One of the biggest things being debated currently is free speech. A lot of Trump supporters are saying it’s not okay to criticize the president while also defending Nazis’ right to protest freely. From the left, there has been a huge push for people to use the most up to date nomenclature while also stigmatizing conservatives with racism.
Comedy specifically has been a subject of the free speech debate for some time. Some of the most successful comedians have even faced real-life consequences for telling jokes that are said to have gone too far. This begs the question: what kind of humor is acceptable? Are there topics that comedians cannot touch? To answer these questions, we have to examine which jokes work and which don’t work.
At the heart of comedy is tragedy. A joke highlights some sort of truth about the pain every person faces. Whether it be physical or emotional pain, a good joke is one that reminds us of how it can hurt to be human. However, if a joke is done poorly, it can have the opposite effect. A good joke shows pain and lets it be released through exploration. A bad joke minimizes pain and mocks people who are suffering.
As for what topics are acceptable to joke about, it really depends on who is listening. A joke about dead babies might be funny to a group of teenagers, but anyone who has ever lost a child would not be laughing. However, this does not mean the joke should not ever be told. Some jokes just are not appropriate for certain audiences. Even professional comedians have to be mindful of this. Jokes about cancer would not go so well if they were performing at a hospital.
Sensitivity is key when it comes down to if a topic is okay to joke about. It is not an attack on free speech – it’s being considerate. Everyone has something they’re sensitive about. It’s just mutual respect to not go for someone else’s weak spot. For some topics, it is very difficult to avoid offending people. Does that mean these topics are off limits? No, not really. At that point it is at the discretion of the offended to decide if they would rather not listen to a joke that, though possibly well intentioned, still touches a nerve. My point being, all jokes are fine – just don’t be blatantly rude.
The difference between a good joke and a bad joke can easily be seen in the way that Daniel Tosh tells a rape joke and how Louis C.K. tells a rape joke. Keep in mind that both jokes are offensive. In 2012, Daniel Tosh told a joke about how he would replace his sister’s pepper spray with silly string, making her defenceless against rape.
Louis C.K. said in a bit from his standup “I’m not condoning rape, obviously. You should never rape anyone, unless you have a reason, like you want to f— somebody and they won’t let you”. Both jokes are offensive but the reason Louis C.K.’s joke is better is because his is not making fun of rape itself. It’s showing how psychotic rapists are by emphasizing that there is no good reason to rape someone.
Tosh makes light of rape in a way that makes rape survivors seem unimportant, while Louis C.K. is making those who commit rape seem more like monsters. Both jokes might not be in taste for everyone, but it is clear that one is worse than the other. What it all boils down to is intention. A joke about a sensitive subject should have the goal of alleviating pain, not inflicting it.
The push for political correctness is not an attack on free speech. Offensive and mean spirited jokes exist and should exist. They let us explore subject matters that are too dark for polite conversation by forcing people to have discourse. They should, however, be used to make people see things from a different point of view, not to harm others.