On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part Two)

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.

In part one, I investigated Benatar’s analysis of humor.  He lays out a nice table:

from p. 28 I started by investigating non-contextual humor and looked at Benatar’s defense of offensive humor by arguing that there’s a difference between recognizing stereotypes and endorsing stereotypes.  I argue that it is not adequate. In this post, I want to continue with Benatar’s analysis and consider another objection to Benatar and see how he responds.

Objection 2: Introspection is unreliable.  This objection goes further than de Sousa.  Recall that for Benatar (and perhaps de Sousa), all one has to do is introspect and know whether one is prejudiced against another race, sex, religion, etc.  However, what if introspection is unreliable?  Benatar’s reply is strange.  He says (in my words), “Look, if we can’t rely on introspection because we may be biased, then we can’t tell if the prejudiced person is saying something offensive because of the bias or because it’s simply funny.”  In other words, if introspection is faulty, then we can’t tell if the prejudiced person is laughing because of the prejudice, or because the person simply finds it funny.  So one possibility is clearly this: From Malice But Benatar points out that this could also be the case: From Appreciating Humor The first is harmful, whereas the second is benign.  Benatar wants to ask how can we tell that the second doesn’t happen?  The push is to show that jokes based on stereotypes are not always coming from a bigoted person.  Likewise, offensive jokes do not necessarily come from the prejudice within the person even if that person is prejudiced. It’s hard to know what to say with this argument.  On the one hand, shouldn’t we give it the benefit of the doubt and say that since we can’t tell, why not play it safe and stop the prejudiced person from telling jokes?  After all, Benatar is relying on the theory that something is wrong if it harms.  Since we can’t tell if the joke does harm, why not give it the benefit of the doubt?  On the other hand, since we can’t tell what the motivations are of the prejudiced person, then we’re restricting the second person from telling offensive jokes when the only motivation is to appreciate humor.  But does the second person actually do that?  I don’t know the psychology of racism, but I don’t think a racist person telling a racist joke would tell it simply out of appreciating the humor out of it.

More importantly, the prejudice person is still feeding into the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism, even if the person is not laughing from prejudice.  Indeed, it could be said that laughing at racist or sexist jokes still feed into the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism or sexism even if the person was not prejudiced at all.  But according to systemic and institutionalized forms of racism and sexism, it doesn’t matter if the person is prejudiced or not.  If one laughs or racist or sexist jokes, it still forms the racism and sexism of one’s society.  Ignoring this idea, I believe, is something that Benatar needs to address.  He may argue that jokes do not feed into institutionalized racism, or he may even go so far as to say that it does not exist.  I doubt, however, he would go that far.  With jokes, there is the off chance that using slurs or perpetuating stereotypes feeds into the systemic pressures of racist or sexist norms.  After all, we could be unaware of our implicit biases.  For example, there’s a study that suggests that people who proclaim that they are not racist nor sexist can still have racist or sexist implicit biases.  The study was done when a job candidate was applying for a job.  The resume was changed from a “white”-sounding name to a “minority”-sounding name.  Whites received 50 percent more likely to get interviews and they were 30 percent more likely to receive callbacks.  Thus, the theory goes, there is still a racial bias, at least in the labor force.  Another study was done with gender where the names were replaced with a female name, and the resume was exactly the same.  The female applicants were rated lower, even though the resumes were exactly the same.  (As an interesting side note, you can take a test here to determine whether you have an implicit bias.)  In short, institutionalized racism and sexism do exist which entails some sort of privilege.

Does telling certain jokes feed into the privilege?  Based on Benatar’s answer, only if the prejudiced person is laughing from prejudice, but that does not hold.  Institutionalized racism and sexism do not depend on the intentions of the agent; rather, it is tied up to the cultural systems where various actions, sayings, and behaviors are deemed normal.  Social expectations and social constraints regarding race, gender, sex, or orientation follow from assuming the system.  It is, as one thinker put is, racism without racists.  In overt racism, the target is the person within a minority group and the source is the person.  In institutionalized racism, the target is still the same, but the source is not from an individual; rather, the source is from the system as a whole where the fault is not with the individual per se, but the institutions of society create the power dynamics of what is the norm.  If the institution is the norm, one will be criticized if one does not follow the norms.  One could say that one is “supposed” to laugh at another’s expense because it is funny.  Once it’s considered funny, then laughing at the group becomes the norm. So while Benatar is saying that since we can’t tell if we’re biased because introspection is faulty, then laughing may be permissible because it’s possible that one is laughing through non-malicious means.  But my reply is that if one can’t tell if one is biased because introspection is faulty, then wouldn’t laughing possibly be impermissible because one may be laughing through malicious means?  Benatar needs to address this, it seems. 

Objection 3: The joke itself can be harmful.  So far, we’ve been looking at the agent.  Maybe the problem isn’t within the agent, but within the joke itself.  Best example is blasphemous humor, or humor making fun of God or his prophets.  Benatar mostly writes about the cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed in the Muslim religion.  The religion considers any depiction of Mohammed as sacrilege because it’s a form of idolatry.  Thus, a cartoon depiction would be even more taboo.  Benatar’s reply has three very short points:

  • First, we’re assuming that God exists.
  • Second, we need an argument as to why blasphemy is wrong as opposed to simply stating that it is wrong.
  • Third, many religious people have different permissive standards as to what is considered blasphemous or not.

Because of these reasons and since critiquing blasphemous humor is hard to defend, Benatar moves on.  This is also a very short portion of the paper, so I won’t say much else too.

Contextual Criticisms

Non-contextual criticisms are harder to defend because they make more universal demands: all humor that has the property x is wrong.  So a more plausible criticism of offensive humor would be from contextual jokes: it’s wrong in some instances but permissible in other times.  Here, we’re not evaluating types of jokes, but the particular instance of when it is said.  Focus not on the type of joke but on the instances of a the joke (who, where, when, why, how, what).  For example, person P telling joke J could be wrong  because P is racist, or telling J is bad timing, or the setup of telling J can bring forth harm.  However, person Q telling joke J could not be wrong.  What sort of harms could there be? “[T]he harms are typically psychological, including offence, embarrassment, shock, disgust and the feeling of being demeaned or insulted. Humour is sometimes also thought to inculcate, spread or reinforce negative attitudes about those individuals or groups that are the butt of the humour” (p. 33). Thus, we have a formula in when humor goes wrong: person P tells joke J in situation S. It’s very general, but because the context is always different, the same joke could be offensive at one time, but funny in another.

Ok, that’s enough for this post.  In the last and final one, I’ll conclude Benatar’s article.

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 Two)

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

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

  3. How do these games fit into your ideas about offensive humor?


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