If you’re like me, you occasionally click on those nasty little links to stories which you know are probably not worth reading. In fact, that might be what brought you here, reading this.
One of the stories I clicked on last week had to do with Amy Schumer, the brass young comedian who started making a name for herself after appearing on Last Comic Standing. She’s recently apologized for a joke in which the implication was apparently that Hispanic men were rapists. Of course, I don’t think that she believes this to be a fact. The joke itself had to do with dating, and her exact words were: “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
If you don’t follow gossip or haven’t seen any links to this when simply checking your email, let me tell you that the internet was abuzz with people who were deeply concerned about racist Miss Schumer. Schumer actually did apologize for the joke, saying “I am taking responsibility.” On one hand, it’s good to own your words and actions, and to acknowledge that current technology widens any given audience to include everyone with internet access. On the other hand, it isn’t just her responsibility to respond to the joke or its criticism.
You see, a linear model of communication is an inaccurate model. Communication is not a one-way street, with a giver and receiver. It is a living and multifaceted mechanism, in which messages are spoken and written for certain audiences, changed mid-stream depending on reactions, interpreted multiple ways, and finally misquoted somewhere by someone. For instance, what was the underlying message of that joke? Was it that Hispanic men are rapists? No.
Like many jokes made about cultural differences, sexual differences and dating, the joke wasn’t what one would call “tasteful,” but that’s just it. Not all humor is easy to digest for all people. And Americans, it seems, are getting to be really picky consumers when it comes to humor.
Bill Maher, a long-time defender of the unapologetically irreverent, touched on this subject. “Now, I love that joke,” he said of Schumer’s recent blunder, “because no matter what [Donald] Trump says, I don’t think of Latino men as rapists. It’s just funny because it’s exaggerating the fact that Latinos—like almost all men except white guys—are more aggressive when they hit on women, which lots of chicks like.” He also noted that Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry the Cable guy have all stopped performing at college campuses now because young people have been so quick to throw out claims of every “ism” in the book (mostly racism and sexism) in response to a comedy routine.
Of course, these comedians are not the pinnacle of morality, and humor is no replacement for ethical and sensible conversation, but no comedian is making that assertion. They’re simply saying that people are too easily offended.
Personally, I’m also rather fed up with every other sentiment, joke, and figure of speech being seen as offensive. Is there a time for thoughtfulness and taking great care in how we speak? Yes, there is. But here’s the catch: Humor is about testing your ability to discern the ridiculous from the rational, the silly from the sane, the fact from the fiction. It’s a mark of adult intellectual sophistication. Why? Because it requires three things: (1) A decent command of the language in which the joke is being told. (2) An ability to analyze language, context, and culture. (3) A sense of humor.
With that said, it’s worth pointing out that there are some topics that Americans seem to be able to joke about seemingly without end or consequence, while others are steaming hot potatoes. We have created a real double standard for our humor these days. For whatever reason, we are able to see the humor in jokes and stereotypes regarding: old age and senility, men, sluts, famous people, obesity (in general, but we can’t call anyone out, no matter how unhealthy), super religious people (though we can’t necessarily get away with mocking absurd mainstream Christian and Muslim beliefs as easily as we can make fun of absurd tenets of Scientology), and the wealthy—particularly if they’re white.
However, we are not allowed to freely joke about: cultural differences (unless you’re a minority, then that’s okay), sexual orientation, women and traditional “women’s roles” (unless you’re a woman, and you’re using this to trash men), terrorism, adoption, abortion, and physical and mental conditions.
Perhaps it’s a fear of further hampering the progress of demographics who have traditionally had a harder path. In fact, maybe you’re looking at that list, thinking to yourself, “That…makes sense.” I beg to differ. Humor is a way of holding up a magnifying glass to society and saying, “See? This is how you really feel about the issue.” Only then can you get past the defensiveness that protects and coddles the common human pitfalls of pretentiousness, bullshit rule-making, self-righteousness, and glorifying ideals over actual practices and progress. If you don’t like a joke, and you absolutely must overthink it, then please do so…but don’t pretend to think about it. If you find yourself wincing rather than laughing, ask yourself why, rather than simply point fingers at the comedian. Even if the joke was ill-conceived, there’s a possibility for growth in simply examining your own reaction. Yes, humor is fun, but it’s only fun if you’ve got the brain cells to process it—so use them!
You know the expression, “learn how to take a joke?” Well, think of these topics like food items at a buffet. At the buffet of life, it’s not your job to go around and just notice high allergen foods, foods that give you gas, foods that give you cancer, etc. After all, do you really want to be that person who keeps harping on the fact that all the main dishes weren’t gluten free? If you don’t like the food, don’t eat it. Similarly, if you don’t like the joke, you have a few options: Leave it alone, or take it but don’t eat it. Whatever you decide, please do everyone else at this picnic (or on the internet message boards) a favor: Don’t demand a menu change just because your individual digestive system is in knots.
There are plenty of bad jokes at there. No one’s denying that. There are plenty of genuinely prejudiced jerks who use humor as a weapon rather than a tool. That’s true enough. But our inconsistent knee-jerk reactions are proving to be more hazardous than the occasional racist, homophobic, sexist jokes themselves (not the mention the morons who regularly make degrading comments of this caliber). I’m not defending Amy Schumer’s joke – or any comedian’s joke, for that matter- because I’m not a comedian. I wouldn’t really venture to put my stamp of approval or disapproval on a joke for the general public, but I will say that it’s awfully hypocritical for the same people who are offended by jokes about gender and race to turn around and make jokes about the age of political candidates as they toss in a few socially acceptable asides about “stupid men” for good measure.
Truthfully, it isn’t jokes that stop progress. It’s people labeling any issue as “untouchable” for discussion. Seriously.