Each week, a developing sexuality professional that works with the CSPH reviews a sexuality or gender-related issue that appears in the media and reflects upon how it challenged them in ways they didn’t expect in an effort to show the process of growth they undergo while becoming sexuality professionals. This week, a guest writer, Simon Leen, is responding to an article from CNN, “When Rape Jokes Aren’t Funny”
Daniel Tosh’s recent rape-joke-related troubles are interesting from a number of different angles, one of which is handled quite well by Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns from the Women’sMediaCenter. They address what they refer to as the “empathy gap” between men and women regarding the topic of rape and speculate on the causes of this gap, which they believe includes an insensitivity on the part of men to the difficulties faced by women living in a culture where rape is all too common.
This strikes a little close to home. I’m a guy. I’d like to think of myself as a fairly empathetic guy and one who is quick to police myself and others when it comes to what I take to be belittling behavior towards minorities of any stripe. But I’d be lying if I claimed that I had never laughed at a rape joke. Maybe not all of them, maybe not the crude ones, and maybe not Tosh’s, but I’ve laughed. And before one suggests that perhaps I only laugh at the “funny ones,” I have no doubt that I’ve laughed at any number of rape jokes that I’m sure many women wouldn’t find in the least bit funny. I’ve even, I must admit, told at least one rape joke in my time, and it isn’t one with many redeeming qualities.
So, am I insensitive? This article would perhaps be more interesting if my first instinct were to blame feminists for being humorless, as that sort of behavior tends to elicit a response. But I have a natural tendency to assume that the problem lies somewhere within me. As a natural analogy, I imagined my reaction to someone making a Holocaust joke. It’s been some time since someone has made one in my presence, but I imagine I’d be more than a little upset. Too soon and all that.
So maybe I am just insensitive. Some people don’t understand how listening to Holocaust jokes affects me, and I don’t personally understand how rape jokes affect women. But this got me thinking about Holocaust jokes and why I sometimes find them upsetting. The Holocaust was bad. Really bad. And making light of it can suggest that it wasn’t so bad, and that’s pretty close to suggesting that my being tossed in an oven wouldn’t be so bad, and that’s not something I’m okay with. So perhaps when I laugh at a rape joke, I’m suggesting that I don’t find it objectionable when women are raped.
But I do. A lot. So something must be amiss. The thing is, there are all sorts of Holocaust jokes that I’m just fine with: those told by Jews, those where the Germans are the butt of the jokes, or those told in good humor by close gentile friends. What’s different about these jokes that make them so much more palatable? It isn’t that they aren’t mean-spirited; many of the jokes that I do find offensive aren’t mean-spirited at all. Rather, it is, I think, that they’re told not only with the understanding that these sorts of jokes can appear to alienate individuals or condone abhorrent behavior, but they’re also being told in ways, or by people, that make it clear that they aren’t meant to do either. When a Jew tells a Holocaust joke, I know he or she understands, and when a close friend does, I know he or she doesn’t intend to offend and is cognizant of the offense he or she can cause if it’s told in a careless manner. If the butt of the joke is the SS, it is clear that the teller is telling the joke in part to make the precise point that the Holocaust wasn’t okay.
It is tempting, then, to suggest that I ought to only laugh at those rape jokes that are careful to not cause offense. But this is no mean feat; how can I tell which ones have been crafted with an eye to avoiding offense without asking those who may be offended? And at that point, the opportunity for humor is rather lost. Here, I think, is where we find the crux of the issue: it is all too easy for those who are prone to offense to assume that potentially offensive jokes commit the sin of ignoring their potential offensiveness. And it is all too easy for those who aren’t prone to offense to assume that any offense caused is no more than an example of an overly touchy subject with no sense of humor. But, as in all things, one must strive to understand, empathize with, and give the benefit of the doubt to the other.
It is my responsibility as a Jew to understand that not all Holocaust jokes are meant as degradations of the Jews, even those told by Germans. I must always ask myself, upon hearing such a joke, whether it was really meant to offend, or if it was merely a (relatively) innocent oversight, or perhaps even an honest attempt to create cathartic humor.
And it is my duty as a joke enjoyer—and occasional teller—to understand that jokes are dangerous. They can hurt and they can divide. I ought to take care to weigh the likelihood that I cause offense. Am I telling a joke at the expense of a particularly disadvantaged group, or to an audience that was recently disadvantaged? Am I a part of the disadvantaged group? Is my audience likely to either contain those who are the butt of the joke or who are prone to being antagonistic?
But, above all, it is my duty as a joke teller to understand the difficulties inherent in being the butt of a joke, and it is my duty as an occasional joke-butt to understand the difficulties of being a joke teller. Humor is too important to suggest that jokes ought not be told, and inclusiveness is too important to suggest that all jokes are permissible. As with so many things, it is a struggle to determine which jokes are appropriate, which are inappropriate, and which straddle the line. But, at the end of the day, what is important is not that we are sure that a particular joke has been categorized correctly, but that we’ve struggled to figure out where it ought to go and that we’re open to the suggestion that we may have erred in our findings.
-Simon P. Leen