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The Carletonian

Humor valuable part of political discourse

<e is a tension between humor making light of a topic that we want people to take seriously, and humor giving us a second way to approach themes we struggle to face head-on. There’s a huge benefit to humor (when done correctly), so if we plan on labeling some humor as “off limits,” we had best be careful. I’m not concerned with where we draw our own lines. Such an exercise is, in my opinion, best left to you as an individual. We are all entitled to our own personal preferences, comedy included. We all have different experiences, which make us more or less sensitive to topics being joked about. I do, however, wish to urge us to use extreme caution when we extend these lines to a larger context than just our own tastes.

Let me first say, I understand the importance of recognizing some humor as overtly unproductive. That is to say, jokes which are less entertaining for their audience than they are mean-spirited, or offensive toward anybody, are “bad.” Not necessarily bad morally (comedy is sometimes simply hard to craft correctly), but bad in the sense that they have little redeeming value, and are therefore not the concern here.

There’s a lot of issues we want to normalize on campus (and the world beyond). Here, “normalize” means to remove the stigma surrounding certain topics (such as depression), so people struggling with them can feel more comfortable to seek help or speak open and honestly. I believe that opening up the ability to make jokes about these topics, and feeling comfortable to laugh at them, would aid us in such normalization. There’s very few topics, if any, that I would say are normalized, yet continue to be off limits for jokes. By dictating that certain topics can only be approached with a serious tone, and that any other perspective is uncouth or immoral, we box off that topic from the rest of our experiences, and alienate those with more jovial personalities from the discourse. The topic now resides on its own island, and journeying to it is a taxing mental hurdle, because we must completely abandon our previous mindset, and instead adapt to a potentially unnatural one. Talking about these topics honestly is typically strained and difficult, because there’s no permitted manner to lower the tension.

Another strange thing (and I really do simply find it strange) is that certain jokes are restricted to people who identify with certain groups. Being in an audience, you can often feel the mood immediately shift sour when a male comedian jumps into a gendered topic, which doesn’t happen when a female comedian does so. It begs the question: What is less offensive about the telling of a joke by one person instead of another? They can each only truly represent their own individual experiences. We can not be so naive to think that if one comedic emissary of a marginalized group makes a joke, everyone identifying as part of the group would approve. I believe audiences lock up in these situations due to more practical reasons than moral ones (audiences often tense up if they don’t trust the comedian to “pull off” a joke), but regardless, this still has a tricky side effect. If we arbitrarily bar some people from any enjoyable (funny) commentary on an issue, what motivation do they have to think critically about it? Many kinds of humor (stand-up especially) are derived from the critical analysis of a topic from a unique angle, which we should be demanding that everyone do.

Finally, I want to touch on mean-spiritedness in jokes. Try our best, we cannot love everything all the time. Conflict is (love it or hate it) as much a part of the human experience as sleep is. A mean joke is absolutely a better method of relieving targeted frustration than violence, internalized resentment, or passive aggression intended to undermine somebody over time. Of course, this is easy to screw up. A bad joke can really hurt somebody, but there’s also a benefit to building a thick skin to criticism. Humor feels like the safest training ground for building up a tolerance for critique. In my family, we’re all very mean to one another. My mother says it’s “the most honest form of love.” My mother likes making up nonsense about love and “spiritual energies,” but I think she’s right here.

Humor is very raw. It can be sharp to the touch. It can be dangerous; but it can also keep us safe. The right joke can grant us more honesty, passion, criticalness, aggression, drive, endurance, optimism, pessimism, and humility. We need all those traits for our most challenging issues that we face, both individually and as a society. By barring humor from these conversations, we may be losing a very powerful ally. 

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