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Trevor Noah

Daily Show's Trevor Noah

Offensive jokes are a significant part of the infrastructure of prejudice argues Jeremy Messenger

‘”Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!" - fat chicks everywhere.’ 

What’s wrong with this joke? Yeah sure, some people are going to be offended by it, but like people say: “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right”.

Comedians need to push the boundaries, they need license to be edgy and make mistakes. We shouldn’t censor and hamper the right to free speech. Some people are always going to be offended so carry on, ‘we’re all here to have a good time. No harm done.’ No apology necessary...right?

Well no. The problem with these jokes is not that they might cause offence but that they take the weight of historical oppression and continue to use it against the oppressed rather than turning it on the oppressors.

The misogyny that is used against women, that says how a woman should look for men’s gratification, is repeated in this joke, unchallenged, it is given credence. We see the same in jokes about Jewish people, where the propaganda that was used against them, making the German people ‘ripe for the victory’ of Nazism [Mein Kampf] resulting in mass murder on an incomprehensible scale, is repeated without criticism. And this is about causing offence? 

These jokes are a significant part of the infrastructure of prejudice – a primary way that prejudicial ideas are innocuously passed around. They are repeated so often that they become established beliefs, truisms that lubricate our growing inequalities (wealth, education, health, aspirations, and the list goes on.)

At the first sign of criticism the content is dismantled with ‘it’s only a joke’, as though it’s only harmless banter. But is it banter if the target of your joke is not in the room or can’t directly reply on the same stage? Or if the target of the joke is threatened by what you say? This is very different to taking offence.

When a comedian or a friend tells a joke, are we necessarily laughing because what they have said tickles us?

Neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott explains:

“Rather than being something to do with amusement, laughter is, at its heart a social emotion that we’re using to form bonds with people, to maintain those bonds, to show people we like them, we love them, that we’re part of the same group, that we understand them.”

These jokes are part of the system of identifying ourselves as belonging to a group, separate and superior to the group being laughed at. And isn’t there massive social pressure to laugh at the joke, to show we are not a threat, so that people like us?

And does it then follow that to some extent we brush aside our beliefs and concerns, gradually accepting the content of the joke, in part or whole, and repeating it, to which others laugh, further solidifying its significance? ‘It’s funny because it’s true’.

There is good evidence showing that we tend to find ideas more believable the more people we see believing in them.

When bad things happen in the world, like the holocaust, it’s not because every piece of that social machine is a terrible, nasty person, the vast majority are not. But we are easily led, and each step in the wrong direction seems small and insignificant.

We take those steps based on the information that surrounds us. So if we are surrounded by misinformation we’ll surely take the wrong path.

And we are not necessarily bad people for having told these jokes or having laughed at them. How would we recognise their significance when we are being told so much that the debate all boils down to some pathetic people getting offended because they can’t take a joke or they want to spoil our fun?

Before the cries of censorship, this is not about curtailing our right to freedom of speech, this is about us understanding the power of our words, thinking before we use them and censoring ourselves adequately – something we do all the time. If you’ve ever had to endure the ramblings of a drunk person whilst sober, you’ll have witnessed someone struggling with self-censorship.

Telling racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, antisemitic or any other joke that takes the side of the oppressor to laugh at their victim, is not pushing any boundaries, it is mundane and pathetic at best. What does prejudicial speech bring to comedy or the world?

And of course we all make mistakes and say stupid things. But we listen to the people around us who might know more about it than we do, we apologise and we learn. We don’t stick our fingers in our ears and pretend we have license to behave as we like because we’ve decided it’s a just a joke and maybe we got a laugh.

Framing this debate in terms of offence is reductive. It is a way to shift the focus away from the very real and serious concerns about the way we understand one another, help one another and live in peace together, to something that can be brushed off as a petty whinge. It’s a way to keep us divided. That is why we need open and accessible debate.

If you want to be edgy, try turning the joke around, let’s laugh at the rapist not the raped.

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