Monday, March 25, 2013

Bigots Don't Get the Joke

I spend an inordinate amount of time on reddit, and during my time there I've noticed that a significant portion of the posts in r/funny derive their “humor” from the exploitation of racial and gender stereotypes. This post is a revised version of a response I posted to one such joke that several people told me to make into a blog.

People who post (or say) such things fail to understand that their racist and sexist jokes aren't funny. Posting them isn't an act of noble defiance against tyrants who would end free speech. Such jokes are invariably tired tropes, entertaining not in their cleverness but in their still-potent power to hurt. And those who take offense at them generally argue for mental filters not legal restrictions.

The first page of a Google Scholar search for "Sexist Joke"
However, hurt feelings generally aren't enough to convince jerks to change their ways, so it's time we delve into science. Study after study has shown that discriminatory jokes—in the case of most studies, sexist ones, but the same principles apply to humor of the racist variety—hurt their targets and help perpetuate prejudice. They create an atmosphere of acceptance of discriminatory behavior, and help make bigots feel welcome. Those studies, and many, many others, show conclusively (inasmuch as one can be conclusive in the social sciences) that discriminatory jokes make people more likely to discriminate in a number of different ways. The science is pretty well in on this issue, as the first page of a Google Scholar search shows.

Frequently, defenders of bigoted humor argue that they're being ironic, and that "like, man, we have to make fun of this stuff or it will never go away." However, they never seem to present evidence to back the idea that saying such things ironically is any better. Absent such evidence, it seems unlikely that the manner in which the speaker/writer intends their discriminatory jokes matters much—after all, it seems very unlikely that the social scientists who conducted the studies linked above really meant the sexist jokes they told in the course of the experiment. Moreover, it's very easy to miss that a joke is meant ironically unless one knows the teller quite well, which means that even if the defenders are correct, they're correct only with relation to tight-knit groups. On the internet, especially, an "ironic" joke and a joke intended to hurt a less privileged group look exactly the same. It's clear, then, that "ironic" discriminatory humor, by and large, doesn't help break down discrimination. Rather it provides a back door, a culturally acceptable route, through which to express and reinforce bigotry.

Another defense commonly offered for prejudicial humor sounds something like "my black friend doesn't mind it." Those who offer this defense have clearly never thought about the issue very deeply. Those of you who, like me, have the luxury of not worrying overmuch about discrimination should take a minute to imagine being a woman or a person of color in a world where the great majority of those in power are neither. Imagine wanting to join the popular bunch at school, a group dominated by white males. Hell, imagine just wanting acceptance from your peers, the great majority of whom are probably white. Wouldn't you let bigoted jokes slide past for the sake of not drawing attention to your differences? Might you not even pretend to enjoy such jokes as a way of fitting in? Eventually, you might even convince yourself that you're one of the good girls/people of color, more like your white, male friends than the people mocked by the jokes you now tell too. Whether this sort of alienation is rare or common, and I would argue that it is quite common, how can one honestly claim that the humor value of tired old prejudicial tropes outweighs the psychological damage they can cause?

So, what do we do about these jokes? Their defenders think "the liberals" or "the feminists" want to ban them, and so they portray themselves as heroic crusaders against censorship. They entirely miss the point. No one says they can't tell bigoted jokes to their hearts' content. They just shouldn't. There's no need for "PC Policing", all we need is individuals telling other individuals not to behave like asshats. We all have filters that keep us from saying outright offensive things whenever they happen to pop into our heads, society just needs to stop accepting jokes as an exception to the rules of what's okay to say.

So next time you hear a sexist/racist joke, even if the teller prefaced it with "I'm not racist but..", even if you know the teller probably doesn't mean it, take a few seconds to say "not cool, yo".


  1. "Fuck em if they can't take a joke and joke em if they can't take a fuck." - Richard Prior

    As an amateur stand up comedian(So really nothing more than a fan with an ego), and the proud boyfriend of a feminist, I find what your saying to be an overreaction to the practice of a culture you know little about. I make a habit of telling my girlfriend she's less of a worthy human than I am in one way or another(And in no way mean or believe it). I get hit in an endearing way, we both gain something from the exchange and I go make her a sandwich because at the end of the day, I'm her bitch and she knows it. And we have carried on this way since the beginning of our happy and loving relationship. Anyway, that's much like the "knowing you" argument that you posted. I was just making a point that you don't have to pretend to be OK with sexism or racism to make fun and have a close relationship, which you seemed to imply with your grade school metaphor. With regards to the public less intimate display of such racist jokes I'd like to draw your attention to the great Mel Brooks. Anyone can look at blazing saddles and see how blatantly racist the concepts are, but those who benefit from the movie are ones with a good sense of humor and have a love of satire, a facet of comedy that I think society does benefit from. If you're response to a work of brilliant satire being OK starts anything like "That's different because..." than you have nullified your previous point because you have now based it not on an inherent moral wrongdoing for anyone or anything, but on a basis of opinion in which you have placed yourself as a moral beacon who can decide what is adequate satire and what is not. In that case you have no right to say that someone's comedy is not funny because they're not Mel Brooks. Nobody is. Yes it's true, Bigots don't get the joke, but neither do white males who think they know what it feels like to be black, female, gay, Asian, Transgender, Transsexual, etc. The jokes aren't for you, and the jokes aren't for bigots. They're for my black friends. Now if you'll excuse me, someone on the internet is wrong, and I need to blog about it to make myself feel better.

    1. Mel Brooks is, as you said, being satirical; the jokes on reddit and in forums like it are making no commentary or using their jokes to draw attention to the racist/sexist quality of them. Blazing Saddles was a comedy that highlighted the ridiculousness of the racism central to its story. And there is a huge difference in playful personal joking between you and your girlfriend and someone spewing random racist/sexist jokes out into the ether for everyone to interpret with a group psyche. You need to realize that. You and your girlfriend both have a two-sided understanding about what is happening between the two of you and you're coming at each other from an equal footing. Jokes made publicly take away that equality away from the target, and the "be cool" mentality sets in.

    2. Satire - the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

      A joke made in irony is satire. Shitty satire is as shitty satire does. It still has it's place in society. A proper time and a place for such jokes exists yes. Yet their existence is not wrong, and a 'multifaceted' website such as reddit is a fine place for shitty satire.

    3. Except they're not exposing, denouncing, or deriding anything, they're just using irony, sarcasm, and ridicule to make shitty jokes, not shitty satire. And the point of the blog is that yeah, even if it really is shitty satire and not just another useless joke, even if it does technically fit in reddit, people should just try to avoid relying on stereotypes and inequality as sources of comedy. There's better, less-contrived material out there that doesn't rag on people for their very nature of existence.

    4. Again, how can you be the judge of what is a good joke vs. what is a stupid joke? If you are saying it is OK to make a "smart" joke involving racial stereotypes and highly offensive material; who gets to be the judge of that? You? Me? I'm a comedian. I hate stupid jokes. They're stupid. I do agree with you on the point that stupid jokes add nothing to society and are benefiting no one. Especially the person at the butt of that joke. The idea that the above post stated is that nothing good comes of any joke made using racial or gender inequality, and that is the idea I strongly disagree with. If there are good racial jokes, then there are bad racial jokes. If you want to keep the good ones you've got to keep the bad ones, even if you don't like it. You can't generalize an entire category of humor and say "stop doing that." Pick a racist remark and get mad about it for what it is not mad about the whole genre. Similar to how you can't generalize people and make statements about how one group is worse and should be treated as such. Kind of like how some Black people are assholes. It has nothing to do with them being black. Some women are stupid and can't drive. It has nothing to do with them being women. Some gay women where plaid... actually a lot of gay women where plaid, I kind of see how that became a stereotype. Maybe there is some positive correlation between one's homosexuality and the desire to be fashionably checkered, I'll start working on that graph. In the mean time, stop oppressing my humor(hosing it down if you will), your ignorant statements are distasteful. In my opinion, I could be wrong.

    5. Side note: I like your writing. I don't understand a lot of it because I'm too lazy and useless to pick up a book; but I like the way you put words together. It's very poetic and pretty. I'm a little embarrassed by my poor grammar/punctuation in my slightly hurried attempt at internet arguing. I would also like you to know that even though I respect you, I still think you're wrong.

    6. As Elijah's black friend and fellow comedian, I somewhat agree with you. Rape, racist, and sexist jokes can be some of the most horrible jokes, but most jokes aren't that bad. Actually, rape jokes suck. Fuck them.

      Jokes about race and sex and meant to be relatable. Everybody takes jokes differently, and it is almost inevitable for every person watching you tell a joke not find anything wrong with at least one of them.

      Also your use of generalization is frustrating. Why is it probable that most of my friends are white? I know it's from your point of view, and you may not have been discriminated against, but that shit blows. If somebody finds you lower than they are because of your skin color, then yo feelins gon' be hurt. I turn that animosity into a joke about race to make people laugh.

      Same for jokes about cancer and death. We as comedians take some of the worst possible things that can happen and turn them into something positive.

    7. I'm not saying simply SMART jokes are okay, they can be just as damning as the dumbest jokes, but revealing, poignant jokes tend to be more intelligent and that's the type of humor I think should be told. Humor that entertains and expresses. (And Elijah, I can't tell if your side-note about writing was directed at me, but if so I thank you. If not, I'm embarrassed and retract my useless thanks.) Still, as you said, I respect your opinion as well but find it to be entirely wrong. Tis the fate of internet debate.

    8. Agreed.

      And yes it was directed at you.

  2. Crap, everything I wrote just got deleted...

    Anyway, I don't think your article was ignorant or distasteful. I think those "jokes" are.

    Some friends and I are actually trying to stop things like rape jokes, "casual" sexist comments, slut-shaming, and so on because we believe, like you do, that it contributes to a sexist atmosphere and to things like rape culture. Anyway, we started a movement you're welcome to check out on Facebook. It's called "We Clear Our Throats." It's gonna be a thing. ;)

    In solidarity, MC