When Is A Joke Not A Joke?

With freedom comes responsibility
Eleanor Roosevelt

Today I saw a ‘joke’ on Twitter that offended me. It had been RT’d by someone I was following. I explained I didn’t want to see things like that on my timeline, so unfollowed, but wished them well. The poster of the original tweet came back with a good natured ‘chill out, it’s just a joke’

And this is where the debate becomes interesting to me.

We have a certain amount of free speech, so anyone can make a joke about anything they want. Humour is subjective; therefore many jokes will offend people, even when offence is not intended. But you have to stand or fall by what you say, and accept any fallout.

People have the right to joke, and people have the right to be offended. People don’t, however, have the right to expect you not to be offended simply because they were ‘joking’.

Anyone who remembers what happened when Ricky Gervais used the word ‘mong’ will know what I mean and where I’m going with this.

The ‘joke’ that got my back up was this:

“@MartyZobel: My new favorite charity is the Tempura House. You might’ve heard about it…it’s a shelter for lightly battered women.”

In posting the tweeter’s name, I’m respecting his copyright, not pointing him out as a target.

Here’s another one of his.

“Q. What do blonds and the Bermuda triangle have in common? A. They’ve both swallowed a lot of seamen.”

To my eye, these jokes are misogynistic, but they may not be meant maliciously. Each falls into a different category, and each offends me for different reasons.

A joke can be extremely dark without being offensive, and the line between darkly funny and offensive can be a fine one. When a joke offends, it has often failed in either pitch, e.g. aimed at wrong audience, wrong style of joke for subject matter; or it has a flawed internal logic.

The first joke is, I feel, wrongly pitched; the second reinforces stereotypes.

On the surface, the battered women joke is a light-hearted play on words, but on a subject that is far from light-hearted. It got a few RT’s from women, who may have been more focussed on the ‘tempura’ reference than the underlying inference, that there is such a thing as being ‘lightly’ battered, i.e. a little bit beaten, somewhat abused.

Women who report abuse, and not all do, often find their experiences trivialised: it was ‘only’ emotional abuse; ‘only’ a slap not a punch.

The second joke relies on the stereotype that women with blonde hair are whores. I have no clue as to how and when this idea first came about, but the thought that anyone might subscribe to it is both laughable and horrifying.

A joke based on stereotypes says nothing about its subject, but speaks volumes about the one who said or repeated it.

But with regard what is or isn’t offensive, it can only be for those who are in or close to the group at which the joke is aimed to decide. And if you have to tell anyone to ‘chill out’ in response to their reaction to a joke, the chances are you’ve overstepped the mark, and it probably wasn’t that funny.