Humor about social issues is always likely to offend someone. This is a simple fact. Generalizations will be made, stereotypes will be used, and even if the attempt of the joke is to satirize that stereotype, its very presence in print seems to draw an immediate defensive response, as we have witnessed with the current controversy surrounding the Yale Record’s Blue Book parody.
Racist content, or the promotion of racist viewpoints, has no place in publications here at Yale, but too often it seems that students are too narrow-minded in their reading and fail to see that their own immediate interpretation of a passage might not be the reaction the author intended. For instance, the entry in the fake Blue Book which was perceived to be offensive to Hispanics, “Practical Applications of Spanish for WASPs,” seemed very clearly to me not to be making fun of the Hispanic-American community, but instead to be targeting the poor treatment of this community by the white, upper-middle class suburbanites who use Hispanic immigrants for cheap labor. Writing that the course will teach students how to say such “crucial phrases as ‘ … the outsides of the windows do have to be cleaned,’” is satirizing the generally childlike and exploitative nature of this relationship.
Of course some jokes will miss their intended mark, as I thought the course entry about the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department did by characterizing those within the major as all either “rabid, militant, feminazi man-hating lesbians” or gay men. I am sure the intent of the joke was not to be offensive, but it still came out sour. This does not mean that everyone should jump on the Record and decry them as a racist publication, though. The joke bombed. It was poorly conceived and executed. It was a mistake and should be recognized as such. But it is hardly hate speech.
If the problem at hand was that in every single issue, the Record bashed gays, promoted racist stereotypes of various ethnic groups, and was characterized by general malicious intent in its writing, then the current reaction by groups such as the Undergraduate Organizing Committee and the Black Student Alliance at Yale would be warranted. However, the case is not, as Niko Bowie asserted, one of the Record “not challeng[ing] their readers’ perceptions, but instead reinforc[ing] them” (“Satirists vulnerable to dissection of work,” 9/25). If you were to talk to the staff of the Record, I highly doubt they would espouse any of the stereotypes present in their Blue Book issue as their own beliefs. The editors of the Record — and I as well — believe Yale students are of a high enough intellectual capacity and are exposed to enough diversity that they can separate stereotype from actuality. I don’t think there is anyone on campus who would truly look at a Muslim student and immediately associate him or her with the word “terrorist.”
Tolerance and sensitivity to cultural differences are of course important on campus, but so too is the understanding that not everyone is hypersensitive about these issues and thus may be able to recognize the intent in a joke. Racist humor is not funny. Humor about race can be. The line between the two is a thin one and its position is dependent upon one’s own perceptions. Greater dialogue on this matter would surely benefit overall campus life, as it is best not to have student groups feuding with each other. But as David Litt ’08, editor-in-chief of the Record, pointed out in his recent letter (“Offensiveness was not intent of Record’s Blue Book parody,” 9/25), this must be a two-sided conversation, and self-righteousness — while unavoidable — must be checked if a productive outcome is to be reached. The measures suggested at the Dwight Hall forum on Friday to discuss the parody, such as creating a “mandatory discussion on race relations during freshman orientation, arranging journalism workshops for Yale publications, and increasing communication among different cultural groups on campus,” serve more to emphasize differences among the student body than to draw us together as a unified community. Such unification is the best way to promote understanding.
Kai Thaler is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.