayle/George Bush/etc…

Retort: Making fun of the powerful and making fun of the powerless are not equivalent acts.

Quibble: But Jackie Mason/Chris Rock/etc. said something similar about Jews/Blacks/etc.

Retort: Members of a community laughing at themselves and members of the community that oppresses laughing at the community that they oppress are not equivalent acts.

ETA:[1] Quibble: But there's no right not be offended!

Retort: This isn't about anyone's rights, it's about how to not be a douchebag. Choosing to hurt people for no good reason is douchebaggery even when no one's legal rights have been infringed.


I don’t have specific cites to point to for where I got these ideas, but I got them all through informal conversation between people working on learning to oppress less and with members of various oppressed communities. None of it is original, at most I've worded it a bit differently. If this piece is giving you any epiphanies, there’s a really good chance that a you heard it first from someone who is a woman, a person of color, LGBT, disabled, a religious minority, a combination of the foregoing, or somehow otherwise marginalized and oppressed in this society – only you didn’t have that epiphany when they told you.

It’s worth spending some time contemplating why that is.

[1] Thanks to [personal profile] marnanel for the quibble to add.

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From:marnanel
Date:November 24th, 2010 02:46 pm (UTC)
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Good points.

One quibble you didn't cover which I hear a good deal:

Short answer: Because they hurt the feelings of people who have done nothing to merit such pain, whether you meant it to or not.
Quibble: But you don't have a right not to be offended.

(I know what I'd say to this, but I thought I'd mention it in case perhaps it was useful for inclusion.)
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From:docstrange
Date:November 24th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
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One of your better posts, sir. I particularly like the perpetuate/appearance-of-support argument, as it describes (what I think is) the greatest damage from [-ist] humor, sometimes even when performed by a member of the group.

I also agree with marnanel - one does not have a right to not be offended; history teaches that, given time, such a "right" will come to suppress the speech of the un-privileged. Not to mention that, even used to stop oppressive speech, such speech suppression legitimizes the false victim ideology of the powerful who have to give up a little corner of their power as demographics change.
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From:ursuscelticus
Date:November 24th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for this. I have been trying (and not being very successful at) explaining to my 13 year old stepdaughter why some of the shockingly racist things that come out of her mouth are so offensive to me, and so very not OK. Unfortunately, we're having to combat a very different attitude with what she gets at her dad's house, where shit like "Ahmed the dead terrorist" is seen as "funny." I'm going to show this to her and hopefully have a better discussion than others we've had recently around this subject.
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From:nisi_la
Date:November 24th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
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Thank you. I was once married to a white man who was subjected to hearing many racist jokes, which the tellers thought would be fine with him, because, you know, he was white. So even if your audience looks like it isn't part of the "humor's" target, they could still belong, and even if your audience actually isn't part of the target group, they could still be hurt by it.

Also reminded of Steve Martin's encounter with racist realtors in "The Jerk;" they assured him none of his new neighbors would be "eggplants." After some discussion of how obnoxious certain vegetables can be he got their point and went all Tai Bo on their asses, because he was raised believing himself black. One of my favorite movie moments.
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From:holzman
Date:November 24th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
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I love that scene. Also when Mama breaks it to him that he's always going to look like that.
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From:bishopjoey
Date:April 4th, 2011 09:44 am (UTC)
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Well said. Thank you.
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From:nellorat
Date:July 19th, 2011 11:51 am (UTC)
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Excellent discussion! Thanks.

I'm glad you wrote "either validating or making light of." I semi-recently did a lot of research into the theory of humor, and this is a main critical split on *ist jokes. The latter approach seems to be winning, and I find it more supportable--that jokes don't have truth value anyway, so any claim that they validate ideas is suspect. But if not validating, it is spreading, and in an inappropriately light-hearted way.

But the vital issue, as you so perfectly put it, is, "Because they hurt the feelings of people who have done nothing to merit such pain, whether you meant it to or not."
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