Offensive Joking

When does joking cross the line?

“It was just a joke.”
“Lighten up a little bit.”
“Why are you so sensitive?”
These are just three of the many responses that are frequently used to defend insensitive jokes.

According to Merriam-Webster, a joke is “something said or done to provoke laughter.” Does this mean that an offensive statement becomes “just a joke” when it’s only intended to make people laugh? In our modern day and age, the lines between joking statements and serious statements are often blurred because is it so easy to express opinions on social media that can be taken differently than intended. Without the body language and tonal analysis that can happen in real life, it is difficult to gauge the emotions of the speaker, and by extension, his or her true opinion on the matter.

This heightened sensitivity to controversy and the increasing willingness to call people out come as no surprise, given all of  the recent movements for different forms of equality and justice, such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. Yet, despite the recent push for equality, jokes that target a specific group fall on a spectrum of acceptability. In my experience, it’s fairly normalized to have people talking to me about liking chow mein. On the flip side, I’ve seen African-Americans become extremely offended when told they like fried chicken and watermelon. The difference in reaction to these jokes, which are actually quite similar in content, reveal the truth that racism is only socially acceptable for certain races.

This tolerance for vaguely offensive jokes seems to be driven by the reactions that people have to them. I myself used to laugh awkwardly at jokes about the size of my eyes. It was just the socially acceptable thing to do. I wanted to be civil, and I knew that if I “made a big deal out of nothing” I would be seen as dramatic and oversensitive.

The societal acceptance of refuting inappropriate jokes now helps to bring awareness to deep-rooted issues in American society. Sexism, racism and homophobia are no longer given a platform to be “harmless, funny remarks.” By being able to expose the jokes for their misogynistic, misandrist, racist or ignorant meaning, our society is working toward making these statements radical.

However, with the growth of sensitivity also comes to rise of “social justice warriors,” or people that defend the rights of others in an aggressive, divisive way. These people, who enjoy arguing emphatically against people they perceive as being politically incorrect, frequently push for an equality ideal that is neither possible nor desired. They act as a prime example of the negative impact of limiting people’s scope of humor.

Other people claim that their insensitive jokes are merely a sign of affection or familiarity. Oftentimes, the jokes we consider today to be too crass are seen as amusing to the older generations that grew up in a time when offending someone was the goal of many jokes. This generation gap also contributes to the lack of understanding each age group has for the other’s level of sensitivity. In fact, many people in my generation are seen as “too sensitive” or with an “unwillingness to laugh” at jokes.

The problem doesn’t lie within the joke, however. In fact, joking can be used as a powerful form of commentary, helping people to see issues in a different light. I have heard jokes regarding homophobia and racism that actually satirize the opinions of racists and homophobes. Other than the political importance of jokes, being able to cause laughter is a wonderful tool that brings people together. The problem lies in the use of jokes to hide blatant discrimination. If a statement is intended to ridicule a certain group of people, it just isn’t a joke.

Are we too sensitive? Or are we aware of the issues that offensive “joking” can facilitate? Even if we are a generation that is hypersensitive to these type of statements, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sensitivity is a side-effect of awareness. Once I learn something is wrong, it’s a lot easier to pinpoint the error when I see it again. This is true for looking at jokes too. Once I learn that telling women to go make sandwiches in the kitchen is wrong, it’s easy for me to see that telling them that it is their duty to clean the house is also a mistake.

By Nicole Chiang, Opinion editor
Editorial Cartoon by Joy Wang