Humorous statements about groups fall along a continuum of social acceptability. At the far end would be nigger jokes, with the viler forms of representations of other groups bumping right up against that. At the near end would be depictions that are race-neutral, gender neutral, group neutral – a grouping of people who act a certain way while driving or standing in line, for example. Jokes about people of a certain profession would tend more in the latter direction – though even this can be an unexpected minefield, as I learned when I repeated a news story about the stupidity of a woman who worked in a certain chain restaurant, only to be told, after an awkward silence, that such waitresses were usually black. Oh. I didn’t know that, you see, living in New England where that’s not so.
There are some universally acknowledged rules of context. OK, almost universally acknowledged. There are always people so poor at picking up the social cues that they don’t get the contextual differences and say offensive things. Or they are mean and bigoted enough that they don’t care anyway. You can more freely make jokes about your own group, especially in front of your own group. This can get remarkably subtle, as the acceptability shrinks when it is a group you were born into but are now distancing yourself from, or distancing yourself from aspects or subgroups in the category. You can put unacceptable words into the mouth of a character you want to make the audience dislike. Also, it is more acceptable to take shots at people higher up the social scale than those downstream. Yet again, this has its perils. A 70-year-old might have an impression that Group A is a moderately high status-group and an acceptable target, where a 20-year-old might wince, as the group is in decline. (There are reversals of this as well.)
I’m not breaking any new ground by noting all this, but it helps to set it up to illustrate some problems in the national discourse.
Comedians make their living by locating the boundary points and playing with them. Chris Rock tells a lot of nigger-humor that wouldn’t have been all that remarkable when told to an all-black audience, but got shock value by sticking with those routines before mixed audiences, or even all-white audiences. The anxiety level skyrockets in the room, as no one knows whether they are “supposed” to laugh or not. And audience anxiety is the comedian’s friend, as we have all noted how even banal humor can elicit laughter in a tense situation.
The rest of us tend not to take those risks, because the stakes are too high socially.
Humor may be a summary of social norms, a constant temperature-taking that lets all of us know where the fences are. It may be a form of social signaling to tell others the rules - that may even be its original evolutionary purpose, as humor tells us volumes about who is up and who is down, which people are “one of us” and which not, what actions are simply misfortune and which are your own stupid fault, and how one should act in difficult situations ( see below).
Rather than try and codify a set of rules, I will run some examples to show the subtleties and boundary areas. These are, when one tries to describe them according to general rules, impossibly contradictory and opaque. Yet each of you will sense the differences down to your bones, illustrating how remarkably socially alert we all are.
1.) Imagine you are a banker in New England. Yet, you were born in North Florida, went all through school there, and still follow NASCAR. Do you tell redneck jokes? The friend I am thinking of does, at least to me, quite happily making fun of himself. (Which is a sign of emotional balance.)
Yet doesn’t this change suddenly if you are entertaining a group with such humor and one of the listeners laughingly inserts “Jesusland” into the mix? At that point, is there not some thought of seamlessly switching over to defending your childhood group, even though your identification with it now is only partial? It all might end well with no intervention on your part, of course. The other speaker might catch the whiff of chill wind from you and make some effort to take the edge off that, perhaps making fun of one of his own groups, or bringing ironic humor where the “stupid” redneck gets the better of the visitor who looks down on him. All fixed, at least for now. His subtle retreat and making nice to you may only mean “I won’t say anything funny to that humorless bastard again,” but it may also lead to him thinking “Y’know, that really was over the top and kind of a prejudicial attitude.” But if statements like this persist in a group, one has to decide how to respond. Very individual. Very contextual.
2.) When my sons hit about 14, I introduced risqué humor into the situation while riding in the car. Not often, but quite intentionally, because there were important rules of social propriety to be taught, and jangling them with such ambiguous situations is a vivid way to teach it. The first few times, I would add “You tell your mother that joke and I’ll kill you.” All of them were jokes that I could indeed tell my wife (and sometimes did). I could tell it to each, but not the two of them together. Many would still be inappropriate to say aloud to both of them together. Later, another boy we drove to school did tell them to his mother, who thought they were funny – and his father, who thought them offensive and launched into a lecture. I hadn’t counted on that, and left off. But I could still tell them to my son, who might tell them to his friend. It is different coming from a respectable adult.
3.) From time to time, collections of jokes about a foreign country might get forwarded to you. Usually the French, but I’ve seen others. This is considered more acceptable than making fun of Americans descended from that nationality. If they are clever and not vile, I sometimes forward them on. But clicking on names as I scroll down my address book can be tricky. And sometimes I delete one or two before it goes out under my name. To tell these jokes in some more formal context, such as making a speech or publishing them in a magazine would narrow the acceptability dramatically. Everyone in the editorial room at US News and World Report might pass them around and chuckle, but no one would think of putting them in the magazine. We have crossed over into the territory of speaking for the American people, or at least part of it if we do that, and the nationality referred to might feel justly insulted.
Even more so, no Senator from the floor, and certainly no POTUS, would say them in any official and 99.9% of unofficial capacities. It would be a terrific insult. Also, some Senator might send them over to the President with a chuckle, but the President can’t forward them on. (It just occurs to me that this must be one of the things that sucks about being president if you’re a guy. Unable to obey your God-ordained natural inclination to pass on jokes.) Very individual. Very contextual.
This gets complicated by people who seek to be offended to make a political point – sometimes a valid one - and the somewhat overlapping group who need to be offended for personal reasons. Both fascinating topics which I leave aside here. Enough to say that this adds some randomness to evaluating discourse that is a cause of conflict.
Humor can be used as a signal of social control. Reading about Darius Rucker for my Hootie post, Wikipedia reported that Saturday Night Live did a routine about Rucker leading a bunch of drunk southern white frat boys on a counter-march to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March. There is nothing funny about this. It is entirely social control. You’re not black enough, fronting an all-white band, having a white audience, and joking about the Miami Dolphins with white boys. Be more black, you bastard. When I mentioned this humor-as-social-control idea to a small group at work, using another SNL routine as an example, one of the others protested that if a lot of people laughed, didn’t that empirically prove that it was funny in this culture? Easy answer: Munich, 1935. What do you think about your empirical rule now, asshat? Or if that is too alarming, at least Oxford, 1935. Am I saying the current state of affairs is equivalent? Of course not. Miles away. Am I saying that this is where that line of thought leads? Absolutely. It always leads there, in America and everywhere else.
Let us hover over Munich/Oxford 1935 for a few moments, actually. Sophisticated people in that environment had precisely the same social skills as Manhattan, 2010. Europeans have always been pretty bigoted about each other (and Americans). But in that context there was considerable tolerance in other areas. Someone launching into a Prussian joke, or a woman joke, or a send-up of writers, or Catholics, or bankers would have responded just as well as my “Jesusland” commenter in Example #1. They would have caught the same almost imperceptible chill and moved with grace to make it right. I am Prussian on my mother’s side, actually. I take a bit more liberty to make fun of them. Yet we know the enormous dark side of what they did not see, refused to see, despite their social skills equal to ours. They are us.
Obama has a reputation for being humorless among everyone but progressives. That’s also easy. He’s not funny. Not that I have any requirement that a president needs to be funny – Mister we could use a man like uh, Calvin Coolidge again - but if you’re going to try and be funny, you should succeed at it at least mildly. His humor is all of the social control style, making fun of Americans that come from groups other than his two: black, but more especially, Ivy League. This is not a minor social error that the man should make some effort to adjust for and clean up his act. This is far over the line, ridiculously over the line of social acceptability for a president. (And don’t start on me about examples from other recent presidents that were just the same but I’m just not mentioning them. I know your examples.)
How can this be? I am not being in the least ironic when I say that liberals are in fact far better at these social cues than the rest of us. They really are. They live in this world of social aspiration, and they pick up things that others miss. Much of their disdain, in fact, seems to derive from their observation that all these others make blundering gaffes of social offense, mistakes they learned not to make as teenagers.
We find the social control style of humor gratifying, all the way back into childhood. Think The Man Who Wouldn’t Wash His Dishes. That is not a specifically progressive vulnerability they should be alert to, it is a human universal we should all be alert to.
I was sent a satire on Glenn Beck that was in Mother Jones. I don’t know much about Beck, actually. I caught him a few times on the radio dial years ago, and I only skim the media reports about his recent activities. But that skimming tells me what the narrative is supposed to be concerning him. American Roots Values, whether one says that admiringly or disdainfully. Much of the satire was fair game, focusing on the ideas of that loose Tea Party/Beck/Palin association of individuals. It was, as in my recent Krugman post, group-neutral. I didn’t think it was a fair characterization, but one doesn’t expect that from satire. One expects political cartooning in that.
Yet a full 30% was almost content-free. It was entirely classist. Goobers. What ridiculous yahoos. Coming pretty close into white trash, actually. When I read that, I don’t think intellectual debate of the Krugman style. I think southern planters talking about darkies. It is, as above, not marginal or a bit risky – it is hugely over-the-line. You are free to think me overreacting here, taking the stance of one of the professionally aggrieved, oversensitive and prepared to take offense at any negative. Yet why would you be so sure of that? Once we have noted that “oh, don’t be silly” - your gut impression that such things are not possible coming out of your group - is a thoroughly unreliable metric in this cultural situation, what else have you got?
I will pass on that yesterday, the day I started composing this in my head, a female psychiatrist of my own age (57) who was a reliable Democratic and liberal voter until ten years ago, mentioned in an unrelated context how uncomfortable she and her husband used to be in New York, before the children were born, attending parties with other doctors and human services people, because of the vile and vicious things that would be said about conservatives quite offhandedly, and everyone laughed. No one objected with even that little chill in the air. I mention that only as the most recent example of things I have heard a thousand times, and been reported to me by ex-liberals. (Not all of these ex-liberals became conservatives. There are a variety of directions one might go.) These party-goers are the very people who pick up most quickly on other social cues, modifying their speech and even their thought when recognizing they have given offense or trod dangerous ground. They are the most successful at straining out gnats. Yet they swallow camels. With alt-media and many defectors from their ranks, they have read many times that they are giving offense. Yet their response it “No we’re not. You deserve it.”
No need to go into analysis of why this occurs here. I think it can be fairly easily shown to relate back to personal and social issues unrelated to the political opinions. The important thing to note at the moment is not why it occurs, but that it occurs.