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The morality of making fun of others

 
 
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 02:57 am
When is it ok to have a laugh at others' expense?

Is it ok if it's funny enough? (a really good but mean joke)

Is it ok if enough time has passed? (is it safe to make a bubonic plague joke yet?)

Is it ok if they don't know about it?

Can you make fun of a dead guy on the day he dies if he's an evil person?

If not, how long do you have to wait? Do the moratoriums expire?

What if he dies in a very funny way?

Is there really anything (e.g. death, rape) that you think should't be joked about in any setting? (Carlin had a strong opinion about that)

I've been arguing these subjects with a couple of friends off and on for years now, and have developed my own ideas about where the line is for me, but where is the line for you?
 
solipsister
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 04:39 am
@Robert Gentel,
where a4isms and aphorisms arent libellous
0 Replies
 
dadpad
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 04:53 am
beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
judging the time and place is an art in itself
contrex
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 05:06 am
@Robert Gentel,
It deoends on an enormous number of variable factors. So many that to seriously seek a definitive answer would be fatuous. The audience. The circumstances. Jackie Mason can make jokes about Jews that I would never dare to. In fact he made a remark about Barack Obama that I would not dare to. (could not I daresay: he called him a "Schwartzer")

Quote:
Is it ok if it's funny enough? (a really good but mean joke)


How to define "funny"? It's funny if it makes you laugh? A bit circular.

Quote:
Is it ok if enough time has passed? (is it safe to make a bubonic plague joke yet?)


It was safe at the time. Jokes were made during plague victims' funeral processions.

Quote:
Is it ok if they don't know about it?


As above, depends on the circumstances. Personally I would place jokes about the Holocaust on the unacceptable side of the line. Probably due to cowardice more than principle. Ricky Gervais apparently doesn't. (Or maybe it was about Hollywood values - The Schindler's List one I mean. Gervais said at a Golden Globes ceremony that he had read on the sleeve notes of that DVD a critic's suggestion to have a box of Kleenex handy. "That's a little sick" he concluded.)

Quote:
Can you make fun of a dead guy on the day he dies if he's an evil person?


If you think he's "evil", I guess so. Plenty of Israelis brought old the hoary old Yasser Arafat jokes when he died.

Quote:
If not, how long do you have to wait? Do the moratoriums expire?


The moratoria are in each individual's head.

Quote:
What if he dies in a very funny way?


Then it's fair game.

Quote:
Is there really anything (e.g. death, rape) that you think should't be joked about in any setting?


No. Humour is a human response to danger and fear. The worse it is, the more need.
Francis
 
  3  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 05:15 am
@Robert Gentel,
Uncountable philosophic essays have been made on this topic.

My preferred is Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics: moderation in everything (in medio veritas).

You can laugh of everything but not with everybody, not everywhere and not everytime..
0 Replies
 
Letty
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 05:21 am
@Robert Gentel,
Odd, Craven. I just played a tribute to Mel Brooks on the radio thread. Nothing was sacred with him and he gave equal time to all areas of race, color, and creed. Often, I think if some people are vulnerable, we should try and identify with that, and NOT have fun at their expense, etc.

I had a bit of cognitive insight last evening. I want my kids to be all right so that I can be all right.
Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 07:17 am
I've long thought about this, probably for more than 20 years. How long has David Letterman been on "Late Night?" I first saw Letterman as the host of a summer replacement show which featured the Starland Vocal Band (for those, and i hope it's most of you, who don't know who they were, they were a "one-hit-wonder" band that did "Afternoon Delight"). The show was exceedingly lame, and Letterman's schtick did nothing for it, and was just about as lame.

So i was pretty surprised that such a big deal was being made about Letterman. I don't go to comedy clubs and so am not familiar with "the stand-up scene," so maybe he made a name in that, and that's how he was able to land one of the best gigs in television. All i could think of when i first learned it was: "But, but . . . he fronted for the Starland Vocal Band ! ! !"

So, i watched him a few times. It seemed to me that his humor mostly had to do with being very, very nasty about people. Now it's certainly true that most comedians, especially those doing monologues on late night television, frequently take pot shots as public figures, and they are usually considered fair game. But i would see Letterman humiliating guests, or people randomly selected in the audience, and the Larry "Bud" Melman crap was based on nothing but the unfortunate looks of the actor who portrayed him, and suggesting that he was no really very bright. I quickly lost interest in Letterman, and eventually lost interest in discussing it with anyone, because so many people considered him a laugh riot, and i just thought he was mean and relied on lame humor based on personal reflections.

So, i've been thinking about if for a long time. Honestly, i can think of few examples of jokes which don't rely upon laughing at the misfortune of others. Perhaps in made-up jokes, that's not so bad, because no one is actually hurt. But the personal reflections in widely disseminated public "humor" make me uncomfortable.

(Disclaimer: Before anyone gets self-righteous about my behavior online, allow me to point out that we are all more or less anonymous here, that i'm not perfect and don't claim to be, that no one here or elsewhere online is going to be identifiable as this or that person in real life. I'm not always happy about how i behave, and i believe [for whatever anyone else may say] that i've usually had the motivation of being the object of someone else's scorn. Nevertheless, knowing that i'm not perfect, and stipulating my own flaws, i remain disturbed by the seeming dominance of humor by nastiness.)
0 Replies
 
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 07:54 am
Humor: The upset of dignity. - Moe Howard, likely quoted from someone else.

In some settings, it seems everything is fair game, and I am okay with it. What has not been made fun of on Family Guy? Then there are other settings where I lay low and even feel offense at humor. I joked about O J Simpson out of anger. I have kept quiet about Michael Jackson, despite having a low opinion of him. I can make fun of Elvis, even though I love much of his music dearly. Often the objects of my fun making are a form of affection, as when I posted the pic for reyn last night. I think much of joke making is a way of releasing primal tensions.
0 Replies
 
aidan
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 09:19 am
@Robert Gentel,
I don't know the answer to this. I laughed at some of the Michael Jackson jokes I read - really out loud. They struck me funny - but when I repeated them to my daughter - she didn't laugh and I asked her why, and she said 'You're laughing at pedophilia- that's not funny.'
and then I thought she was right - because I remembered when Adam Sandler used to play canteen boy on SNL and his scoutmaster was attempting to molest him - I thought, 'Oh my god - this is a serious lapse in taste.' Not funny at all- how could they write a skit about this and expect people to laugh?'

The whole Michael Jackson thing, I think, exposes peoples' hypocricy. People are more than willing to malign and make fun of people who are alive - but it's as if death bestows some sort of canonization on their character - and they suddenly become more than what anyone gave them credit for being when they were alive. They must be REVERED now....bullshit.
Why do people care more about other peoples' feelings or reputation when they're dead? I don't get it.

In terms of the loved ones - I wouldn't write one of these jokes - and add to their discomfort - but do I feel guilty about laughing in the privacy of my own home? No. As far as I'm concerned - Michael Jackson - the talented person worthy of admiration and respect- died more than twenty years ago. That person was being destroyed a long time ago by the people who are grieving for him now.

But I do feel guilty about laughing about pedophilia. My daughter is right - and I told her that she is.

Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 01:15 pm
@aidan,
aidan wrote:
But I do feel guilty about laughing about pedophilia. My daughter is right - and I told her that she is.


I think the old pedophile in Family Guy is hilarious and don't feel bad in that case about it. In others I'm sure I'd find it tasteless.
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 01:17 pm
@Letty,
Letty wrote:
Often, I think if some people are vulnerable, we should try and identify with that, and NOT have fun at their expense, etc.


I agree, for me personally the hilarity needs to outweigh the potential emotional cost to others.
0 Replies
 
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 01:18 pm
@contrex,
contrex wrote:
Quote:
If not, how long do you have to wait? Do the moratoriums expire?


The moratoria are in each individual's head.


Why did you bold the "a"? Both spellings are correct.
0 Replies
 
aidan
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 02:42 pm
@Robert Gentel,
Quote:
I think the old pedophile in Family Guy is hilarious and don't feel bad in that case about it.

I've never seen Family Guy, so I can't comment, except to ask, 'Would you feel comfortable laughing at the jokes if you were sitting there watching with someone you knew had been abused as a child?

Just asking - not being self-righteous at all = because I read a couple of the Michael Jackson jokes on the thread, laughed and then repeated them to someone that I had forgotten had been molested as a child. He knew that I knew - he's the one who told me - but I'd forgotten but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I remembered.
He laughed and didn't say anything, but I felt like such a creep myself and then when my daughter said what she said, I could only agree.

I think what a person finds funny depends very much on what their own experience has been. People can find humor more often in situations that haven't negatively impacted their lives directly.
For me, it's an image or clever language that draws the initial reaction, but when I think about what it is that I'm really laughing at sometimes I feel bad that I laughed.
Robert Gentel
 
  1  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 02:51 pm
@aidan,
aidan wrote:
I've never seen Family Guy, so I can't comment, except to ask, 'Would you feel comfortable laughing at the jokes if you were sitting there watching with someone you knew had been abused as a child?


As long as they are fine with it, if it causes them pain it would put a damper on my enjoyment.

In this specific example, I have watched those scenes with at least two people who suffered sexual abuse as children. I'm sure it's one of those different strokes kinds of things.
0 Replies
 
George
 
  4  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 04:24 pm
For me it all comes down to who gets hurt and how much.
Finn dAbuzz
 
  2  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 06:33 pm
I think that like a lot of social interaction, the use of humor requires a measure of discretion, and intent is important.

There are jokes about retarded people that will elicit laughter that is not necessarily mean-spirited, but it would be insensitive to the point of implying intent to hurt, if they were told at a gathering of retarded children and their parents.

Making fun of someone when they are not around may not prove to be as hurtful as it might if they were present, but this isn't assured. The jokes could create a negative impression in the minds of the "audience" for the person being ridiculed. This might not be the intent of the "comedian," but it’s certainly not an entirely unexpected consequence. It's also not hard to imagine a scenario where the intent of making fun of someone not present is more than just getting a few laughs; it is to make the person look bad in the eyes of others.

In general, I exempt professional comedians from these considerations. These are people who make a living by making people laugh, and, generally, that is their only intent. If someone finds a comedian's joke offensive or hurtful they can react by booing, leaving the club, and turning off the TV etc. In this way they register their opinion that the joke isn't funny and, if necessary, they can stop listening. Presumably they will follow up on this and not "purchase" the comedian's product in the future.

There is an exception applicable to professional comedians: making fun of actual individuals who have not voluntarily placed themselves in harm's way (E.g. attending an insult comic's show, or heckling a comedian), or not chosen to put themselves in the public domain for personal gain.

Thus jokes about Bill Clinton's infidelity or Sarah Palin's looks are fair game, while jokes about Chelsea Clinton and Willow or Bristol Palin are not.

I think that within the proper context, humor can be derived from any subject, but I would not suggest that this means that discretion is not appropriate and the proper attitude to adopt is "F*ck 'em if they can't take a joke!"

We should not tell jokes that have a clear potential to be offensive around the people who are most likely to be offended by them.

At the same time, a lot of people would be better served by developing a broader sense of humor and thicker skin than by searching for reasons to be offended.
0 Replies
 
Setanta
 
  2  
Reply Sun 28 Jun, 2009 07:04 pm
@George,
George wrote:
For me it all comes down to who gets hurt and how much.


This is it for me, right here. I dislike Letterman because i've seen him make a fool of a guest or an audience member, sneering at them. Many, perhaps most, perhaps even the overwhelming majority of jokes achieve their humor at someone's expense, but for a written joke, which is not topical, there is no actual harm done to any real people. Increasingly, i am uncomfortable with laughter at the expense of others, and the older i get, the more compassion i feel. I first began to get uncomfortable with this sort of thing when i was an adolescent. We had a girl in class who was an obvious victim of abuse and neglect as a child, and who was sixteen and in the 8th grade. She came into the classroom one time, horrified because she had cut herself on the playground (i was in there for punishment, i had to write an essay on propagation). Like many children in her situation (mentally, or perhaps i should say emotionally, she couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old), she reacted to pain and sorrow much more than other children do, probably precisely because she could never expect sympathy or comforting. The home room teacher mocked her to me, would do nothing for her, not even to take her to the office. Then she turned to me an laughed and said: "You know, i think she might even understand what we're saying." I said something to effect that she didn't need to include me, and i left the room, for which i was never punished--i suspect the teacher didn't want the story repeated in the office. I probably shouldn't repeat this, but i am (more or less) anonymous here--but that incident recalled to me several occasions on which my mother had laughed at the distress of small children in situations which they didn't understand and which frightened them, or in their tears and sorrow. I was raised by my grandparents, not by my mother. There's a lot more baggage there, which ain't nobody else's business. However, i think that is the origin of my discomfort with "specific" humor, i'll call it. Laughing at the distress, misfortune or misery of an identifiable sufferer. I especially ache for small children and domestic animals who suffer, because in many situations, they just don't understand what is happening to them, and any understanding they do have of the situation is likely to be terror--which elicits horror from me.

Although i do appreciate other people's comments on this topic, do spare me any pop psychology on what i've said about my own situation.
0 Replies
 
wandeljw
 
  2  
Reply Mon 29 Jun, 2009 01:54 pm
The late comedian Bill Hicks said, "It's all funny until someone gets hurt. Then it's just hilarious."
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Foofie
 
  1  
Reply Mon 29 Jun, 2009 07:18 pm
The only humor that is acceptable in my mind is self-deprecating humor. Woody Allen, Jack Benny. Or, Bob Hope's military tour humor made self-deprecating humor for the audience seem acceptable, even if it was about the circumstances of the audience, in my opinion.

Just because people laugh, in my mind, does not make something humorous. The Romans laughed as Christians were being torn apart by lions. Perhaps, we are more civilized than ancient Romans, but many of us do like to laugh at someone else's expense. In the '50's sitcoms it was the wife; then by the '70's, '80's sitcoms it was the husband.

Much humor panders to one's need to feel superior, I believe. All the ethnic sitcoms made some people feel superior to the characters that were either immigrants, minorities, or stereotypical redneck types.

If I need to laugh, I tickle myself with a feather.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 30 Jun, 2009 08:29 am
@Robert Gentel,
Robert Gentel wrote:

When is it ok to have a laugh at others' expense?

Whenever it is acceptable to do so according to your moral code.

That may strike you as an unsatisfactory answer, but it's the best answer you can get without knowing more about your own system of morality. For instance, if you believe that it is always wrong to hurt someone's feelings, then telling a joke that will hurt someone's feelings is always wrong. If, on the other hand, you believe that it is sometimes right to hurt someone's feelings, then telling a joke that will hurt someone's feelings might be acceptable, depending on the circumstances.

Robert Gentel wrote:
What if he dies in a very funny way?

As I recall, National Lampoon's "True Facts" feature had three rules: (1) exploding toilets are always funny; (2) dead babies are never funny, unless; (3) they were killed by an exploding toilet.
 

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