(Note: this post contains a couple of jokes which are offensive (and one which might be construed as such – see below for further details). Obviously I don’t endorse the thinking behind said jokes.)
Rape jokes – I know, they’re so 2012 – are back in the news after Ray Badran’s unpleasant encounter with a protester at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Apart from its specific details, this incident raises some general questions: when are jokes offensive? Can offensive jokes be funny? Is it ever legitimate to laugh at such a joke?
The category of ‘offensive jokes’ isn’t a particularly clear-cut one. Here is Badran’s, as quoted verbatim by ABC:
If you've been to a comedy night before then you might know that there's a bit of an unspoken rule in comedy right... gay people can tell jokes about being gay... black people can tell jokes about being black... so I don't know if you can tell, just from looking at me, but I... can... tell rape jokes.[i]
This is our old friend, metacomedy: this isn’t so much a joke about rape (although the punchline is meant to imply that Badran is himself a rapist) but about rape jokes, and more generally about the comic convention that members of a minority group can tell jokes about that group which would otherwise be unacceptable. That said, Badran has chosen to use the r-word, presumably deliberately. This might be a piece of metacomedy, but its intended effect is one of shock.
This joke is edgy, and it might reasonably be said that a comedian who uses edgy material can hardly complain if some audience members find it a little too close to the bone. But not all comedy which might be classed as edgy is offensive, at least not beyond the fairly trivial sense that some people might be inclined to take offense at it. Badran’s joke doesn’t work on the assumption that rape is ever ok, or that rape isn’t something we should be concerned about. A joke which carried such a message would be offensive, in the sense that it would be predicated on repugnant values. Someone may object that Badran’s joke makes light of the real trauma suffered by victims of rape, and that this is what makes it offensive. But there is an important difference, in my opinion, between a joke about rape or one which refers to that topic without minimising the seriousness of the crime, and one which does.[ii]
It doesn’t follow from this that Badran’s joke is not objectionable. It might be better if comedians were not so quick to reach for rape gags to make all matter of points. On the other hand, jokes with shock value are an important weapon in the arsenal of comedians (quite why is itself an interesting question – but it seems to be a fact that people, or enough of them at any rate, appreciate jokes intended to shock them). There is no straightforward answer to this question, because there is no straightforward way of deciding when a point is best made in a shocking fashion, or when a comedian is reaching for shock in lieu of inspiration.
If Badran’s joke is not offensive, that leaves another question: can a joke predicated on distasteful assumptions about people ever be enjoyable, even if one does not share the assumptions? Here is an example from an unlikely source, President Sebastian Pinera of Chile, who was quoted as telling guests at a conference the following:
Do you know what the difference between a politician and a lady is? When a politician says ‘Yes’, he means ‘maybe’, when he says ‘maybe’ he means ‘No’, and if he says ‘No’, he’s not a politician. When a lady says ‘No’ she means ‘maybe’, when she says ‘maybe’ she means ‘Yes’, and if she says ‘Yes’, she’s not a lady.
There’s no doubt that this is a sexist joke: it is predicated on tiresome stereotypes of female behaviour and (worse than that) an extremely worrying view of female consent (you’ll notice there is no way for the ‘lady’ to say ‘No’ and to mean it). But I would suggest that it is a joke which can be enjoyed even by those who do not share these views. For one thing, it is genuinely well constructed without being horribly contrived; for another, it is a joke which very obviously is comparing stereotypes, and so can work as a comment on them rather than just endorsing them. To enjoy this joke, you must be familiar with the stereotypes and accept them for the sake of the joke (a sort of jocular suspension of disbelief), but the very archness of the comparison allows you to step back from them as soon as the joke is finished.
Post scriptum: the best piece on l'affaire Badran (apart from the above, of course), is by Greg Larsen, who runs the night where the whole debacle took place.
[i] The joke was reported in a shorter version in other outlets: “So you know how gay people can make jokes about being gay, and black people can make jokes about being black, well I can make jokes about rape.”
[ii] For examples of rape jokes which are, to my mind, genuinely offensive (and fully intended as such), click here. To take one example from there, ‘9 out of 10 people enjoy gang rape’ only works as a joke on the jocular assumption that the enjoyment of the rapists is to be treated as in some way on a level with the suffering of the victim. In saying this, I am not overlooking the fact that this is a joke, and that the person telling it will not (or at least need not) accept that assumption. But that assumption is still required for the joke to work.