Not Everyone Laughs When Their Culture Becomes A Joke

“You’re being too sensitive,” “You’re being too P.C.,” “I didn’t mean it,” “It’s just a joke…” You hear phrases among others whenever someone is called out on telling a culturally insensitive joke. We can sing song Avenue Q’s Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist all we like, we can sweep the glaringly obvious under the rug all day, even, but the fact of the matter still remains:

Sometimes those jokes you hear are actually rather hurtful and demeaning. I know, I know – no real news flash there – but have we really stopped to think about what it is about off-colour jokes that irritate, enrage even, the people indicated or implied by them so much?

Let’s look at the typical racist “joke” for an example. The theme is pretty much the same no matter what ethnicity is being presented; whichever one is the butt of the joke is almost always portrayed as being of low worth, trivial, only fit to be mocked. Worse still, it’s a cycle that is self-fulfilling in that the joke becomes the stereotype which then becomes the excuse for why the joke exists (“…you laugh because they’re based on truth…” sound familiar?).

This holds true for more than just racist jokes; jokes distorting or demonising faiths follow a similar thread. Whatever the belief structure is (or isn’t, in the case of Atheism – and, yes, Atheists get made into jokes as well), it is ultimately belittled. But just because it’s in the punchline, it doesn’t mean that the joke is all about them – a prime example of this is joke “What do you call an intelligent American?” Whatever answer is given ultimately implies that all the rest are… well not in the same category. Again, to point out the painfully obvious: that’s not funny at all.

Let’s look at sexist jokes – same problem. The gender being joked about ultimately unjustly stereotyped to be slow, useless, incapable, unworthy of anything given to them.

So why do we continue to tell jokes like these, that are invariably designed to ostracise and oppress others? Why to people legitimise them by laughing at them (even when they aren’t actually funny)?

Self-depreciating humour has it’s own category, one that flirts dangerously with apologist-othering (substitute the “othering” for whatever is applicable – i.e. sex, ethnicity, faith…) and does more harm to the group in question than actual good. Because, after all, if a Lesbian tells a joke about Lesbians that feeds into stereotypes about Lesbians, it must be true… right?

The answer to that, of course is a big, fat, hairy, NO. Why? Because one voice does not speak for the collective, and just because ONE Lesbian (in this case, the one telling the joke) doesn’t mind stereotyped jokes about her sexuality does not mean that all of them are okay with the idea; moreover, just because you or I might belong to a certain minority group, it does not make any off-colour joke we may tell anymore acceptable.

It just means it’s less likely to be challenged socially. Which is reason number two on why self-depreciation jokes probably need to go into the taboo box and not allowed to see the light of day again. Arguably, this is something I also need to work on – I’m notorious for making a butt about myself in my humour. But that’s not all self-depreciation jokes do! Nope, because not only does it serve to humiliate or belittle others, but if anyone does it too often (and you know it when you see it, trust me), you have to ask yourself: is this person really joking about themselves, or do they actually value themselves so little? All hints of Narcissism aside, there is also the very real chance that said person might just be suffering from one or more forms of depression (to say the least self-loathing).

So what can we joke about? A good question if one is really serious about taking the -isms out of the comedic routine. Aside from the jokes one heard as a child (sometimes not even those) and perhaps ones about the weather, the media and pop culture.

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