When I retweeted the video below, I did so without comment. Why? Because I was nervous about how I could be attacked by the humour ethicists or the attitude endorsement theorists for finding amusement in this excellent display of word wit.
Too often I hear that NZ is too PC or alternatively that some jokes are just never funny. So I began thinking about why one persons joke, statement, cartoon was funny, but another was not. The reason this bothers me, is the implication that if I found something immoral to be funny, then I was implicitly accepting the immoral sentiment expressed in the joke. This led me to consider if I were an advocate for equality (which I believe I am), could I also enjoy a joke in which the content expressly defied that value.
I found a sweet little podcast on the Philosophy Bites website interviewing Noel Carroll called Humour and Morality. Have a listen.
In short, Carroll discusses the two main arguments on this topic, namely, Amoralism and Ethicism. His view is that what makes a joke funny is somewhere in between these two positions.
The Amoralists essentially argue that humour is separate from morality and jokes have no moral content of their own. In other words, ‘applying ethical reasoning to humor is a category mistake (something akin to asking about the typical smell of triangles)’.
The fact is that some jokes ‘do appear to cross an ethical line that ought to (and often does) make people uncomfortable’.
Carroll points to an example of how racial jokes can cross an ethical boundary. For instance, in NZ when Māori make jokes about stereotypes of themselves, this self-deprecating humour is (generally) acceptable because such jokes are delivered with good natured intention and to build camaraderie. Intention is the key, and this is highlighted by feminists too when using words such as ‘Bitch’.
However, if a privileged group were to make jokes about a disadvantaged group, then this is probably morally inappropriate. Often such jokes invite the hearer of the joke to find some comic pleasure in the stereotyping of a disadvantaged group that the hearer and the joke teller do not belong to.
And in fact as Julie Fairey points out in her latest post – you’re probably likely to be asked to check your privilege.
Additionally, Nathan Goodman (writer at C4SS) suggests that the epistemological limits of what we can know will impact on our ability to understand the effects and consequences of our actions on marginalised groups. For the purpose of this post, jokes can have different impacts on different persons within a disadvantaged group so ‘calls for people to check their privilege are not an attempt to silence. Rather, they are an attempt to get people to recognize the limits of their knowledge’. In other words, we don’t know all the experiences of the person marginalized so privilege checking is an act of humility and not censorship.
The ethicist, considers that morality plays a determinative role in whether or not a joke is funny and that some jokes will never be funny, i.e. if a joke exceeds what is morally appropriate. This point has been made above and there will be instances where morality and humour conflict. However, Carroll points out that the ethicist position is not infallible because it implies that more moral content will make the joke more funny which is not necessarily true.
Carroll highlights that some morally objectionable jokes are still funny, for instance, black humour. He uses an example about a baby roast. He states that just because we laugh at such jokes, it doesn’t mean that we endorse the content of the joke. Often, we are laughing for how our more puritanical friends might respond upon hearing such objectionable material.
Humour Ethicists and proponents of attitude-endorsement theory assumes that a joke has only one meaning. And yes, some people will find an immoral joke amusing because they do subscribe to the immoral content, but the point is that we can find amusement in jokes even if we do not subscribe to the content.
Massimo Pigliucci argues that ‘we can entertain possibilities in which we do not actually believe: I can laugh at a joke about Santa Claus without this somehow implying that I believe in Santa Claus. Similarly, one could laugh at a racist / misogynist joke without being racist / misogynist’.
Comic immoralism is also another position that is contrary to the view of the ethicist. For instance, we might laugh at jokes precisely because they are immoral without believing the content to be ethically acceptable.
Context is probably everything and our moral imagination probably can stop or block a joke from being funny,
Dr Brian Edwards wrote a post on how there are double standards when it comes to racist jokes about Māori. He thinks that Māori jokes should be as publicly broadcast as Irish jokes. Here is what he says:
“I’m Irish and that’s fine by me. I like Irish jokes.
There are a lot of jokes about Māori and they say a lot of different things – that Māori are stupid, lazy, unemployed and often in trouble with the law. (The Irish cop all of that as well.) You hear Māori jokes everywhere.
Hold on a minute! No, you don’t! You don’t hear Māori jokes on the radio, or see them on TV, or read them in the papers. Publishing or broadcasting a joke that suggested Māori were stupid, would get you in trouble with the Press Council or the Broadcasting Standards Authority or the Race Relations Office.
There’s a double standard here. It’s OK to make racial jokes in public about the Irish. But it isn’t OK to make racial jokes in public about Maori”
I’m wondering if Brian Edwards has seen the kinds of racist jokes made about Māori – see http://funnyracists.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/racist-maori-jokes.html (actually, I don’t recommend you click the link, but this is the kind of racism Māori deal with regularly).
My point is that NZ was colonised by British, Scottish and Irish settlers. Camaraderie developed between the settler groups and humour probably played some part in this, with the resulting division between Settlers versus Māori. In my view, this is probably why we see a prevalence of English, Irish, Scots jokes. In addition, these groups make up the dominant group in NZ. Of course, the Irish and Scots were not privileged groups in the societies from where they came since both suffered under British imperialism. But for Brian Edwards to presume that racist Māori jokes are okay suggests to me that he needs to check his privilege.
We all use humour for a various reasons and on various occassions. In my view, it’s not PC gone mad when an individual is criticised for making stereotypical jokes about disadvantaged groups especially if they do not identify with that group but it is PC gone mad if everyone who laughs at morally objectionable material are tainted with the label that the joke offends. Humour is tricky and some morally sensitive persons will always complain. The point is to check the intention of the joke and check your privilege.