On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part One)

Preliminary note: I will mention offensive jokes for the purpose of making a philosophical point.  In philosophical parlance, I’ll be mentioning jokes rather than saying them.  If you’re easily offended, you probably shouldn’t continue reading the rest of this post.

Here’s a joke:

Question: What do you do when the dishwasher is broken?
Answer:  You slap her ass and tell her to get back to work.

Offensive?  Yes, it reeks with sexism.  But is it funny?  That’s complicated.  One question that you must ask is this: can offensive jokes be funny?  If you say “never,” then offensive humor and morality have an intimate connection.  Let’s call this view the Offensive Humor Entails It’s Not Funny Theory.

Offensive Humor Entails It’s Not Funny Theory: For all humor that is offensive, we can also say that they are not funny.  Thus, for all humor that is offensive is sufficient for it to be not funny.

But what if you said “yes?”  The question we must ask is how can something offensive (which is a negative trait), also be funny (which is a positive trait)?  More than that, how often is offensive humor, and is offensive humor really that bad?  In this post, I will be looking at David Benatar’s article: “Taking “Humour (Ethics) Seriously, But Not Too Seriously.”  He will argue that humor can go wrong, but it’s not as often as people think it is.  More than that, when humor is offensive, the offense is not as serious.  What does Benatar mean when he says “humor can go wrong?”  Does he mean that the humor itself is offensive, or does he mean that people will be offended by it?  Benatar splits this in two ways.

First, humor can go wrong in two ways: in the agent, or in the joke itself.  If it’s in the agent, the wrongness can be in the speaker or the listener who enjoys the offensive joke.  We can diagram it thus:

How Humor Can Go WrongIf the wrongness is in the joke, it’s usually because of its bad consequences.

Another way classify the ethics of humor is by looking at whether we should pay attention to the context of the humor or not.

Humor context

Non-contextual criticism will critique the joke simply because there is something inherently wrong with the joke itself.  The context of the joke doesn’t matter.  Contextual criticism, on the other hand, will criticize the joke because of of the context of the joke.  One way to understand the contextual criticism of jokes is when someone says “too soon” because the joke is inappropriate.  For example, after 9/11, Gilbert Godfried made a 9/11 joke days after and he was immediately criticized, although he seemed to save himself by doing “The Aristocrats” joke.  Recently (I’m writing this as of February 2015), Chris Rock made a 9/11 joke on his SNL monologue and some people did criticize it, but most people did find it humorous:

Combining the two diagrams, we can see how humor can go wrong in many different ways.  Thankfully, Benatar is going to look at both grounds and he nicely gives us a table:

from p. 28

from p. 28

With this in view, we can now begin our analysis to see which view is better.  Benatar starts with analyzing the critiques of non-contextual humor.

Non-contextual Criticisms

Coming back to our theory above,  who holds the “Offensive Humor Entails It’s Not Funny” Theory? One philosopher would be Ronald de Sousa.  De Sousa mentions a rape joke and argues that it’s not funny no matter what.  De Sousa would then critique humor in the non-contextual side and he would argue that to laugh at a racial or sexist joke will always reflect how the person sees the group.  Enjoying the sexist or racist joke, according to this view, is to endorse this stereotype which reveals you as a sexist or racist.  All we have to do is introspect and we can see if we actually share in the joke’s presumptions.  Benatar’s brings up a question against de Sousa: Suppose we could introspect reasonably and honestly.  What if we found someone who laughed at the joke but was not introspectively sexist?  What then?  De Sousa might say that the person is still a sexist but just doesn’t know it, but this goes against the methodology of introspection.  Here, de Sousa presumes that finding an offensive joke funny pertaining to a group makes one prejudiced against that group: finding racist jokes funny makes you a racist, finding sexist jokes funny makes you a sexist, finding anti-Semitic jokes funny makes you an anti-Semite.  Benatar argues that de Sousa conflates two ways of looking at stereotypes, thereby making the “Offensive Humor Entails It’s Not Funny” Theory false.  What Benatar points to is that one can employ a stereotype, but that does not mean that one endorses that stereotype, rather one can simply recognize that stereotype without endorsing it.

Benatar encounters possible objections.  We’ll go through them one by one:

Objection 1: Some jokes inherently endorse stereotypes.  As an example, here’s a joke that Benatar relays:

A Jew, a Scot and an Englishman have dinner together at a restaurant. After the meal, the waiter approaches them and asks to whom he should present the bill. The Scot says: “I’ll pay”. The headline in the newspaper the next morning reads: “Jewish ventriloquist found dead in alley”.

This joke is playing on the stereotype of Scots and Jews as being tightfisted, the Jew as being cunning (because he doesn’t want to pay) and the Scot—who also doesn’t want to pay—as being more prone to violence (by killing the Jew).  Now replace the ethnicity with different ethnicities.  Suppose we replace the Jew with an American.  The joke wouldn’t be as funny, even if we employ the stereotypes.  Thus, the reason why the joke is funny is because we’re not just stipulating the stereotype but we’re actually endorsing the stereotype.

Benatar’s reply is that stipulating a stereotype does not mean fully endorsing the stereotype.  Rather, one can simply recognize the stereotype, and this may be sufficient to enjoy the joke.

Here, we can see a picture being developed:

Sousa and Benatar

Recognizing the stereotype is sufficient to enjoy the joke.  And endorsing the stereotype is not a necessary condition to enjoy the joke.  Benatar argues that the joke can be funny because we see the stereotype, but this is only recognition, not endorsement.

While I can understand Benatar’s position, he seems to leave something out: the reinforcement of stereotypes.  Thus, endorsing a stereotype does entail that one reinforces the stereotype, but couldn’t recognizing it also reinforce it?  In other words, even if we can recognize stereotypes, this does not preclude the possibility that this would not reinforce the stereotype.  Go back to the Jewish joke up above.  By telling that joke, it reinforces the idea that Jews are tightfisted and conniving.  To give a personal story, when I was younger, I didn’t understand Polish jokes.  But when I hear them again and again over time, the idea is reinforced that Poles are considered stupid people.

I can anticipate Benatar’s reply.  I think he could say that even if the joke reinforces the stereotype, depending on the context, there is no harm done.  For example, there’s a controversial skit by Dave Chappelle called the “Black Pixie.”  In the skit, Chappelle plays the stereotypical African-American that enjoys fried chicken, and he’s in black face.  Thus, we can stipulate the stereotype, and perhaps the skit could reinforce the stereotype, but that does not entail that it endorses the stereotype.  Indeed, it could even undermine the stereotype.

I think Benatar’s potential reply has some credence, but how can we tell whether the joke undermines or endorses the stereotype?  On the one hand, I don’t think we can say that joke itself does it, but the agent.  Thus, the speaker and/or the audience’s prior beliefs gives us a clue whether they have biases or not.  Are they laughing at the joke because they find it ridiculous, or are they laughing at the joke because they find the stereotype true?  We can’t really tell.  On the other hand, maybe it is the joke’s fault.  Maybe there are some jokes that just automatically trigger the belief in the agent.  The Jewish joke above may do just that.  Thus, I don’t think Benatar has adequately responded to this objection.  .

That’s enough for this post.  I’ll continue with Benatar’s article another time.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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3 Responses to On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part One)

  1. Pingback: On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part Two) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  2. Pingback: On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part Three) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  3. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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