When people protest the use of prejudicial humour, they’re often told to lighten up. This is, after all, just a joke. Everyone knows it’s meant to be funny. In some cases, they’re told that the whole point of the joke is to make fun of people who think that way; no one really thinks Jewish people control Hollywood, so that joke was totally appropriate because it mocked people who believe that myth, deconstructed the very ideas embedded in attitudes about ‘Jews in Hollywood.’ Those who protest jokes that rely on bigoted attitudes are told they’re being too serious, that they want to ‘censor[1. Need I remind you, yet again, that censorship is an act committed by a government, not an individual?]’ media, that they want to suck all the fun out of everything.
Why are people bothered by this kind of humour? Well, for one thing, the jokes often aren’t that funny—that can be subjective, however, and one could argue that it’s a matter of taste, that one might more appropriately say ‘that joke is not to my taste.’ More deeply than that, though, many people are troubled by the attitudes of the joke: they find the humour used to be offensive, and can often articulate why. If you’re telling a joke about Black people and watermelon and someone in the audience finds it offensive, that person might have a number of reasons for it—the history embedded in that stereotype, the context (perhaps you are a white person making jokes about the Obama Administration planting watermelon in the rose Garden), and more.
Jokes are, in fact, highly context dependent. People sometimes say that rape jokes are ‘never funny,’ but that’s not really the case, is it? Because some female comedians actually have rape jokes as part of their routines and those jokes are uproariously funny; those jokes rely on truly twisting and bending and retelling the rape joke narrative to turn it back on itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will appreciate those jokes (see point one above), but it does mean that in humour, many things can be funny…depending on the context. That same watermelon joke might be told appropriately and deftly by a Black comedian, who can bring a context to it that a white person cannot, just as a woman telling a rape joke is read very differently than a man.
But there’s another reason prejudicial jokes trouble people, and that goes beyond matters of personal taste and concerns about offensiveness. These jokes can also validate prejudicial viewers and consumers in a way that defenders of these jokes may not fully understand. Some defenders don’t understand this because they are the very people we’re talking about when we speak of validated viewers—they are the ones who want to hear sexist jokes because they are sexist, and will thus defend the jokes because they reinforce their view of the world. Other viewers don’t comprehend the way in which other people might read these jokes, how a joke that clearly reads as satire to them is actually something else, because the issue doesn’t hit as close to home for them.
Every consumer of a joke brings personal history and context to the witnessing of the punchline. And some of those consumers look for things to validate their point of view in the media they consume and what kinds of jokes they laugh at. For these people, these jokes are funny because they serve to remind the viewer of a position of personal superiority, acting like a warm, insulating blanket to nestle the viewer firmly in a prejudicial world. The viewer thinks the joke is funny because the prejudice in the joke is wholeheartedly believed; a joke about Jewish people controlling banking isn’t viewed as satire (even when it’s offered as dark humour in a context that’s meant to be challenging antisemitism), because the consumer genuinely believes that Jewish people control the financial industry and have some sort of secret in that allows them to avoid financial crises.
Thus, for every joke based on bigoted humour, there is a viewer who finds validation, and suddenly pop culture and entertainment have crossed over into the outside world, because the media people consume affects how they think. That viewer who laughs uproariously at racist jokes is laughing because of deeper attitudes about race in society, and that person is going to take those attitudes away from the joke and repeat them. When a joke becomes stripped of context, as can be the case when it’s repeated by someone who is not the originator, suddenly it can change; the sharp, sarcastic, brilliant rape joke from a female comedian that upends attitudes about women and sexuality becomes just another misogynist joke when a man repeats it at work the next day, perhaps unwittingly unaware of what he’s doing by taking the joke out of context, perhaps with intention.
When people protest bigoted humour, it’s not about whether a joke is to their taste; I find lots of humour not to be my taste, and I choose not to consume that kind of humour. End of story. It may incorporate personal offense at the content, but the offense runs deeper than merely ‘I dislike this joke because I think it pokes fun at people.’ The offense taken is about the context and setting of the joke, and who is validated by the joke when it’s made, repeated, circulated, and talked about. When people get outraged about incidents of bigotry in comedy, it’s often about personal taste, but about what kind of message is being sent through the joke, and who is absorbing it.
Ignorance can be perpetuated through jokes, as can hatred. Jokes, in fact, are one of the key ways in which -isms spread through society and put down roots, and they can be one of the toughest things to fight thanks to attitudes about ‘harmless fun.’ There’s nothing harmless about the spread of hatred through comedy.