Here’s the deal: Everybody has laughed at something fucked up before. Perhaps we don’t want to admit it, but we have. Despite all of the shameful social injustice that somehow persists into the twenty-first century, you probably still find yourself laughing at awkward jokes about race, sexism, mental health, physical and/or sexual violence, etc. when a funny ass comedian performs. Or, at the very least, you’ve probably used some ultimately offensive figure of speech in a nonchalant and inconsiderate way (anything from “I’m going insane, I want to die” to “You’re so slow” to “That’s gay” or even to “He got raped in that game of FIFA!”).
So, if we all do it, then why do some jokes just seem wildly offensive compared to others? Why does it seem super obnoxious when a man jokes about rape or disregards the fact that women are treated unequally, and why do we feel like slapping white people who joke about race even if they have “like so many Black friends” and aren’t consciously and purposely out to get minorities? Not to mention the fact that there seems to be a pretty unanimous decision against joking about anything that has to do with children getting hurt.
To answer this question, I think that a lot of people would run to the fact that offensive attempts at jokes aren’t funny as long as the issue at hand is still a problem that hurts people daily (and, even still, time doesn’t heal everything). Light-hearted humor about race is hard to pull off for anybody when we turn on the TV everyday and see another Black youth being shot by cops—the very people society assigns to keep things fair and orderly, aka to keep people not shot.
And, these people would be right. Ideally, we’d have an optimally educated and self-aware population that doesn’t disregard the severity of social issues by making asshole jokes and laughing about them. But this still doesn’t answer the question of why the same jokes feel better or worse in some situations than in others.
Instead, the answer is a little more complicated than that. Even worse than bad stuff happening is bad stuff happening and having some ignorant fuck joke about it, unaware of the disgusting entitlement that comes along with making a joke about something they haven’t been a victim of. It’s not that joking about something implies to everyone that you don’t necessarily think it’s a problem—rather, it’s that joking about said issue inherently implies that you have enough experience with and knowledge of it to fully understand the true severity and pain of the issue (and subsequently make a somehow acceptable joke about it).
Thus, provocative jokes have absolutely no chance at being funny if the joke’s subject has never actually hurt the person telling the joke, as the person telling the joke therefore has no right to speak on the severity of the issue. In a case where this happens, the person telling the joke just becomes an entitled asshole who doesn’t know when to stop. (And, mind you, this gauge isn’t black and white; there are degrees of respect even within a group of people who have all been affected in different ways by the same issue.)
So, here’s a tip: Don’t be that asshole. Moreover, don’t be that asshole not only because ill-founded entitlement is gross, but also because any flagrant claim to fully comprehend the suffering of another person in turn mitigates that person’s true account of pain and testimony. Although you look like a prick when you make these kinds of jokes, you also accidentally imply that the true victims’ experiences have no incremental value past what you are apparently oh-so-able to understand and identify with. To put it simply: assuming you can fully understand the situation means that you’re also dismissing their personal experience and pain, which is insulting and fucked up.
Next time you think about making a risky joke, think about it again and question whether or not you have ultimate authority on the subject. If you’re white, don’t joke about Black (or another minority’s) experiences. If you’re a man, don’t joke about women getting raped. If you’re not mentally handicapped, don’t joke about or imitate mentally handicapped people. And, after you think about your joke, stop and fucking think about it one more time. You may even consider if the people around you have been affected and, if so, what their opinions of the proposed joke would be (helpful even in cases where you may have some legitimate claim to knowledge).
If you decide that, despite your lack of authority on an issue, you still want to tell your joke because you just don’t give a shit about other people, still don’t tell it because it’s not fucking funny. You’ll need to limit telling unfunny jokes in this case in order to offset the fact that everyone in the room probably already knows that you’re a piece of shit.