August 14, 2013

Domestic abuse is hilarious

When it comes to offensive humor, the debate seems to consist mostly of one side saying "that's not okay, it's racist/sexist/whatever", and the other saying "it's funny, get over it". The former side looks at a joke (or similarly a statement or an article) and thinks "can it be interpreted as sexist?" (for example), i.e. "is there any way I can attach the 'sexist' label to it?". If the answer is yes, the latter side might agree or remain neutral, but rarely protests just yet. The former side decides that it's the root of the world's problems and the true face of evil, and the one who made the joke should lose their livelihood and be shunned by society, no matter how much they beg and plead for forgiveness. Now the latter side does protest, but all it usually amounts to is "get a sense of humor".

But labels such as 'sexist' do in no way imply or justify any of that. In the case of a joke, it usually means that it involves a stereotype of the target demographic, or that a member of it finds themselves in an unfortunate situation (e.g. rape, domestic abuse). And to joke about such things is not okay because... you guessed it, it's sexist. And we come full circle. (Sidenote: when it comes to subjects such as rape and domestic abuse you should of course be cautious of who might hear, as it might be distressing for victims to be reminded of it. But I'll return to that shortly.)

The issue, then, is that the meaning of these labels don't reflect what you'd expect them to based on the definitions of the actual words. Let's take the definition of racism as an example: the belief in a racial hierarchy based on some inherent superiority of certain races to others, or the belief that it's ever appropriate to judge people or their actions based on their race, as well as actions motivated by said beliefs. Or something like that. With that in mind, I'd like you to take a look at the following jokes:
What's long and black?
The unemployment line.

What do black men do after sex?
15 years to life.

What do you call 100 niggers on the bottom of the sea?
A good start.
These would all probably be labeled as 'racist' by most people. The first one, however, merely jokes about the social situation of blacks, and if you're actually offended by it (unless presented in such a way that it signals contempt for blacks), you're probably an idiot. The second one is a joke about a very negative black stereotype: that they are more prone to rape than others, which I guess is statistically true to some extent because of social factors, but the joke obviously means to imply that their skin color is a factor. The third one jokes that blacks should be eradicated. Sounds pretty racist, huh? Well, imagine that some guy who we'll refer to as 蘋果醬 tells his friend 厄運鍋鏟 these jokes in private, and 厄運鍋鏟 finds them hilarious. They don't actually support black genocide or think that "black men are rapists", even though the jokes express those sentiments when taken at face value. 蘋果醬 tells them with the intention of making 厄運鍋鏟 laugh, and 厄運鍋鏟 laughs because he finds them funny (and "so wrong", which is of course part of what makes them funny). Has anyone committed a racist act? Did they do something that was motivated by their belief in one racial group's inferiority? No. Then the jokes were, in this context, not racist.

Of course, in the context that I found these jokes on a site displaying actual, honest racist beliefs, what they actually say is something like "niggers are lazy and incompetent, they rape our women, and we must wipe them off this planet to save the white race". They are racist. Their uploading was a racist action. Finding the site, reading the jokes, finding some of them mildly amusing and posting some of them on a blog would not be a racist action.

Let's talk about racial and sexual slurs, instead. Is the word 'nigger' racist? Yes, because it can't be separated from its historical context and it's been used as a pejorative in the past to suggest that the target is a lesser being and an uncivilized brute and blah blah blah. Bullshit. There's no historical context unless I say it in a historical context, whatever that means. It's presented in a neutral, analytical context in this article. I'm discussing the word. Not racist. Let's say a white person calls a black person a nigger. It's inappropriate, but what else is it? If it's said rebelliously, like "I can use any word I want and you're an idiot if you're offended", it's just kinda stupid and rude (even though there's some truth to that). If it's said by someone who doesn't know of its history and was just told "it's synonymous with 'black person'", it's not racist. If it's used by a racist to signal his contempt for blacks, it's racist.

With that in mind, I'd like to propose the following expressions: 'racial joke' (to replace 'racist joke') and 'gender joke' (to replace 'sexist joke'). Like 'gay joke', they tell you the subject matter of the joke without coming with an in-built accusation. Because when labels such as 'racist' and 'sexist' are used for something as trivial as jokes, it becomes so much easier to apply them to situations such as these:

  • An article called Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions, or at least that's the one I think it was. Then again, I remember reading it and I don't recall it being that goddamn long. In either case, it was an article analyzing heterosexual sex from an economic perspective, and some facebook friends of facebook friends of mine were calling it the most sexist thing ever, and both caused by and reinforcing sexual norms, misogyny, homophobia and all kinds of nasty stuff. It did no such things, of course. All it did was apply methods of one area of academic study to another, aspiring to analyze and explain social tendencies and phenomena. But that doesn't matter, because the article can be labeled as 'sexist', which means it's terrible.

  • This scrubs scene
    *JD and Turk hug*
    Ted: I need one of those.
    JD: A hug?
    Ted: No, a black friend. I think it would make me much cooler.
    Turk: I should be offended, but he's right.
    WHAT?! You should be offended? As a black male it is your duty to be offended because he had the audacity to suggest that black guys are cool? But... you're not offended. Because he's right. And that... should have been offensive. This is a crystal clear example of what I'm talking about: he says something completely inoffensive, but he's a white guy and the subject matter of what he says is black guys, which means you can apply the 'racist' label to it (the application of which is, in itself, actually racist), which makes it (or "should" make it) offensive.

  • This scrubs scene
    Turk: How long have you been awake?
    Patient: Long enough to know that [...] JD's imitation of a black guy is really racist.
    JD: He be trippin'.
    And here's the imitation in question. Turk's imitation of JD comes shortly after, but that's not racist because JD is white, and neither's imitation of Stacy is racist (though it may well be sexist because she's a woman). JD's imitation of Turk, however, is REALLY racist. No, wait, wasn't it his imitation of "a black guy"..? It seems like the fact that JD is just trying to imitate his friend, possibly by using mannerisms Turk himself used at the time, or possibly by trying to reconstruct what actually happened from memory, isn't important. What matters is that JD is white and Turk is black, and for the imitation he uses what could be considered black stereotypes. Bam, racist label. Never mind that everyone has stereotypes and there's nothing inherently wrong with that.

The basic formula goes like this: there's a joke or statement or whatever and you have some observations A about it, like "it's a statement made by a white-ass cracka honkey, and the subject matter is people of color". Then you have some conclusions B you would like to make about said statement, such as "it's offensive, evil, and reprehensible", but your observations A do not imply B. A and B are islands in an ocean, and you want to get from one to the other but you can't swim 'cause you're a dumbass. The solution? A label C, for example 'racist', that you can apply to the statement, acting as a bridge between A and B. A still does not imply B, but by using C you can make it seem like it does! The reason it works is because C means two things: C1, "the word C as a label can be applied to the situation because it has been rendered meaningless by popular use", and C2, "the situation can be described by C based on C's actual meaning". The common man's lack of critical thinking makes him think that C1 and C2 are equal, so while I look at the situation and think "A ⇒ C1, and C2 ⇒ B", Average Joe thinks "C1 = C2 = C, so A ⇒ C and C ⇒ B, so A ⇒ B".

This formula can be applied to situations that have nothing to do with race or gender issues. For example, if someone has a differing opinion in an internet argument, they're a troll, and thus they're intentionally trying to piss you off by taking a position they don't believe in, and thus their arguments can be disregarded. If someone makes an argument that you can put a fancy label on, such as 'straw man' or 'begging the question' or 'slippery slope', that's a proper counterargument and you don't need to address the specific points they made; rather, it's their job to further explain why their argument works or why the label couldn't be applied to it. Or in the reversed situation (A ⇒ C2 = C1 ⇒ B), if you can put a fancy label on a statement, literary work, art piece or person, such as 'nihilism', 'cubism', 'impressionism', or 'of the Nietzschean school of thought', it immediately becomes more sophisticated, artistic and thought-provoking. There are even words that essentially mean nothing but have several different meanings incorrectly attached to them by popular use and can be used as an "argument" on their own (A ⇒ C1 = C1' ⇒ B); "homosexuality is unnatural in the sense that it's not found in 'nature' which I guess means forests and shit because humans don't count, except it is found in nature, but heterosexuality is more prevalent and heterosexual mating leads to reproduction and I guess you have to reproduce in order to be natural unless you're asexual or sterile, and therefore it's unnatural in the sense that it's not how we're 'supposed' to be or it's immoral or something, and therefore it's bad (even though it doesn't make sense to conflate 'natural' with 'good' because even if we accept the bullshit premise of natural meaning non-human things found in Earth's ecosystems, we'd have to accept cancer and oppressive hierarchies and rape as natural)" (commonly shortened to "homosexuality is unnatural").

None of this really justifies the use of "offensive" humor, though, so let's talk about that. As I've said, subjects such as rape and domestic abuse should be approached with caution, but you're not gonna self-censor elevator jokes because someone's relative might have died in an elevator accident, are you? It's up to the individual to draw the line for when, where and how, as is it with other forms of off-color humor, because even if no-one is reminded of past horrors (in their own lives, that is), and even if no-one is offended (which is not necessarily something you're obligated to be concerned about because being offended is stupid), it might still be inappropriate and make people uncomfortable, and that's usually not the reaction you're going for when telling a joke. It's really no different from other social interaction: use your judgment.

Another issue, and perhaps the only really important one for people attempting to make a serious case against disparaging humor, is about whether or not it actually affects people's beliefs. I looked around the web, and all research I could find on the subject (relayed in this article, for instance) pointed toward the same conclusion: racial humor (for example) does not actually cause racism but does, if you already harbor racist beliefs, normalize them and release inhibitions against them. Esssentially you could say that for racists, race jokes place a temporary debuff on you that increases your racism for the duration. Long-term effects have not been confirmed by these studies, and while it seems likely that there might be to some degree, it may well be that they are too small to matter, or that the threshold of exposure to racial humor for these long-term effects to take root is rarely surpassed in everyday society (because it's not like this kind of humor is rampant). The actual damage of the short-term effects hasn't been documented either, but I think we can safely assume that people generally don't go directly from reading gay jokes to making budget cuts, like in the study in the article above.

In either case, we can conclude that disparaging humor does cause some increase of negative views against the subject group, and telling such jokes to people you don't know very well could, to some extent, be considered an "immoral act". But very few people actively strive to maximize the moral value of their actions in every area of their lives. For example, the meat industry apparently has a huge negative environmental impact, so the most ethical thing to do is be vegetarian, or at least minimize your meat consumption. It's more ethical to get a medical education and volunteer in some poor African country than to be an accountant or regional sales manager at Ikea. Do the people who complain about these jokes eat less meat than the people they complain about, or donate more money to charity? I'm guessing they don't tend to take the time to find out.

Again, it's up to the individual to draw the line, and just like when it comes to eating meat, it's up to society to make sure people know they're being annoying and preachy when they're condemning others for drawing their line differently. This is especially true when the real problem doesn't lie with you, but with people who hold discriminating beliefs to begin with.


  1. People today only care to be comfortable. That's all they seek, that's all that they're satisfied with. The more of it the better. Nobody wants to get offended.

    Comfort sucks. It's complacency, stagnation, and a good chunk of what's bad about modern society.

    I say, be uncomfortable. You only grow then.

    1. Certainly that's true to some extent. This culture (or any culture, for that matter) simply doesn't encourage the attitude of constantly scrutinizing and evaluating all your cherished beliefs and values, and always challenging yourself emotionally as well as intellectually. People like to think that they've got things figured out, because it satisfies our need for a sense of control, which is a biological universal. It even causes us (and other animals) to engage in self-harm.

      Comfort is also to blame for people's complacency in the face of mass surveillance and internet regulations, and some countries such as the US have sold out the entire political process to moneyed interests, much to the people's indifference.

      Still, I think there are other factors at play here. First, there's this attitude of "everything should cater to me" that seems to be bolstered by the misconception that living in a democracy makes your opinion important. It's why people say "I don't mind gays being gays, as long as they don't do that gay shit around me". It's why alcohol drinkers don't want to legalize cannabis, and it's why cannabis smokers don't want to legalize other drugs. And it's why people think that anyone should give a fuck when they're offended. "I don't like it, therefore ban it".

      There's also the fact that a lot of feminists seem to have made it their ideology to make sure that no-one is offended by anything ever - except for straight white men, of course. Being slightly insensitive to any other social group is just the worst crime in existence. Considering the extreme hatred and prejudice with which many of them viscerally lash out against anyone who question their black-and-white worldview (just go to tumblr to find a million and one examples), it's a safe bet that they're not doing this out of their own comfort. Typically these people are young middle/upper class white girls who feel the need to be part of something greater than themselves, but lack the comprehension to tackle any of the real issues of our day, which are far too complex.