Offensive Jokes

I’ve pondered what makes things funny elsewhere. Now I’d like to think about jokes that offend people.

Radley Balko, of The Agitator, wrote a post last week that linked to an article about a girl with a rare condition that prevents her from feeling any pain. Radley joked in the post’s title that “She’ll Win Lots of Bar Bets in a Few Years” and in the text that “The article says she’s the only person in the country with her condition. I don’t know, I think I’ve dated a few women who showed similar symptoms.” I didn’t laugh out loud, but I thought they were amusing comments.

Then, the next day, he wrote this post apologizing very graciously about the bad taste of the joke considering how many problems this condition is causing the girl, and indicated an interest in contributing to a fund to help with the girl’s medical bills.

This got me thinking about offensive jokes in general.

One question is: “When can one expect a joke to offend others?“, another is “When should that matter?“, and yet another is “When, if ever, is it a good thing to be personally offended by jokes?“.

The answer to the first question is very context dependent. Whether you can expect someone to take offense depends a lot on who you’re with and what the joke is about. A joke in a bar with the guys might not be appreciated as much at a NOW convention. Also, many people often need some time to go by before they’re ready to laugh about, or merely not be offended by, things related to tragedies.

The second question is more complicated. There are practical reasons for not wanting to offend others. You don’t want a reputation for being offensive and insensitive because people won’t like you and you won’t get the chance to enjoy their company. Part of this consideration is how much you care about these people and how reasonable you think the offended response is; you might not really care about these people, or you might decide that you don’t care about people who are foolish enough to be offended by this particular joke, etc.

There are also moral reasons beyond pure utility. I think it’s bad to unreasonably inflict costs (even psychological) on others. All of the complexity is buried in “unreasonably”. I don’t mean that one should never risk offending anybody no matter what it costs you or how silly it is for them to be offended. You have to weigh these things and decide if the benefit of the fun is worth the risk of offending others, including how serious that offense is likely to be.

Writing a blog is an interesting case. It’s technically public in the sense that anybody can access it. But each blog has its own character and target audience. Some are written just for the author and perhaps a few close friends. Others are for wider audiences that share particular interests and tastes. And others are for everybody. These different characteristics, and the goals of the author(s), affect considerations about how concerned to be about avoiding potential offense.

The third question is the most interesting to me. “When, if ever, is it a good thing to be personally offended by jokes?”

Well, there are different senses of being offended.

One is that the joke makes you think worse of the teller of the joke. You may think that it implies that the teller is mean, or prejudiced, or stupid, or insensitive. In this sense, if you can do it accurately, I think it can be good to take offense, because you’re learning something that could help you and others in the future. It’s possible that pointing it out to the teller will also help him become more sensitive to these things and think and behave better. But, one should be careful before leaping to conclusions about what the joke implies about the teller. This is a mistake that I think people made in Radley’s situation. I think there’s a difference between laughing at an idea related to a concept (like inability to feel pain) and laughing at particular people’s misfortune. They are separate things; and, if we can’t recognize that, we will have trouble enjoying most jokes. I can understand that if you are personally close to victims of tragedy it can be difficult to separate the issues enough to enjoy related jokes, but it alone shouldn’t cause you to be offended by the joke or the teller.

Another sense of being offended is that, even though you aren’t hurt personally, you think the joke is inappropriate. You think it violates an important rule of etiquette, and you can’t stand tolerating that kind of thing. This sense, I think, is a mistake. I think knowledge about these rules is important to avoid offending others, when you don’t want to, but I don’t think it’s useful to let it interfere with your own (and others’) ability to enjoy jokes. Many rules of etiquette are stupid, or outdated, and rejecting them is an improvement. If the rule serves an important instrumental function, then you might be reasonably concerned about that issue, but that’s separate from enforcing the rule for the rule’s sake.

Another sense is similar to the previous one, but you have internalized some rigid rules of propriety so much that you are actually upset by the jokes. Not just because the rule has been violated, but you identify with the rule so closely that its violation causes you to be outraged and hurt yourself. I think this is a big mistake.

For one thing, life gives us plenty of reasons to be upset for legitimate reasons; like people or things we value being harmed, etc. We don’t have to add new ones. For another thing, it’s a bad idea to bind your happiness to a rule like this. The rule might be wrong. And even if it’s right, then it’s probably because it usually indicates another problem that you can recognize and feel appropriately about (if it’s there in this case); you don’t have to be upset by the violation of the rule itself, too.

If we find ourselves being offended by a joke in this way, I think it should be a warning sign that we’re thinking about things poorly, and there’s an opportunity for improvement.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that you should find all jokes that many find offensive to be funny. You shouldn’t. Some will be funny to you, and others won’t. It’s very dependent on how you think and what “tickles your brain” in an interesting way.

Which brings me to Howard Stern. I can understand people who hear his show and find it stupid and annoying. I can understand people who draw conclusions about Stern himself and decide that he’s stupid and insensitive. They’re probably right, partially. They should choose not to listen to the show themselves, and even recommend to others with similar taste to avoid it.

But, I think it’s a mistake to be personally outraged by his show, and wrong to insist that it’s so bad that others who might enjoy it should be denied the opportunity. It’s these mistakes that are responsible for the pressure being put on radio stations to get him off the air. And it’s wrong for the government to use force to facilitate this.

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