Connecting the dots

It’s just a joke people

April 07, 2019

For anyone who knows me well, they know I am a strong proponent of free speech. Though idealistically I would support free speech all the time, real world scenarios are usually way more complexed and nuanced. There are some cases where I usually support the right to free speech without batting an eyelid. And there are some cases where it is probably not such a good idea (e.g. hate speech targeting a particular person or a group of people). There is a whole spectrum of situations in between where my views haven’t fully taken shape yet.

One situation where I strongly support the right to free speech or expression is within the context of a joke – parodies, comedy stand-ups, etc. However, I was surprised that quite a number of my friends did not see it that way.

In the politically correct world we are living in, there is possibly even an overcorrection when it comes to things like this. Every Russell Peters standup online has a shot cutting to the people he is making fun of. If he is making fun of Indian people, there is a shot showing Indian people laughing at his joke – just to show, hey it’s okay, they too are finding this funny. I recently was watching a standup of Joe Rogan too and there were multiple occasions where he clarified – “I actually do not talk to my kids like that. It is a joke people”. Well, duh..you are watching a comedy standup routine, obviously it’s a joke. I find it weird that people have to be reminded not to take it too seriously.

Anyway, I thought I will jot down the reasons why I think comedians should n’t be taken too seriously (pun intended :p )

The intent and the context

I feel that the intent and the context of any statement matters a lot. Comedians are trying to make us laugh. Usually their jokes aren’t coming from a place of spite. I find jokes about Indian accents or the Indian head-nod funny, but I take offence when someone I don’t know makes fun of my accent for example (Not saying that the person can’t make fun of me – free speech remember?). The context matters.

Who can you make fun of?

In his recent Netflix special, Ricky Gervais brings this up. He talks about how someone gets offended because he made fun of people with food allergies and he shouldn’t make fun of them. As a thought experiment, let us say there is a no-joke-about-food-allergies rule. But the thing is where do you draw the line? It is going to be a slippery slope from there. Are jokes about short people ok then? Is a joke about short people worse or better than jokes about people with food allergies? Extending that argument, all that will be left would be self-deprecating humor. Black people making fun of black people and Indian people making fun of Indian people and so on. Well, no-one gets offended but it’s not fun either.

No one is forcing you

That’s another important thing with comedians. You are going to watch them. No one is forcing you to. If you don’t like it, just don’t watch it. This doesn’t mean you prevent other people from watching it either. This is like watching a Game of Thrones episode and saying “But I don’t like magic and dragons and gore and the explicit scenes”. Ok, so don’t watch it then!

This is a key difference from hate speech, when someone is saying something hurtful in person or online directly to you. It’s hard to turn a blind-eye (blind-ear?) to someone shouting racist things to you on the street (yeah, been there 😎). And that’s the cool thing about this – it’s sort of like the free market. For example, if no-one laughs at a sexist joke, why would comedians write them?

The thing vs joking about the thing

Laughing at a racist joke doesn’t make you a racist (terms and conditions apply).

So do they always get a get-out-of-jail free card?

Well, not always. The intent, the context, the audience, the timing, the comedian and the actual joke itself matters.

It’s not easy to come up with a good joke. Most of what makes a joke funny is because the joke makes you see things in a different perspective and you need to push boundaries of what people are used to hearing to make jokes funny. Of course, this is going to evolve with changing landscape of our cultural norms, etc. For example, probably not a good idea to make fun of say 9/11 immediately after the incident. But I now see that comedians are able to get a laugh out of people with a 9/11 joke.

I was only joking

I am worried about the scenario where people would use this as a pretence to hide behind actually spiteful and hurtful comments. “Hey, I was only joking..” might be the new “I am not racist, but..”. However, I do not think that the solution to this is to ban all jokes. This extends to my thinking about creators and free speech more broadly. For example, if some kids jump from a chair after watching a Superman movie, thinking they can fly, the solution is not to ban superhero movies everywhere. The solution would be to educate the kid about why humans can’t fly. This is almost a silly example, but the same thing can be extended to other scenarios as well. I have gotten into heated discussions with my friends on the topic of depicting smoking in movies or showing rape scenes in movies, etc.

So let’s chill a bit before we get offended about everything out there…and also..welcome to the internet!

As with everything in this blog, I would expect my views on these to change with time as I get more perspective on things and talk to more people. So, if you think we can have a conversation about this, ping me!