If you have ever spoken to me, you might know that I have a dark sense of humor. Had I the ability to find less contentious jokes amusing, I would probably choose lighthearted slapstick. No one is viscerally repelled by someone who laughs at an actor slipping on a banana — nor would one call that person immoral.
In contrast, jokes that offend are a dangerous business. Mock religion in some parts of the world and you might meet the Lord earlier than expected because He was kind enough to send a fanatic your way. In sensible company, social mores regulate humor: It is simply taboo to make jokes about categories like race, gender and disability.
Alas, I enjoy “offensive” humor, but nonetheless consider myself moral (enough). Given that American college campuses have essentially abolished discussion about anything remotely offensive (preferring to wish it away like the racist uncle at Thanksgiving), I will try to offer a defense of ostensibly offensive dark humor.
To evaluate the moral standing of humor, I draw on the arguments formulated by South African philosopher David Benatar. He identifies two moral components of jokes: the agent — either the “humorist” or the “appreciator” of the joke — and the actual substance of the joke. Benatar categorically dismisses the idea that any joke can be noncontextually immoral: No joke is a priori forbidden. Rather, the context of who is telling the joke and what the joke achieves create moral weight.
Are people (like me) who laugh at ostensibly sexist or racist humor immoral? As important as the substance of the joke is the motive of the teller or audience of the joke. While genuine bigots and normal people might enjoy racial humor, they differ in why they find it funny. The bigot laughs at a joke because he agrees with its substance, while a sensible person laughs because he understands its absurdity. By conflating the two groups, we mistakenly assume that laughing at a joke requires the appreciator to endorse the underlying racist or sexist premise of the joke.
People can recognize stereotypes without endorsing them; they can realize that these stereotypes are ridiculous. Consider the following joke, taken from Benatar’s paper, which makes this clear:
Two Jews are walking down a street and see a sign on a church saying: “Become a Christian and earn $100.” They don’t know what to make of this, but decide that one will convert and will share the money with the other. The prospective convert enters the church. After a while he emerges. His friend says to him: “Where’s my $50?” The new Christian replies: “Is that all you people think about?”
While you have to be aware of the traditional stereotype of the “greedy Jew” to understand the joke, you don’t have to endorse that trope to appreciate it. In fact, the joke has an empowering impact, upholding the status of a marginalized group while decrying the hypocrisy of Christian anti-Semitism.
From here, it is clear that “offensive” humor has overlooked benefits. Joking about death or disease helps us confront mortality. Humor is a powerful tool to combat victimization, oppression and prejudice. If we can co-opt the very verbal insults used against us and make jokes about them, they become much less effective.
One of the most sacrosanct functions of comedy is to make sense of tragedy. Joking about tragedy is the opposite of indifference or frivolity. It is precisely because we think something is worth serious consideration that we try to comprehend it through humor. The famous porter in Macbeth comforts the audience after the assassination of the king with his lighthearted jesting about a foolish hanged farmer. Tragedy is often random, unexpected and crushing. Why not laugh above the abyss, instead of sulking by its edges?
Understanding the morality of humor helps form a clearer idea of what humor is permissible and how we should react when confronted with jokes that touch on sensitive topics. At the very least, I hope people will feel more comfortable watching shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” on Netflix. But I also hope that campus culture will shift to embrace stand-up comedians whom some might deem “offensive.”
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .