Comedy can often give offense, especially when it concerns such sensitive topics as race, gender, and sexuality. Should comedy like that be shunned, boycotted, even banned?
One current culture war in North American society concerns rough humor. I say “rough,” because I want to be neutral as to whether instances of it are also offensive, since whether this or that instance of it is offensive is one of the things at issue.
Rough humor is a broad tent. But its jokes, skits, writings, cartoons, etc. all have something in common: they deal with culturally sensitive issues in a way that bumps into or violates taboos, such as taboos on using certain words, or on talking about or mocking certain things.
Now unlike many, I don’t want to defend or oppose rough humor, at least not in this blog. Rather, I want to excavate two background theories people seem to have in mind, however inchoately, when they attack or oppose it.
Let’s start with an example of rough humor (content warning!) to which the two theories might apply; then we’ll get to the theories themselves. (This joke is also one Josh discussed in our recent episode on humor with guest Jeff Israel, to which this blog is a response.)
Dave Chappelle, in his recent Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” addresses his live audience in Atlanta at one point as follows. Discussing Kevin Hart’s decade-old homophobic comments that got him canceled from the hosting the Oscars, Chappelle says (and imagine this with his characteristic explosive, wide-eyed delivery):
I’m not gonna repeat what he said...’cause this is Atlanta. [PAUSE for laughs] You know what I mean. I’m sure there’s a lot of gay men here tonight…with their wives.
The audience goes crazy.
You may of course object, but that joke is at least impressively witty. In short compass, it touches on Atlanta, his audience, closeted gay men and the women who marry them, and (more subtly) the consequences of homophobia in the South. I can’t define “wit,” but that surely counts.
But is there something harmful about it?
The answer will depend on the joke’s effects. And that brings us to our two theories.
Theory 1: Blowing Off Steam
This theory says that—whatever cultural, religious, racial, sexual etc. tensions are present in a given society—those tensions cause psychological strains in individuals. These strains make it hard for people from different groups to relate to one another. For example, when there are greater tensions afoot over an issue like gay marriage, communication across boundaries of orientation puts more strain on individuals. As communications break down, tensions get worse in a vicious cycle, leading to more mutual suspicion, etc. between groups.
With that in the background, Blowing Off Steam says that rough humor eases those strains. Rough humor puts the things we’re tense about front and center, bats them around playfully, and makes them less scary. So individuals who witness said rough humor will be a bit more able to interact comfortably, and with greater humanity, toward people from other groups.
Applied to Chappelle’s joke, Blowing Off Steam predicts that straight and gay people who witness such rough humor will be at least slightly more likely to interact comfortably and kindly than they were before (other things equal, many qualifiers, etc.). Of course, one joke alone won’t make a noticeable difference, but a night of rough humor could help.
Theory 2: Reinforcement
No matter how you slice it, however, Chappelle’s joke really was a crack about the gay men of Atlanta (other things as well, but at least that). And the Reinforcement theory emphasizes that the more people witness something done, the more likely they are to do it themselves. So sure, maybe Chappelle can get away with it, given his impeccable timing and wacky persona. But this theory predicts that audience members (say, straight audience members) who hear such jokes will be more likely to make jokes about gay people themselves. But not being as skilled as Chappelle, they will butcher the jokes and say hurtful, homophobic things.
The Reinforcement theory, therefore, implies that there’s at least one thing bad about Chappelle’s joke: by whatever small amount, it does something to increase the incidence of jokes that are hurtful to gay people.
Not surprisingly, it seems that people who oppose or like to “call out” humor that’s “offensive” (like the “outrage junkies” Laura refers to) are more likely to have this theory in the background, while defenders of rough humor probably like the Blowing Off Steam theory.
So those are the two theories. Of course, this is just a blog, so I haven’t developed them in detail, and note we could develop analogous theories about mosh pits at concerts or karate lessons for kids. I also set aside whether Chappelle’s joke is somehow intrinsically harmful. Still, with all that said, I want to emphasize two things.
First, the two theories really do make different predictions: the Blowing Off Steam theory predicts (given various intermediate factors) a reduction in tensions between distinct social groups as a result of rough humor; the Reinforcement theory predicts an increase.
Second, we have no idea—with respect to Chappelle’s particular joke or many others—which (if either) theory is true!
We really just don’t know. Of course, many people act like they know. Hence the culture war. But both theories are prima facie plausible. And to make matters worse, one theory might be true of some instances of rough humor, while the other is true of other instances, and both theories could identify real psychological mechanisms that pull in opposite directions at different or even the same time. And of course there might be more or less robust individual differences.
So we need more evidence. But how would an empirical study of that even work? How could such a study control for the subtle nuances of context and comedic delivery? It will, at least, be hard, and we don’t know the answer(s) yet.
So I think we’re in one of those human circumstances, where there’s a question that’s obviously important, but it’s extremely hard to know the answer. And I think our relative ignorance is actually fueling the culture war over whether rough humor is “offensive,” since people argue most fervently in absence of actual knowledge.
The main point of this blog has been to say, “That’s our predicament.” But given all that, what, you might wonder, should we actually do when we encounter a purveyor of rough humor, like Chappelle? My gut says: “Go ahead and enjoy the jokes.” I’m inclined (full confession) toward Blowing Off Steam. Frankly, I like rough humor. But I must confess that I don’t actually have the knowledge to back that gut answer up. I just know the questions. My only advice (for now) is to admit that you don’t know either.
Image by Anja from Pixabay