Making jokes about taboo subjects has a long history, and political satirists from Jonathan Swift to today’s editorial cartoonists have used humour for centuries to lay bare inequality, hypocrisy and abuse of power. But satire punches up, not down.
Making a blanket statement about a group of people and then brushing it off as a "joke" is not satire. It’s bullying, and the consequences can be long-lasting.
Recently this came up in the form of a supposedly satirical book poking fun at the wholesome children’s books of days gone by. It included mock-ups of retro book covers with such fictitious titles as The Anti-Vaccine Kid and the Gift of a Navajo Blanket Riddled with Smallpox, Rockets and Missiles of the Islamic State and Happy Burkaday, Timmy! The last title included an image of a burka-clad girl presenting a ticking package to a little boy.
Critics, particularly the literary review site Book Riot, pointed out the embedded racism and Islamophobia on which the humour depended. The publisher, Abrams Books, initially defended the book as intentionally offensive but ultimately decided to withdraw it from publication.
That’s the thing about humour. It can either alienate or assimilate, as former English professor-turned-lawyer Jason P. Steed points out. Take, for instance, a "joke" Donald Trump made while on the campaign trail. If Hillary Clinton was elected, "Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment," Trump said to his supporters. "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day." Of course, the Second Amendment deals with the right to bear arms.
Paul Ryan, the Republican House Speaker, quickly stepped in to suggest that it sounded "like a joke gone bad." Was Mr. Trump calling for a violent solution? Well, humour is often used as an excuse to avoid responsibility.
Mr. Trump also made the statement among those who would be comfortable with his assertions. This is how humour works. It can bond those within a group; a shared experience members of a community can laugh about. In a sense, most humour is an "inside joke."
Mr. Steed argues humour is how we construct identity, so no one is ever "just joking." That’s a defence of the remark made to people in the alienated group. The people who were on board with the remark don’t need to hear that defence, so it gets made only when "outsiders" object.
There are very few people who are genuinely humourless. But there are plenty, it seems, willing to look the other way when a sexist, or racist, or homophobic or ableist remark is made in jest or perhaps even to defend it with an attack on anyone who doesn’t find it funny.
It’s not a debate about humour; it’s taking a stand on which group you support.