Comment Of The Day: Poll-Fest: Is This Ethnic Humor Offensive?

First, the poll results!


Now here is Charles Green’s Comment of the Day on the post, Poll-Fest: Is This Ethnic Humor Offensive?

They’re all pretty funny to me. However, this is making me think.

The term “offensive” is more meaningfully understood as being about the offendee, not about the offending material.

There are some things that are so universally experienced as offensive, across most cultures and most history, that we can easily lapse into using “offensive” as an adjective to describe the subject matter.

But that’s a mistake.

“Offensive” means offensive TO someone. Which means it’s inevitably pretty subjective. In particular, and these examples are great cases of it – the measure of what’s offensive is simply going to change over time. To pick your favorite example, Apu is probably seen as more offensive by more people in 2018 than he was back in the dark ages or whenever the character was first introduced.

Sorry, “offensive” isn’t fixed, immutable: it changes with culture, and over time.

This principle was famously recognized in Jorge Luis Borges’ story about the man who set out to write the world’s greatest novel. After thought, he decided that the world’s greatest novel was Don Quixote. So he set out to write Don Quixote.

Having finished writing it, he waited for the adulation of the world – but it didn’t come to him. On which he realized that the Don Quixote he had written, in the 1970s, was simply not the same Don Quixote that Cervantes had written centuries before – the cultural and historical meaning of all the words, concepts and phrases had changed.

Which meant, of course, that he had failed, because he had NOT written the world’s greatest novel. Whereupon he feel into a deep depression and ultimately killed himself.

The same is true in humor, maybe especially so. You can’t watch 1980s Eddie Murphy talk about faggots and not cringe a little; I’m sure he does. Comedians’ job is to walk right up to the line, and cross it just a little bit. Too much and you end up in Michael Richard’ or Kathy Griffin’s situation.

So the survey of whether this or that ethnic joke is funny is really just a sociological survey. It will vary depends on who fills it out, but more importantly it will change over time. It’s just a survey at a point in timne.

The ultimate judge of whether it’s offensive or not has very little to do with the actual content. You can’t find great humor in content, you’ve got to find it in context, and context always changes.

(Oh and it is simply impossible to imagine the Sheriff’s role being played by any other than a black man. Context is everything. It’s not only not funny, it’s inconceivable to have that role played by a white guy. Cleavon Little didn’t just happen to be black, he HAD to be for that role to work).


11 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: Poll-Fest: Is This Ethnic Humor Offensive?

  1. Charles, this is an accurate comment, however, it begs the question “How many individuals have to find something offensive before action is taken?” Case in point…if 99% of Native Americans find “The Washington Redskins” offensive, the owner of the team might want to take action. If, on the other hand, 4 people in an obscure and near-extinct nation in Arizona are offended, there is probably no real need to take action. Obviously, this is an over-simplification, but one that has, I think, some validity.

  2. Appreciate this Charles!

    When I was a sociology major and domestic violence counselor I was offended by a lot of things that could be attributed to ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘white patriarchal supremacy’ as I was taught. After I finally couldn’t take one more class telling me how oppressed I was, my views away from these perspectives began to change. Was the white guy with a Mohawk unfairly culturally appropriating Native hairstyles? Is Miley Cyrus’ twerking really unfair to blacks? Questions about what I was taught led me to see a lot of indoctrination in my thinking about what was offensive.

    Leaving or embracing an ideology can color ones perspectives on what’s offensive. So can aging, reading, talking to humans face to face, having kids, illness, etc. Some things become more offensive while other things become less so. Someone who just lost someone to cancer may not find a cancer joke funny, even though a year ago they would have laughed. The examples are endless.

    Charles point about offense being changeable is a perfect starting point to analyze what we are offended by, what we used to be offended by, and how much of that offense is really our own or shaped by outside influence. In ways, how many times is offense really just a cry about life simply being unfair?

    • I’ve found that, the older I get, and the more absurdity, insanity, and cold, hard reality and utter randomness of what life throws at us that I’ve been exposed to, the more ridiculous I find the whole notion of being offended by, well, pretty much anything. We have such an amusing tendency to take ourselves far, far too seriously. In the grand scheme of things, we’re all pretty inconsequential.

  3. When I contemplate all of the victim-worship and offense-mongering going on in today’s America, I’m reminded something Chesty Puller said back in the 50’s:
    “Our country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be any America—because some foreign soldiery will invade us and take our women and breed a hardier race.”

  4. My dad grew up in a turn of the (last) century immigrant household and neighborhood where the jokes on their own culture were considered funnier than any others — largely as a result, they were un-offendable by all humor, though mostly only their own was considered funny, and the rest, insults included and barring physical attack, was taken with about 7,300 kgs of cast irony. I learned the definition of that word from asking my dad, who had graduated <summa cum laude from Columbia University why his terse rejection letter from their medical school admissions office [“Our Jewish quota is filled until 193-.”] always made him laugh. “After I became a star,” he said, referring to his field of medicine, “they wanted me to come and teach there.” “And you said ‘no,’ right?” “Of course not,” he said. “I wrote back and told them a fortune teller had told me not to cross any great body of water, or else!, so I couldn’t get to them on the other side of the Hudson. And you know what? Not one year later, one of the group that had asked for me came up to me at a conference in Chicago and reminded me that I could always ‘take the Tunnel’.” I heard more than one version of that story as I was growing up (this was my favorite), the only constant being a great sense of satisfaction. And I think the irony being that he had already attained honors in his field that outshone the achievements of the school that had rejected him (perhaps the class he might have been in) — things we didn’t hear about until after his death. But I never knew him to be
    “offended” by that, however hurtful it must have been. And I know his ability to make close acquaintances, if not true friendships, with people who didn’t look or think or act like him, can be traced to his life experiences. I also can look objectively at my mom and feel sorry for her in her perpetually oversensitive offendable state.

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