Last year, when the Asian American Students Association led a student protest against the Rumpus and the Yale Herald for jokes and material AASA regarded as offensive, there were almost as many critics of the protest as there were protesters.
The critics had many arguments: Offensive speech should not be censored, not everyone was offended, and most importantly, the intention of the jokes was not to offend students of color, but rather to make fun of students at Yale with racist attitudes. In other words, the periodicals published the offensive material to use satire to discredit the people who would agree with it. But this format is not satire.
During the forum discussing the Rumpus’ and Herald’s allegedly offensive content, critics of the protest asked whether it was possible for satire to address race without offending the students of color in question. The answer is yes, as long as the satirist directs his humor at the appropriate target.
The prevailing logic of satirical publications on Yale’s campus is that by presenting stereotypes, they make fun of the readers who hold them as opposed to making fun of the stereotype’s target. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that stereotypes neither make fun of the authors nor their bigoted readers. When publications such as the Record simply mimic students’ ill-informed perceptions, these students are, not surprisingly, the only ones laughing.
For example, imagine there were a group of students on campus who believed all Muslims are terrorists, providing the impetus for the Record to satirically respond by including in its Blue Book parody the course title “ARBC 125: Introductory Terrorist Arabic.” If the Record really wanted to challenge anti-Islamic sentiment, why not directly confront the offending attitude instead of repeating it? A different course title such as “ARBC 125: How To Get Through An Airport Without Getting Tackled By Security,” might admittedly be a different kind of humor, but at least its target is clearly not Muslims.
The Record similarly endorsed its readers who believe that everyone in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies department is either gay or a militant feminist. Calling everyone in the WGSS major “feminazis” and “queers” does not challenge their readers’ perceptions, but instead reinforces them.
Again, the idea here is not that jokes dealing with race, class or anything else should be avoided. It is that satirical magazines must understand whom their jokes are likely to offend and that they should not confuse targeting social groups with innocently presenting a way of thinking.
This is also not an attempt to make the jokes more politically correct, changing “Muslim” to “Muslim-American” or “terrorist” to “nationalist freedom fighter.” It involves more than that, and requires that the Record redirect its focus. Jokes similar to the examples given above could be funny, but they are sanctioning racist and sexist perceptions, not making fun of people who have them. When a satirical magazine presents a prejudiced worldview, it does not set it up for future ridicule any more than if the worldview’s supporters were to speak. The offense is the same.
It can be funny to offend any social group, based on ethnicity, math skills or anything else. But when a satirical magazine does take a punch at one of these groups by mimicking the stereotypes often directed against it, the magazine should be aware that its offense is directed at that group, and is not somehow exposing the ridiculousness of the stereotypes.
Humor usually offends someone, and satire is no exception. Magazines that use humor, however, should not expect that their humor will somehow mitigate its offensiveness.
It is not the responsibility of an offended person to “just take a joke.” Free speech is bilateral. By publishing its satire, the Record must be willing to accept and respond to the complaints of people who have been offended, perhaps learn from those complaints and provide an institutional forum for this civic exchange.
Niko Bowie is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.