Monday, January 14, 2008

Are We Havin a Laugh? Sexist Jokes and Just Sexism


In this piece, philosopher Roger Scruton bemoans the fact (at least in his mind) that our modern society is beset with Politically Correct censors who go around looking for people telling racist and sexist jokes in order to make them feel bad. We have become a society that can't take a joke.

For Scruton, laughter is something distinctly human. It is a way that human beings can create bonds of fellow feeling. A good joke and the resulting spontaneous laughter brings out a shared world between people.

Thus, ethnic jokes can be a good thing. In Scruton's view, even a crude ethnic joke can be a way to combat racism. By telling a racist joke, you can laugh and demonstrate that the differences between people don't really matter. They're funny; not worth being serious about.

The same goes for sexist jokes. As Scruton sees it, everyone knows that there are differences between genders. Feminists are not funny because they are so serious about equality and blurring gender lines:

"Even more sinful than the ethnic joke in the eyes of our moral guardians is the old comedy of the sexes. Despite all the ingenious labor of the feminists, ordinary people notice the very real differences between the sexes, and the very great need to accommodate those differences and to defuse the conflicts to which they might give rise. Humor has been the traditional recourse of humanity in this predicament, as men jokingly defer to their "better half," and women submit to the edicts of "his nibs." ... For the feminist the failings of men are no laughing matter. Not surprisingly, therefore, the literature of feminism is devoid of humor — and advisedly so, for if it ever were to employ this resource it would die laughing at itself."

Both Plato and Aristotle were wary about laughter, but not because they were puritans. They believed that laughter often represented a form of derision. Scruton thinks that ethnic and sexist jokes are about "laughing with you" when we also know that laughter can be a malicious way of "laughting at you". For Aristotle, laughter is a sign that you find something ridiculous, worthy of derision. In the Poetics, he even suggests that laughter can be used as a social learning tool. Wise playwrights can portray ridiculous subjects and teach audiences what is base, stupid, and ugly to laught at.

A new study seems to support some of this thinking. The findings suggest that when men are shown sexist comedy routines they are more likely to approve of actions that disciminate against women's interests. The researchers suggest the reason for this is that the sexist humor creates the impression of a shared world of discrimination, a world in which it is just obvious that women can be discriminated against. It gives the perception to some people that others see the world the way they do, so its perfectly alright to continue thinking the way they do.

I can say this makes sense to me based on some very limited data. I can't tell you how many people have told me "I'm not prejudiced against black people, but I gotta agree with Chris Rock, some people just are ni***rs".

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9 Comments:

At 8:22 PM , Blogger Kenny said...

It seems that if Aristotle is correct we we might try publishing shows mocking sexist behavior, no? I would agree that when someone makes a universal statement such as, "that's not funny," or, "that's offensive," it often alienates me from the cause they are championing. On the other hand, I respond with alacrity to more personal statements such as, "that offends me." I think that we ought not sanctify certain subjects so they become beyond the pale for humor, because that invites joking to bring them back to Earth.

On a side note, the little Firestone I've read showed a wonderful dry wit.

 
At 9:14 AM , Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

Wow, Scranton doesn't seem to get out much. At least he doesn't read feminists at their humorous blogs (for ex., feministing and metaphortitude and girl with pen). If he does read feminist jokes, he clearly doesn't get them. And the Bible doesn't have humor? Give me a break: Sarah laughed, and names her boy "Hilarious" (aka "Isaac")

 
At 9:36 AM , Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

and here's "Jesus' Use of Comedy to Combat Religious Errors" in "the Aristotelian/Aristophanic sense." Could Scruton laugh at that?

BTW, thanks for the post! Goes to show that some philosophers are funnier than others.

 
At 10:54 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Kenny: I have a feeling Scuton would call any mocking of sexism or racism "PC". You raise an interesting question though--are some subjects simply not funny?

J.K.: Thanks for the lists. I agree that those are some of my favorite sites.

And I actually think the story of Job is kinda funny.

 
At 2:02 PM , Blogger ej said...

I have to agree with Gayle--feminists are often quite funny. They just mock patriarchy, sexism, etc, and not women. Scranton's criticism just demonstrates how unacquainted he is with the work of the people he is criticizing.

More troubling is his idea that sexist jokes are based on "the very real differences between the sexes." Here he gets it all backwards: sexist jokes exist as a kind of informal enforcement of the gender roles thrust upon people--a way of making these roles seem "natural" or otherwise beyond scrutiny.

 
At 8:49 PM , Blogger Diane J Standiford said...

Seems we would need to go back to the first laugh. It would have to have been with and not at, as "at" requires pre-conceptional thought toward and end meant to provoke response. Watching animals and birds, we can see how they use "laughter" to draw attention to themselves. For discussion we need to define terms and not on one man's theory. Stating feminists have no humor(don't laugh at other's jokes about their plight)is like saying slaves had no sense of humor--yes, some things are not funny; and without the flat sidewalk no fall would ever be funny and if the fall killed your beloved--would that be funny? Freedom of speech, but don't expect a laugh every time unless it edges on pity.

 
At 9:27 PM , Anonymous apu said...

Interesting post. Something which has been on my mind - ever since someone raised this thing of are women just too touchy about jokes on them - when I raised the question of ads constantly assigning 'infantile' roles to men (and the converse 'responsible' roles to women).

As one other commentor has mentioned, the jokes don't so much reflect innate differences, as push in stereotyes a bit more. And - it becomes hard to see them as funny, when you hear the same stale ones all the time. Men are goofy, men are rude/abrasive, women love to buy - preferably with others' money, blondes are dumb - really, whats so funny?

 
At 6:44 AM , Anonymous MisseLaneius said...

I agree about jokes generally pushing stereotypes. Reminds me of the joke about lesbians (before I get flamed, I am one).

How many lesbians does it take to change a lightbulb?
THAT'S NOT FUNNY!

Humour is great. It makes life worth living and there have been many places in my life that if I did not laugh I would fall apart. How can you help but laugh at someone who is earnestly trying to tell me that I would be happier living straight, in spite of all the evidence? If you don't laugh, you'll cry. And laughing is good for your health.

 
At 1:12 PM , Anonymous Nate said...

I'm a straight, Catholic, conservative, white man with a good job and a wife whose a stay at home mom, so my opinion is likely going to be considered invalid on this matter, but I think this is all much to do about nothing. Personally I find sexist jokes funny. They're funny because they make fun of stereotypes, and by extension the people who hold them as true. The old joke "Why does a bride wear white? So the dishwasher matches the refrigerator." is hilarious because it's so far off base from modern society and mocks those who believe in such stereotypes. Every man I know finds that joke funny, but not one treats his wife that way. The same holds true for "How many honest, intelligent, caring men in the world does it take to do the dishes? Both of them." though I think people are much less likely to raise a stink about the second joke. The same goes with race based humor. If I repeated one Chris Rock joke at work I would be fired and branded a racist, but I could repeat redneck jokes all day without a problem. Why is equality so unequally applied?

In parting, how do you know the toothbrush was created by rednecks?

Anyone else would have called it a teethbrush.

 

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