Make Stereotypes Humourous Again

I am going to argue that we should find the use of stereotypes in humour socially acceptable. This topic came up when I was discussing an article claiming that non-Polynesians should not dress up as Moana for Halloween, because it is ‘laughing at their culture by making it a costume.’ Now firstly, the girls who want to dress as Moana are not laughing at her or Polynesians; they are admiring her as their heroine, and wanting to look like her, just as if someone dressed as Spider-man. But this made me think about the question of costumes that do seem to mock a culture, e.g. toga costumes making fun of decadent Romans. And I will argue that such costumes should be perfectly acceptable, even if they are stereotypical. If you want the short version, Lloyd of Lindybeige does a very good job of talking about why humour about minorities is important:

Let’s Laugh at Minorities

But leaving aside the question of whether taboos on stereotypical jokes actually cause harm for the moment, let us consider the reason why stereotypical jokes are generally frowned upon.

The first reason is that stereotypical judgments of individuals are harmful to individuals. It is, for example, harmful to an hispanic who applies for a job, if the hiring board were to say ‘Well, Mexicans are lazy, so we can assume this person is lazy, and not hire them.’ That is, of course, wrong. Such judgments should be socially condemned (and, in this instance, perhaps legally regulated as well).

The issue is that this is a separate topic from the question of whether stereotypical jokes should be taboo, whereas in PC thought, these issues are confounded. This is a logical fallacy, a ‘slippery slope fallacy.’ While slippery slope arguments can have validity, this one does not: in order to prove valid, a slippery slope argument must show that there is no way to keep from sliding down the slope.

Consider an analogy: ‘driving drunk is bad. If we make alcohol legal, and socially normalize drinking safely, it will encourage people to drink, and end up with them being encouraged to drive drunk!’ This is rather clearly a fallacious argument. In fact, we have made driving while impaired both severely punishable and severely taboo. Normalizing drinking under some circumstances does not thereby normalize drunk driving. And it is not justifiable to ban people from safely drinking just in case it slightly reduces the chances of someone drinking unsafely, regardlesss.

Similarly, normalizing a joke about something does not inherently normalize prejudice against that thing. Nor would it be justifiable to ban jokes on a given topic just in case this slightly reduced the chances of someone being actually prejudiced. In a rather similar manner, I would say the holocaust was one of the worst and most tragic evils in history. However, jokes about it are fine, Anne Frankly I’d like to see more of them.

The problem, then, is that PC taboos confound ‘finding humour in something’ and ‘disrespecting that thing/approving of that thing.’ A person could find a rape joke funny without thereby approving of rape. A person could find a joke about the late Italian, or the drunk Irishman, funny without thereby being prejudiced against Italians or the Irish. We can both support clean water for Native Americans and laugh about Big Chief Whomp ‘Em.

The next argument for making some jokes taboo is that some jokes are offensive. Of course, the problem here is that literally everything is likely offensive to someone. A woman going outside with her hair uncovered could offend the hijabi next door. A gay pride flag could offend the baptist on the street. A crucifix could offend an atheist. Whether a thing is offensive is not even a question: it is offensive to someone, somewhere.

The issue with humour, as Ricky Gervais put it (and I am paraphrasing here slightly), is ‘there is nothing about which you should not joke. It depends on where the joke is coming from.’ He did not mean here ‘it depends on the identity of the person making the joke,’ but rather that it depends on intent and context.

Humour – on any topic – can, I think, be malicious or ‘all in good fun,’ as one might say. In fact the very same joke could be told in good fun, or told maliciously. There is therefore nothing that should be taboo. As Lloyd said, of course, one should be tactful, and consider the audience and how they are perhaps likely to see the joke, but nothing should be off limits, including stereotypes. Telling jokes about stereotypes does not make you a closet racist, unless you are really trying to hurt people with those jokes.

So wear whatever the fuck you want for Halloween, and stop PC policing your kids.

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