Monday, April 14, 2008

Are Certain Groups Comedically Out of Bounds on Ethical Grounds?

I was having a conversation last night with Hanno and C.Ewing and my routine came up. Hanno raised questions about the end portion -- the Eskimo jokes. Having had friends who spent time in Alaska, he was well aware that, unbeknownst to me (although a moment's consideration should have brought it to mind), that Inuit women are considered far and away the lowest rung of the social ladder and have it quite bad.

General agreement was reached that there is no problem with jokes being offensive per se. That offensiveness can be used to stir the social pot where there is unjust stasis, it can be used as a tool to undermine discrimination and structural social unfairness, it can effectively call attention to injustices we work hard in more "serious" ways to avoid coming to grips with.

But jokes can be used as weapons to strengthen unfair social systems as well. Jokes that reinforce false stereotypes can be used to keep groups down. The problem with certain jokes is not that they are offensive or unfunny, but that they are used in a form of bullying. If a group is secure in its social place, a given joke about them will not be harmful or even could be appreciated. But the same joke, told about a group that is more vulnerable or possessing of little social capital can be harmful and unnecessarily painful.

In my routine, I was not furthering any negative stereotypes of eskimo women -- indeed I had no clue what they were. I was being playful, connecting in an absurdist way the use of the nose in Eskimo kissing and images of other anatomical parts that tend to be used in moments of passion. The question then is whether the mere act of picking a group that is low down on the social hierarchy is not merely picking, but picking on. Should unfair social status convey "off limits" status for joking for anyone outside of the community as it could reasonably be seen as piling on even if the jokes themselves are not reinforcing of negative stereotypes?