Off-Limits Humor

[Updated 3.24.09 to fix outdated language.]

I’d like to address a concern that comes up fairly regularly around here, and raised its head again yesterday in another comments thread—what’s considered “off-limits” humor. Stark wrote a post detailing what he thought is a progressive double-standard when it comes to humor by listing what targets he feels are “off-limits” and what he feels are “fair game,” and it’s a good starting point for the discussion. All I’m going to ask is that you read the whole thing before responding.


Illegal immigrants
Poor people
Mentally [disabled] people
Overweight people

Fair Game:

George W. Bush
Conservative bloggers
Conservative pundits
Rich people
Stupid people
People who...
live in the South
live in red states
drive trucks
fly American flags
have "Support Our Troops" stickers
Joe Lieberman

…Is this simply a case of applying a double standard to groups that we consider oppressed versus groups that we consider to be misguided? If you look at the other side of the blogosphere the columns are reversed. Is either side on higher ground?
First of all, I’m going to point out a couple of things about each list.

Off-limits: I would add “men” to the first one. If I made an “all men are pigs” joke—heck, not even a joke, but even a straight statement that generalized all men negatively—I would be (rightfully) taken to task for it. Similarly, I would add “straight people,” as we’ve had discussions around here before that the use of a dismissive term like “breeders” isn’t particularly nice, either. And I’m sure there are some other categories that could be added, as well, like the chronically ill, the disfigured, the disabled, victims of violent crime/sexual assault. (I’m not convinced that “vegetarians” belongs on the list, but wev.)

Fair Game: I don’t believe it’s true that “Christians” or “Evangelicals” are considered “fair game,” although a certain brand of Christian Supremacists are certainly mocked, even by progressive Christians and Evangelicals. Similarly, I wouldn’t even say that “Republicans,” or “conservatives,” are totally fair game. In the past, I have specifically had to identify that I am talking about “movement conservatives” or “social conservatives” or some other specific group, even when I’m doing a straight critique, so as to avoid making overly broad generalizations. (Ditto Democrats, who, let’s face it, get have it equally bad around here a lot of the time.) And with designations like “people who drive trucks, fly flags, have ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers,” again, there’s always a caveat, which is usually about hypocrisy. People who drive trucks that don’t need to. People who fly flags but hate key American tenets. People who have ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers but don’t support the troops. Rich people who are stingy and care only about tax cuts. Stupid people who are willfully ignorant. So, there are a few of these categories that are too broadly identified to be totally accurate.

That said, now take a look at the lists.

Off-Limits: Women, men, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, racial minorities, illegal immigrants, poor people, mentally disabled people, overweight people, vegetarians, the chronically ill, the disfigured, the disabled, victims of violent crime or sexual assault.

Fair Game: Bush, Christian Supremacists, certain conservatives / Republicans / Democrats, greedy people, willfully ignorant people, people who are hypocrites, Joe Lieberman.

Spot the difference?

It’s all about intrinsic nature and choice. One has no control over one’s gender, sexuality, or race. The mentally disabled, chronically ill, disfigured, disabled, and victimized have no control over their circumstances. Some overweight people may; many don’t. Some poor people may; many don’t. And we don’t know by looking at them whether fat people are gluttons, or healthy but naturally overweight, or bloated by medication or disease, whether poor people are unmotivated, or lacking opportunity, or consigned by misfortune, so we don’t turn them into punchlines.

On the other hand, Bush has a choice whether to be a shit. Christian Supremacists have a choice about whether to try to force their views down everyone else’s throats. Certain conservatives / Republicans / Democrats have a choice about the way they approach politics and culture. Hypocrites, the avaricious, the willfully ignorant, have all made choices to lack integrity, self-indulge, or wallow in ignorance. Joe Lieberman has made a choice to take the positions he has.

To mock them is to mock behavior, not attributes outwith their control.

And here comes the nuance. The “off-limits” subjects aren’t totally off-limits, are they? Yesterday, in a comment, Spudsy typed, “Like the time I took the fairy to Shelbyville.” He immediately corrected himself by saying he meant ferry, not fairy. I replied, “ I took a fairy to Shelbyville once. We had a good time.” A gay joke—but a gay joke that didn’t rely on the denigration of gays.

I make jokes about “off-limits” subjects all the time, by drawing on irony. Women aren’t funny. Gays are deviant. Immigrants are lazy. But in those jokes, the “off-limits” subjects aren’t the butts of the joke—the people who marginalize them, who believe those things about them, are. Invoking “off-limits” subjects is only problematic when it’s unclear at whom we’re laughing—and if we’re laughing at a woman just because she’s a woman, it’s not funny. (Offensive and uninspired to boot.)

When you make fun of a man by calling him some variation of a woman (“sissy,” “big girl”), or some variation of gay (“fag,” “homo”), you’re denigrating women or gays in the process, because the implication is that being a woman or gay is somehow undesirable, somehow less than being a straight man. When you make fun of calling Ann Coulter a tranny, you’re denigrating trannies in the process, because the implication is that being a tranny is somehow bad. That’s the way insults work.

I understand there are some people who want to be able to use “politically incorrect” humor, and don’t see what the big deal is. The big deal is that it offends people. It offends Toast when people refer to George Bush as a frat boy, because he was a frat boy and doesn’t like that the term is invoked with such negative connotations. So I don’t call George Bush a frat boy. Big deal—I’m creative enough to think of other ways to describe George Bush that won’t offend someone I’d prefer not to offend. No skin off my nose.

And that’s one of the reasons I object to “politically incorrect” humor. It’s derivative. It’s not clever. It’s boring. If you have to resort to “What a fag” or “Ooh, testy—someone’s on the rag!” to get a laugh, you’ve lost me on the quality of your humor alone.

But here’s the main reason I object to the use of “politically incorrect” humor at this blog: There’s a whole fucking world out there where women and gay men and trans wo/men and racial minorities and the disabled and the overweight and people who are intrinsically and inescapably “different” for any reason are made fun of, marginalized, turned into punchlines. There’s a whole fucking world out there which expects us all to be perfect according to some arbitrary definition and seeks to punish us if we’re not. There’s a whole fucking world out there where people who don’t conform to that standard are not only ridiculed and made to feel not good enough, but can also find themselves at real risk of physical harm. Where they’re denied rights, job opportunities, friendships, votes, equality. If you want to use “politically incorrect” humor that targets those people, you have the entire rest of the bloody world to do it, but you can’t do it here.

This is a safe space.

This blog is meant to be a refuge from the kind of humor that preys on innate differences in our DNA. What’s Fair Game at this blog is behavior. Actions. Decisions. Choices. Things over which people have control. What’s Off-Limits is anything that wasn’t chosen. Them’s the rules.

We’re all going to make mistakes occasionally—even me. And for that, we need to make allowances. Everyone trips up now and then, even with the best of intentions. But if you take issue with a blogmistress who has deemed her teensy weensy part of the world a sanctuary from ridicule of the inalterable characteristic, if you feel that impinges on your freedoms, then off you go. You’ve got an entire world waiting who won’t hold you to the same standard.

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