The ‘Innocence’ of Jokes

People try to pass jokes off as innocent, no matter the intent. Comedians seem to get a free pass to joke about whatever content they want without thinking about how the joke may further enable a certain set of ideas or behaviors. Jokes, and thus comedians, are not free from criticism for perpetuating and using these types of jokes either. Jokes, like all language, play a part in making certain oppressive parts of life remain ok and even funny.

At the very heart of the using things like sexism, racism, rape, and stereotypes as jokes, we are perpetuating the idea that these things are not only ok, but funny. We are pushing the idea that these types of things can be turned into jokes which ultimately reflects that they are also not serious matters. Now, I understand that jokes can be a type of coping mechanism and outlet, but I will address that later.

Take racist jokes for example. Jokes about fried chicken, grape drank, and smoking weed are several topics that are constantly brought up in jokes involving people of color. Since these are jokes, clearly people are not serious about these types of things, correct? Even though the intent is innocent enough, the result is not. A study recently showed that racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes help people normalize these attitudes if they already held them. Those who were not already on a lean towards holding these beliefs were not affected by the jokes.

However, not everyone who says they are not racist, is in fact, not racist. There may be subtle implicit racist leans a person may have that they do not know of. Many people who say they are not racist, may be implicitly racist. This is a type of unconscious racism that is perpetuated by mainstream media, including comedians. People of color are over-represented as criminals in the American media. Jokes continue to perpetuate this idea that people of color are criminals, and help perpetuate the idea that this is normal and ok. This can be applied to any minority group.

So jokes are not innocent. They can harm communities in an almost much more serious way than just a slur or oppressive belief. Jokes can help normalize these types of ideas into society. They showcase that it is ok for these things to not only be treated lightly, but also treated as if they were funny. They downplay situations that affect thousands of lives and can lead to murders. Intent is not something magical that suddenly removes all undertones from a subject. Jokes are not exempt from scrutiny and comedians must be held accountable for the type of environment they perpetuate.

Rape jokes are another example of this. Rape jokes lead to victim blaming, normalization of rape, and the perpetuation of rape culture. Science has shown that men exposed to rape jokes are less likely to take rape seriously, as well as even show that they may be more likely to rape since the seriousness of the situation is downplayed. Obviously, if someone does indeed rape someone, we cannot explicitly blame only jokes. However, these types of jokes set the stage for allowing the tides to turn against the victim as opposed to the rapist. Rape jokes allow for people to downplay the seriousness of rape and the consequences as well, while also turning blame onto the victim.

However, humor is a coping mechanism for some people. Humor is also a way to remove power from a majority group and return it to the minority. Much like reclamation of slurs, jokes can be used in the same way. A rape victim might joke about their situation in order to help bring comfort to themselves, empower themselves, and remove the trauma they experienced. Humor is extremely powerful (which is why jokes help perpetuate the normalization of stereotypes and oppressive systems). In these situations, as with all situations, the audience must be taken into account. While someone telling a racist joke for the hell of it might not be ok, even among friends, even in situations of power reversal the emotions of others must be taken into account. Will someone be offended by the use of this type of coping? If so, it is probably best to not use it.

Comedians on a national scale, must be held to an even higher standard. They are a spotlight that broadcasts them across thousands upon millions of people. People who hang on them and might not understand the undertones of a sarcastic use of the word faggot (I’m look at you, Louis CK).  These people are the people who shape the comedy world in the mainstream media. While I shouldn’t expect much (since mainstream media is indeed extremely problematic), I still believe we need to stop giving people a free pass for comedy. Comedy and jokes, are not as innocent as their audience or speaker may believe them to be.

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