Issue #03. November 1995. Pp. 27-42.
Humor and Harm
Copyright © by SORITES and Laurence Goldstein
Humor and Harm
Presumably if we ourselves find such jokes funny then, if we are persuaded by the argument and condemn racism and sexism, we shall educate ourselves to so abhor what we condemn that we no longer laugh and we will censure and perhaps seek to censor such forms of humor. However, censoring humor and getting people not to laugh is a pretty serious business and I somehow doubt that this is a front on which scholars should be fighting. I question the claim that to laugh at a joke which employs sexual or racial stereotypes is in general, an indicator of sexist or racist attitudes.
At the opposite extreme from those whom I have tendentiously dubbed sanctimonious, are those whom, equally tendentiously, I shall call callous, who claim that all joking is only joking, and therefore does not raise any serious moral or social problems. For example, the author of an extensive survey of ethnic humor world-wide concludes that «jokes... are not thermostats regulating and shaping human behavior, but they are social thermometers that measure, record and indicate what is going on. To become angry about jokes and to seek to censor them because they impinge on sensitive issues is about as sensible as smashing a thermometer because it reveals how hot it is. Those who do so deserve all the extra derision they then incur, for they are fools indeed.»<1>Foot note 1_1
There has also been a popular backlash against what is perceived as thought-control. The New York Times Magazine carried a series of letters in response to an article about the quadriplegic sick cartoonist John Callahan. One correspondent wrote: «John Callahan's work is a welcome antidote to the intellectual poison of the so-called politically correct movement, one of the devitalizing forces in American culture and language. The P.C. movement has elevated euphemism from social palliative to socio-political fetish.»<2>Foot note 1_2
This position is simplistic. A Callahan cartoon called «Alzheimer Hoedown», which depicted confused couples at a dance, scratching their heads, unable to follow the instruction «return to the girl that you just left», not surprisingly upset people suffering from Alzheimer's, and it is doubtful whether taking into account the feelings of those people ought to be regarded as a socio-political fetish. Also, one cannot simply dismiss the worry that the attitudes of young children are to some extent shaped by the prevailing humorous norms. However, there is no incompatibility between an individual's feeling uneasy about the uncontrolled dissemination of certain types of joke and his finding those jokes funny. The claim that I am disputing is that there is something morally wrong with a person who does find them funny.
One might think that there was nothing particularly philosophical about the disputed claim; that the explanation of the relation between our attitudes and what we find funny is a matter for psychology to discover.<3>Foot note 1_3 That this thought is incorrect may be seen by considering how we it could be possible to empirically refute the claim: one would present a set of such jokes to a subject about whom one had no reason to believe that he or she was a sexist or a racist; if the subject laughed at any of the jokes, then the claim would be falsified and my view would be vindicated.
It takes but a moment's reflection to realize that such an experiment would be worthless. For an alternative account of the result of the experiment might be that, despite all the evidence we had accumulated about the subject's attitudes, the subject's response proved that he or she was sexist/racist after all. Moreover (so the alternative story might continue), we should not be too surprised at this outcome since most of us, despite what we profess and believe about ourselves are viscerally sexist or racist.<4>Foot note 1_4 We can even have or, as a result of exposure to such jokes, come to have, negative attitudes towards groups of which we ourselves are members. One could envisage a refinement of the experiment in which subjects antecedently ranked for sexism or racism were presented with a batch of jokes, and the differing extents of their amused reactions recorded.<5>Foot note 1_5
However, it should be clear that the kinds of measurement required for this experiment lie well outside the limits of reliable quantitative methods, and, besides, one could not detect or reliably ascertain what the subjects were laughing at nor whether, say, a reaction of mild amusement was the behavioral manifestation of being mildly amused or was the result of successfully supressing an overt indication of intense amusement.
Experimentation alone, then, will not suffice to settle the claim one way or the other. And perhaps experiment is beside the point if there is not a contingent but a necessary connection between finding jokes about Xs amusing, and having certain beliefs about Xs. That the connection is, indeed necessary has been argued by Ronald de Sousa.<6>Foot note 1_6 De Sousa considers the following example:
N. [a woman in the public eye famous for her alliances] goes to visit the hockey team. When she emerges, she complains that she has been gang-raped. Wishful thinking.
I'm inclined to agree with de Sousa, that the joke, in precisely this form, is a malicious one; that is to say, anyone who finds it funny is likely to bear malice towards N.. But my reason for thinking this (which differs from de Sousa's), is that the joke has so few humorous features. It is not sonorous -- it cannot be delivered well and the punch line lacks vitality -- and although the idea of someone's having a voracious sexual appetite is a common humorous theme, the very fact that it is so frequently employed means that most of us will find it stale and wearisome unless given a new twist -- which the present joke does not provide. But, more important, the non-idiomatic term «gang-raped» is used instead of the more colloquial, fun expression «gang-banged». For an uninhibited woman, to be gang banged is not inconsistent with her having a good time (my informant made the obvious proviso: that she like and be sexually interested in every member of the gang), but to be raped is to have sexual intercourse against one's wishes, so to characterize a non-masochistic woman's thought of being raped as wishful thinking is just a stupid contradiction.
A lot of humor depends on perceiving lurking contradictions, so it is important to distinguish the subtle from the stupid. I would count the following extract from a newspaper report as containing a subtle (and therefore amusing) contradiction:
«The dead man was white, in his mid-thirties and spoke with an Irish accent.»
The contradiction here (a dead man speaking) arises from failure of substitutivity of identicals abetted by the ambiguous temporal reference of «spoke». It takes a certain amount of perceptiveness to realize how the contradiction has come about (this typically wouldn't involve being able to formulate it in the way that I've just done) and there is a great deal of pleasure associated with this exercise of the intellect. Nothing comparable is present in the joke about N.. I conclude that, in most cases, a man who finds that joke funny derives malicious pleasure at the thought of the abasement of a particular person (N.) whom he may despise or envy. Whereas de Sousa sees laughing at this joke as evidence of sexism -- as evidence of the belief that generally women's sexual desires are indiscriminate -- I think it is clear that if one substituted «a woman» for «N» in the joke, then the class of people who laugh at the revised version would not include all those who laugh at the original.
In practice, of course, it is frequently by no means clear what aspect of a joke someone finds funny. Consider, for example
Q.: If you keep your beer in beer cellars, and your wine in wine cellars, where do you keep your knives?
A.: In Monica Seles.
Monica Seles is a hugely successful and truculent tennis star who was stabbed during a tennis tournament by a crazed fan of her main adversary. Undoubtedly some who envy her success or who dislike her attitude to the game will laugh at the joke for reasons that make the rest of us feel rather uncomfortable. But the rest of us may well laugh at the joke because of its ingenious play on sounds or because the idea of using a human body as a convenient medium for storing knives, like the idea of using buttocks for parking bicycles, is compelling and absurd.
The point of the above discussion is not to suggest that there are no sexist jokes directed against women in general, but to warn against the danger of seeing sexism or misogyny when they are not present. Quite clearly, in the joke about N., the same form of joke could have as its subject a well-known stud visiting a women's hockey team, and the humor (such as it is) would be preserved. The same is true in the Monica Seles case, which could take as its subject any controversial celebrity who had been stabbed and whose name rhymes with that of a receptacle. This interchangeability of the subject (or subject-group) of a joke is a clear indication that one can find the joke amusing for reasons other than its being targetted on that subject or subject-group. It is therefore wrong to condemn the following as an example of sexist humor:
A husband says to his wife «Women always take everything so personally,» and the wife replies indignantly «I don't».
Again, formulating what the laugher is laughing at is quite difficult, and that is some indication that the laughter is an expression of intellectual pleasure. The wife is taking her husband's remark personally in the very act of denying that she does this. Perhaps the realization of this is sufficient to make us laugh. But it is also likely that we instantaneously fill in a bit of background. E.g., the husband's remark occurs in the middle of a row. He thinks that his wife is taking something personally and wants to criticize her on this score, but in order to defuse the situation, he expresses his criticism in a general, impersonal way. Yet her reply, with the stress on «I», indicates that she is still taking things personally.
Of course, some will find the use of a stereotype (the nagging, niggling wife) an added humorous element, and, for this reason, it may be right to claim that such jokes are bad because they cause harm to women. But the joke works (though less well) without this element. For example, we might tell a story about two men having an argument, in the course of which one says to the other «Some guys take things so personally»; and the other replies «I don't». The original joke is not funny just in virtue of having a stereotyped subject; the subject could be changed and the humor would not completely disappear. It is important to notice, though, that the employment of a stereotype does make some difference. To describe someone's face as looking like a bag of nails is funny, but it's funnier when the person so described is one's mother-in-law. The mother-in-law in question is not, of course, one's own but is a representative of the stereotype mother-in-law, just as it is the stereotypical woman, not all actual women, who always take things personally.
Even when subject-interchangeability is not possible, it may still be the case that finding a joke funny does not amount to holding contemptuous and contemptible attitudes towards its subject. The following rape joke, I wish to suggest, can be enjoyed with a clear conscience:
A woman, returns home late one night and reports to her flatmate «I've been graped». The flatmate replies «Don't you mean `raped'?» «No, there was a whole bunch of them.»
The subject of this joke is a woman (any woman), so that one might be inclined to think that those who enjoy it reveal sexist attitudes. However, unlike our first example, of rape humor, this one has very many redeeming features. Apart from the obvious play on words («bunch of grapes»), the other elements that contribute to making this joke funny are (i) the incongruity of an alarming outburst being turned into a philological discussion, (ii) the satisfying appropriateness of the prefix «g» before «raped» which has connotations of great, gigantic magnitude (as in «g-forces», «giga-bytes») and which can be thought of as abbreviating «gang», and (iii) the phonetic and orthographic similarity of the newly minted verb with «to grope», a verb quite frequently used for another sexual offence, which produces a punning element. Why features like these are mirth-making is a difficult question to which nobody yet has a satisfactory answer. But that they are is beyond dispute since they figure in all manner of jokes which are inoffensive by anyone's lights. The only reason why the joke alludes to women is simply that it is they who are usually the victims of rape. That aside, the reference to women is inessential to the humor. If someone finds this joke amusing because a woman is the fall-guy, one can only say that he is laughing at the wrong thing, and the same would be true of someone who laughed just because he found the word «rape» funny.
Two further points of some importance are, first, that this joke is `impersonal' -- one is not laughing at the misfortune of a real rape victim. Second, it may be true that to laugh when this joke is told implies that one is not focusing on such facts as that a high proportion of women are raped, that the assumption that women enjoy rape has made legal redress difficult for raped women to obtain, that rape occurs in the same social context in which female children are molested and adult women are battered by their partners etc... But is it any more morally reprehensible to temporarily put such things to the back of one's mind than it is to put to the back of one's mind the fact that Frege and Wagner were fascists when one is enjoying reading the beautiful Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik or listening to the great Ring cycle? One occasionally enjoys a good meal knowing full well that concurrently two thirds of the world's population is going hungry. It would be morally reprehensible for an educated adult not to be acquainted with facts about starvation, discrimination and oppression; we should dwell on such facts frequently and educate our children to dwell on them too. But morality does not demand that we do so all of the time.
Similar remarks can be made about many allegedly racist jokes. I have heard children retailing the following riddle:
Q.: How do you stop a black man jumping up and down on your bed?
A.: Put velcro on the ceiling.
Are we really to say that those who find this funny are racists? Well, first, the joke passes the subject-interchangeability test. Children find almost as funny this variant:
Q.: How do you stop a robot jumping up and down on your bed?
A.: Put a magnet on the ceiling.
Second, in either of its forms, this has the hallmark of a good riddle: The question sets the mind racing on a flurry of wild goose chases; the solution is unexpected and punchy. The reason that the variant is not quite as good as the original is that, while the adhesion of metal to magnets is common and of no particular interest, the idea of a velcro-to-frizzy-hair bond is vivid and imaginative -- an idea that gives pleasure because of its ingenuity. Of course, someone who tells this joke may intend simply to denigrate blacks, perhaps by suggesting that their behavior is too uninhibited so that the resulting punishment of being rendered ludicrously helpless perfectly fits the crime (compare mediaeval stocks). But surely someone could be criticized for laughing at the joke only if his laughter stemmed from similarly hostile attitudes.
I would claim that, even in jokes where allusion is essentially made to sexual or racial stereotypes, the fact that someone finds them funny does not necessarily indicate that he holds sexist or racist views. Another riddle may illustrate the point.
Q.: What does a Jew do with his old razor blades?
A.: He shaves with them.
Here the question sets our minds racing in the direction of circumcision, but the resolution has to do with something quite different -- meanness -- which, in humorous contexts, is stereotypically attributed to Jews as also in the following which combines that with the stereotype of Jewish aversion to sports.
Q.: What does a Jew think is the point of American Football?
A.: To get the quarterback
Now, there is a danger, and one that should not be underestimated, of creating such stereotypes, because not everyone can sharply separate caricature from character. Hence sexist and racist humor can instill bad attitudes, and can foster poor self-images among members of the caricatured groups. So a case could be made for refraining from telling such jokes. But, when you hear the above riddle for the first time, then, although you may disapprove of the person telling it, and although you may have absolutely nothing against Jews, you will probably laugh. Why? The reason is not that you temporarily adopt the perspective of the bigot<7>Foot note 1_7 (could you adopt the perspective of Hitler and his followers, past and present, and laugh at holocaust jokes?) but because the joke is short and deft and could only be so if it relied on a shared background of make-believe assumptions. One does not need to hate lawyers or to «adopt the perspective» of lawyer-haters to enjoy this:
Q.: What do you have if you have a lawyer buried up to his neck in sand?
A.: Not enough sand.
A good joke, like a valid argument, can often rest on assumptions known to be false.
The proof that we can enjoy sexual or racial humor about certain groups without holding unfavorable beliefs about those groups is that, without holding any antecedent beliefs about a certain group, we can make it the target of such humor. For example, I have never held the belief that Cornish people are incestuous and I do not hold it at present. Nor do most people. But now, having sown the seed in your mind, I can tell the following story of a young Cornish man disconsolately reporting to his father that, having asked his girl friend to marry him, the proposal was rejected. His father asks, «Was she a virgin, son?», and the boy answers «Yes». «Don't worry, then, son», says the father, «if she's not good enough for her own family, she's not good enough for ours».
Now, although it may be true that some people are disgusted that anyone laughs at this joke, the source of their disgust can hardly be that the laughter betrays a keeness on incest, nor that it is directed against Cornishmen. We surely wouldn't specially refrain from telling such jokes in the presence of Cornishmen, and we would just regard a Cornishman as touchy if he took offence. Similarly, it's hard to imagine a Jewish American girl taking offence at many of the JAP (Jewish American Princess) jokes. E.g.:
Q.: What is the difference between a Jewish American Princess and Russia?
A.: Russia sucks.
The reason why this would not give offence is that nobody would identify herself as a Jewish American Princess so the category is treated as fictional -- even though some real girls probably do satisfy its qualifying characteristics -- Jewish, American, always spoilt by her father rather than her mother and not wildly sexy.<8>Foot note 1_8
A stereotype is simply a bundle of fictional attributions usually related only tenuously to fact. The use of stereotypes becomes dangerous and unacceptable in humor when those involved in the joke-exchange do not recognize that the attributions are false, or are encouraged by the joke to believe that they are true. The stereotypes used in racist and sexist humor are the product of a simple process. A certain group (in European countries, this group tends to consist of white heterosexual males) are marked as the Norm, and stereotypes are created by figuratively taking other groups that are different from the Norm and accentuating and distorting those differences. This is done by treating each «Other» group as homogeneous (all mothers-in-law are the same) and as possessing, to an extreme degree, characteristics conceived not to be present in the Norm group.
Being able to rely on shared knowledge of such stereotypes is useful for the humorist. Quite frequently in humor, these stereotypes incorporate elements of sex, stupidity, dirtiness, cowardice, toilets and bodily discomfort -- things which, in our culture and for reasons unknown, are sources of amusement. So, just as we invent characters such as Santa Claus and the Man in the Moon around which to build stories to amuse children, so likewise we have created fictions (e.g. that black men have big penises, that Poles are stupid) to feed our need for laughter. Having the stereotypes spares us the trouble of spelling out joke scenarios at tedious length; the hearer is assumed to be able to fill in the necessary background. The use of these stereotypes may be dangerous when it helps foster false beliefs or bad attitudes -- but people susceptible to that kind of influence will generally be those who have difficulty in distinguishing fact from fiction.
I have encountered a weaker thesis than de Sousa's defended in the following way: Given that you can't joke about things that are sufficiently horrible, when you do joke about something you imply that it's not all that horrible. The thesis is that a laugher, while not cruel or vicious, may be thoughtless and insensitive. With this view I am in only partial agreement. We do laugh at torture jokes -- e.g. the picture of Christ hanging on the cross, with the cartoonist's bubble coming out of his mouth enclosing the words «What a way to spend Easter». I would claim, that we can joke (with some people) about Christ's crucifixion without implying «that it's not all that horrible». And suppose we heard this joke from a child:
The judge says «Attempting to blow up Parliament is a very serious offence, Mr. Fawkes. I'm going to send you down for a long stretch.»
We, and the child might be rather pleased about him understanding the pun, and (I think) we wouldn't interpret his laughter as an endorsement of barbaric forms of punishment. That's very different from joking about torture under General Pinochet. What we can't joke about are things that we are currently very upset about, or take terribly seriously for personal reasons. That is because we cannot detach ourselves from our emotional involvement in them. Now, some people can joke about things that we find upsetting, because although intellectually they see that what is being joked about is horrible, they are not sufficiently involved emotionally to let it worry them. In some circumstances, such people should be condemned for not making our concerns theirs.
I well remember, as a six year old boy, coming home from school and retailing this slogan (based on an advertising campaign for the Gas Board) to my father: «Go gas -- six million Jews can't be wrong». He was deeply ashamed that his son thought this amusing, and I now think he was fully justified, even though the joke does have what I have called «redeeming features», viz. the ambiguity of «go» and the implication that the Jews had a consumers' choice in the means of their slaughter. But my father was justified in feeling ashamed not only because I was too insensitive to realize that he couldn't emotionally detach himself from horrifying events that occurred less than a decade before, but also because I should have learned enough about the recent persecution of Jews to realize that, for him, it was no laughing matter, and a cause for concern that his son was associating with people who almost certainly were using such jokes to spread anti-semitism. Similarly, one might argue that it is culpable to laugh about (say) blacks knowing that they themselves wouldn't find the jokes funny. If you say that it's all right to laugh behind blacks' backs then, if you are not black, reflect how you would like it if you suspected that people, in your absence, were unfavorably caricaturing members of a minority group to which you belong. Isn't it callous for whites not to be emotionally involved in matters that they know make blacks very upset?
This question needs to be handled with some care. We might invoke what Daniel Dennett calls an intuition pump -- an extreme example designed to coax a person's intuitions in a certain direction. Switch from humans to animals. Even those who most ardently respect the rights of animals would not object to the following joke at the expense of cows:
Two cows were grazing in a field. One says to the other «This mad cow's disease, it's terrible isn't it?». And the other replies «It doesn't bother me -- I'm a sheep.»
Obviously, a cow could not be offended by this; we cannot be offended by something of which we are unaware. But neither is the cow demeaned -- nobody would be caused by this joke to regard cows in a less favorable light or to lose respect for them. Now is a member of a minority (say) demeaned by jokes about that minority? Sensible people (such as readers of this journal) would no more come to regard minorities unfavorably as a result of hearing those jokes as they would adopt bad attitudes to cows as a result of hearing cow jokes. This claim is likely to propel philosophers into counterexample mode, but the inclination can be resisted simply by asking yourself: «Has my friendship for any woman or for any minority person ever been affected by jokes about these groups?».
Unfortunately, however, not everyone is as sensible as readers of this journal. Suppose, while joking around, that we just have a faint suspicion that one member of the audience is laughing because his feelings of superiority are being stoked by the humor, or that one member is feeling mildly uncomfortable at the jokes. We wouldn't laugh so easily. But, even when we are confident that no such person is present, don't, or shouldn't we feel guilty that our joking must be confined to this clandestine coterie? In principle the answer should be «No», since acts of humor by consenting adults are not subject to moral censure provided they are performed in private and nobody is harmed. But, in practice, we can seldom guarantee that there would be no bad effects of our «only joking». Given how little we know about why people laugh at jokes and exactly what it is they find funny, we have no right to feel in the least confident that joke-telling about minority groups will not instill, reinforce or legitimize bad attitudes towards these minorities except under very special circumstances (e.g. telling jokes about blacks, purely for scholarly purposes, to an audience which consists exclusively of black sociologists).<9>Foot note 1_9
Ethnic groups in America are now voicing the kinds of concern adumbrated above, and this has created what Mahadev Apte has called «an American sociocultural dilemma» -- a tension between two core cultural values: sense of humor versus the recognition of cultural and ethnic pluralism.<10>Foot note 1_10 Evidence shows that hostile or degrading wit is the most popular form of American humor,<11>Foot note 1_11 so that it can be regarded as part of the American way of life to which minority groups should accommodate themselves if they wish to be regarded as thoroughly assimilated. This «social manipulation» view is endorsed by Charles Schutz: «Ethnic humor as public humor serves the larger society by implicitly upholding the dominant standards and way of life» thereby facilitating «most pleasurably the ethnic adjustments and assimilation necessary to the social whole»<12>Foot note 1_12 Apte shows that this position is open to serious question: «With the growing emphasis on cultural pluralism during the last twenty five years and the positive self-image that many ethnic groups began to emphasize, intergroup interactions and attitudes have changed. For one thing, members of various ethnic groups no longer seem to believe that they have to internalize so-called American cultural values that were, by and large, imposed by the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant segment of the population in order to acquire a `true' American identity.» (pp.32-33)
What is striking, however, about Apte's findings is that an ethnic group's deeming unamusing ethnic humor directed against itself does not translate into that group's taking a stance against the use of ethnic stereotypes in general. Indeed, his research seems to show that a minority group readily accepts deprecatory humor directed at itself, just so long as the joke-teller is a member of that group. This implies that the humor is regarded as valuable, and only as obnoxious when it is seen to pose a threat or to constitute an attack. In the perceived absence of any such danger members of minority groups seem content to accept the use of stereotypes, and, if my analysis is correct, this is because such stereotypes are regarded as mere fictions which are part of a tradition, just like folk tales and nursery rhymes, or are convenient pegs on which to hang a joke.
The lesson seems to be that we should not be too prim. It may be true, as Philips (op. cit.) implies, that philosophers of Polish descent feel badly knowing that their colleagues get pleasure from telling each other innocent jokes that feign to ridicule Poles. But suppose that the jokes were genuinely innocent (none of the jokers believe or could be brought to believe that Poles are stupid, and each knows this about the other) and that philosophers are sufficiently courteous to ensure that their Polish colleagues who mind about such things do not know of the traffic in Polish jokes. Would this be so different from my refraining from discussing, in a tutorial group, an example involving death, knowing that a close relative of one member of the group had just died? Outside of such special circumstances, there is nothing wrong in telling jokes about death; we don't thereby demean the dead. The stereotype Polack is a figment; jokes about this abstract entity do not demean any real Polish persons, and we should refrain from telling such jokes only in the company of those who, rightly or wrongly, get upset by them, or in the company of those who really are stupid enough to become (more) bigoted.
A similar point can be made about sexist jokes. The objection might be raised that although the objects of sexist jokes could be male, it is no accident that they tend not to be. It is no accident, so the objection continues, that these jokes tend to be told by men about women, and explaining why it is no accident goes something like this: Such jokes are part of a tradition, a tradition of male thinking about women (as domestic creatures, as sex objects, as less intelligent and reasonable than men, say) and telling such jokes often, perhaps usually, serves to legitimate and confirm such assumptions. These assumptions had a crucial rôle in the subjugation of women and continue to prevent women from attaining full equality.<13>Foot note 1_13 The reply is to concede that sexist jokes did indeed serve this function in the past and that, insofar as they continue to do so, we should strenuously attempt to prevent their being so used. But manacles were used in the past to prevent slaves from escaping. We now detest such grotesque forms of maltreatment, and the whole system of which it was a part. Yet manacles can now be used for entirely different purposes (say, as an aid to lovemaking) and, so long as it is clear to the users that the purpose is indeed entirely different, there is no need to feel guilty because of the historical association of these devices with practises we now despise. We should surely not wish to forbid the use of manacles by consenting lovers and would regard as absurd the suggestion that, by using them, they were somehow endorsing slavery.
Suppose that we have made our case that to laugh at racial and sexual humor is not necessarily to embrace racist and sexist attitudes and that the stereotypes employed serve as a convenient foil for the humorous exercise of our linguistic skills. Suppose too that we accept the empirical evidence that, under the right circumstances, the retailing of such humor does not give offence. Should we nevertheless refrain from such humor and train ourselves to be affronted by it because, after all, enjoying this kind of humor is not a particularly valuable value to ourselves, and may be of considerable harm to others unless we are extremely vigilant? This is not a simple problem to resolve. What is needed is a solid defence of the claim that ethnic and sexist humor really does have significant positive value. As we have seen, some of the arguments put forward to date in support of this conclusion have been fairly feeble. I should like to adduce two new considerations.
Within a single day of the disastrous explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, sick jokes were beginning to circulate, most of them centring on Christa McAuliffe, the sole female member of the crew. (More recent examples centre on David Koresh, the «toast of Texas».) Now, it is not unlikely that, before the death of their daughter, the parents of Christa McAuliffe, like many Americans, found this brand of sick humor funny. What is certain is that they do not find it funny now. And yet others who saw the live TV transmission, and who watched horrified as the spacecraft disintegrated, were able to laugh at the sick jokes a few hours after the event. A plausible explanation of this is that one function of particular kinds of humor is to relieve fear. But sick jokes can no longer serve this purpose for the parents of Christa McAuliffe, since their worst fears have now been realized.<14>Foot note 1_14
Surely a similar account can be given for the appeal of ethnic humor. One cause of (say) whites finding jokes against blacks funny is that there is a deep-rooted fear of losing one's membership in the majority, in a society where minorities are discriminated against. An easy way to silence whites who protest that «affirmative action» programs involve unfair discrimination against white people is to ask whether, in order to reap the benefits of such programs, they themselves would want to be black. A white person forced to consider (perhaps for the first time) what it is like for a black to be black soon becomes aware of the cultural institutionalization of a white aesthetic in which black bodies, including hair, are regarded as deviant and ugly, a culture in which white-looking blacks receive more privileges than a black person with classically African features. Curiously, an analogous riposte is less effective where men are protesting against affirmative action in favor of women. I suspect that the reason for this is that it is far easier for a white to envisage the humiliations and deprivations heaped on members of ethnic minorities than it is for a man to see the world as a woman sees it -- to understand what it is like to be a woman.<15>Foot note 1_15 Another reason is that the situation of women is perceived as not being so bad since, after all, women are not a minority. Historically it has been minorities -- the mentally handicapped, the deformed, the speech defective -- who have been the victims of mockery and abuse. Along the Appian way outside Rome one can still see the remains of cave-like apertures where such unfortunates were caged for the amusement of passing travellers. This is commonly explained by pointing out that such handicaps were regarded as divine punishment for sins, so that, by mocking the afflicted , one was endorsing the acts of the gods, thereby insuring oneself against a similar fate. Perhaps today's ethnic humor has its roots in primitive fear and ancient superstition.
If I am right, then humor which makes use of ethnic sterotypes serves the therapeutic purpose of alleviating fear. It might be argued that these fears are unreasonable, yet, if they are real, one can hardly condemn people for the psychological barriers they erect against them. This is where we came in, for our original concern was not with whether it was morally right to tell racist and sexist jokes, but with whether a person is morally culpable for laughing at such jokes. My answer was «No», and I have now offered a supplementary reason in terms of the therapeutic value of a psychological defence mechanism the output of which is laughter. It is a consequence of my position that as (if) society becomes more integrated, with opportunities equalized across races and sexes, so the attractiveness of this kind of humor will diminish (but not disappear). Whether I am right about this, only time (a very long time, I fear) will tell.
My second consideration in favor of sexist and racist humor is related to the pleasure associated with the exercise of linguistic skills. Suppose we find the sight of a madman funny. How would we convey our pleasure to a third person not lucky enough to witness the mad antics himself? A picture might help, but a thousand words would not necessarily, unless they were very well chosen. Certain obvious principles would guide that choice. The words themselves might have a mad sound -- «loopy», «schlemiel», «oaf», «dolt», «goof», «nincompoop» -- or might engage some apposite semantic connections -- «lunatic», «dumbell», «turkey», «blockhead» -- or we might make use of similes -- «mad as a hatter, as a march hare» -- or avoid the pedestrian literal by giving some metaphors a free run -- «not playing with a full deck», «lost his marbles», «two sandwiches short of a picnic», «a roo loose in the top paddock» etc.. Some of these associations, particularly the odd but peculiarly apposite ones, are funny. Notice that I'm not saying here that ingenious wordplay makes what would be a sad subject humorous; on the contrary, the playful words are a vehicle for what is antecedently thought to merit just such a form of transport.
Humans (especially young ones) take a primitive delight in conflict and violence, or at least in their graphic depiction. What is especially entertaining about cartoon depictions of the «Tom and Jerry» sort is that in cartoons we can outdo the real world. The cat can drop a thousand feet off a mountain, bounce back up and straight into a mincer, emerging out of the other end dishevelled but good for a further string of catastrophes. And words can outdo pictures not only because we can have verbal descriptions of what is pictorially impossible, but also because the thoughts attributed to an individual generally cannot be put into pictures and because the scope for amusing verbal ambiguity is far greater than that for pictorial ambiguity. The force of an explosion can be seen to turn Tom inside out, but when we ask what was the last thing to go through Christa McAuliffe's head (answer: her ass) we are engaging a dimension of humorous representation beyond the four available to visual depiction. Here there is not just the «Tom and Jerry»-type image, but a verbal play in which, to our surprise and amusement, we are sharply brought back to the literal meanings of the words when we were assuming a metaphorical sense -- thoughts are not things that literally go through the head. Exactly the same switch occurs in this reflection of Groucho Marx's: «Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book; inside of a dog, it's too dark to read».
Even pure wordplay is amusing. Puns are funny -- there need be no connection with anything beyond the words. A friend of mine, writing a review of a book on Scepticism in which the name of Peter Unger, one of the main players in this particular field, did not appear, entitled his piece «Book Lacking Unger». As puns go, this is not particularly great, and there is no real connection between the philosophical theory and Osborne's drama, yet, despite lacking any point, the exercise of verbal ingenuity makes us laugh (or at least chuckle). So, in talking about what we already find amusing -- sex, disaster befalling others, modes of speech or behavior with which we are not familiar -- it is natural to employ verbal dexterity of the sorts that we have been discussing; the two are made for each other. There thus arises a tradition (or, set of traditions) in which prominent aspects of the human condition are described, embellished and caricatured in the medium of playful language -- puns, ambiguities, amphibolies etc.. As these traditions develop, so certain norms and stereotypes become entrenched, though, like most other aspects of social life, the traditions of humor are dynamic.
One highly significant feature of verbal humor is that sophistication in the production of it is acquired at a fairly late age -- evidence in fact shows that, at a very early age, the linguistic element of a joke is so insignificant to children that they laugh just as much when the punch line is exchanged for a completion which, by adult lights, is not funny at all. And most of the humor produced by adolescents is, well, adolescent. Verbal agility and the ability to devise new variations on well-worn themes are the mature products of a highly developed sense of language and of immersion in the humorous milieu. A joke which denigrates blacks or Irish or women may appeal to a child because hostility to outside groups is part of the child's world of fun. But, for mature adults, the cleverness of a joke is its most important feature, so a non-clever joke which denigrates some group will seem merely embarrassing -- most of the jokes that young children tell us are just that.
Seen in this way, racist and sexist humor become critical tests of wit. If this is correct, such humor is an indication of good rather than evil moral values, for what the promulgation and the appreciation of racist and sexist jokes acknowledges is the adult recognition that mere unadorned prejudice is unworthy, unfunny and unpleasant. For a joke to work in this territory it must have novelty, perhaps a peculiar association of ideas, or vivacious imagery or linguistic subtlety or some combination of these. In other words, it must have the characteristics we associate with sharp humor; anything less will fall flat or fall foul. Similarly with sick humor: think how nauseating a clumsy joke about Christa McAuliffe would be. We can grant to De Sousa the very limited thesis that there is something disturbing about adults who find bad jokes funny.
What follows from the above line of argument is the paradoxical-sounding conclusion that commerce in racist humor is of positive value in a multicultural setting. While, as a theoretical proposition, the conclusion may seem paradoxical, in practise it is a fairly obvious truth. Those who enjoy a multicultural social circle, while being sensitive to the fact that, in certain cultures, certain types of humor have not got a foothold, are equally aware that racial differences and stereotypes are widely accepted as grist for the mill. Trading insults and telling jokes are ways of enjoying that vitality of language and of life on which we are right to place a high premium. Those who do not enjoy a diverse social circle and are unable to speak at first hand could study the behavior of older children in well integrated, multicultural schools. Although racist humor is rife, it is regarded as part of the rich pattern of school life; it does not impair friendships, nor does it breed hostility. On the contrary, insulting is often a way of cementing friendship, (so long as the insults are «insults»). Not to see this is to confuse mention and use.
University of Hong Kong, Department of Philosophy