There's a reason why some jokes are okay and others are offensive. Figuring it out, though, isn't always so easy.
THE SOURCE: “What Is Offensive About Offensive Jokes?” by Jeanette Bicknell, in Philosophy Today, Winter 2007.
It’s perfectly OK to tell lawyer jokes, musician jokes, or almost any joke about a rich guy. But jokes about race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical or cognitive ability are considered morally offensive. Why?
Philosophers have advanced two theories. “Cognitivists” say that jokes made at the expense of minority groups carry the suggestion that the jokester, deep down, believes them. “Consequentialists” argue that certain jests are morally suspect because they cause harm, or are likely to. But neither theory adequately explains what’s offensive, argues Jeanette Bicknell, a philosopher at Carleton University, in Ottawa. It is quite possible, she suggests, to tell a joke without embracing it as a truth—nobody believes that an elephant actually walked into a bar—but we suspend disbelief for the sake of a laugh. And almost any joke might cause harm to someone, sometime.
The main determinant of whether a gibe is morally offensive is the “vulnerability of the group or individual joked about,” Bicknell argues. The moral fault lies in exploiting vulnerability for the sake of humor.
But vulnerability depends on context and time. Members of marginalized groups can make sport of themselves without condemnation, Bicknell says. Such humor can even have a salutary effect, such as encouraging group solidarity or exploring identity. After Bicknell’s article was published, for example, presidential hopeful Barack Obama was asked during a debate whether he agreed with author Toni Morrison’s characterization of former president Bill Clinton as “our first black president.” Obama said he would have to investigate “Bill’s dancing abilities” before he could judge whether he was “a brother.” The audience cracked up, but it would have been shocked had Clinton made a similar jest about Obama.
Humor ages poorly, Bicknell observes. The Museum of Humour in Montreal preserves comedy routines from the earliest days of movies to the present. Some jokes are still funny, Bicknell writes, but “much of the remainder is cringe-making.”