Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Jokes against inanity

with 3 comments

Yesterday, Harvard University made headlines by withdrawing acceptances for ten high school students who had posted “sexually explicit memes and messages” on a private Facebook group. Here’s how The Crimson describes the situation:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December…In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been a divisive one, with critics of the college making the argument—which can’t be dismissed out of hand—that Harvard overreached in policing statements that were made essentially in private. But there’s another line of reasoning that I find increasingly hard to take seriously. The Washington Post quotes Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law School, who compares the humor in question to the party game Cards Against Humanity:

It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible. The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock—such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies. Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values. There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.

I might have agreed with this once, but I don’t think I do anymore. The catalyst, oddly, was a passage in Jon Ronson’s otherwise very good book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was evidently intended to make the opposite point. Ronson discusses the notorious case of Justine Sacco, the public relations executive who inspired a torrent of online outrage after tweeting before a flight to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco then switched off her phone, which meant that she spent the next eleven hours oblivious to the fact that her life had effectively been ruined. Ronson writes of the firestorm:

I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege—on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.

He concludes: “Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like ‘Don’t wear short skirts.’ It felt like victim-blaming.” And there’s no question that Sacco, who was fired from her job, paid a disproportionately harsh price for her actions. But it also feels like an overstatement to repeatedly insist, as Ronson does, that Sacco “didn’t do anything wrong.” To say that her tweet was “a badly worded joke” implies that there was an alternative wording that would have made it funny and acceptable. I have trouble imagining one. And the implicit assumption that this was a problem of phrasing or context strikes me as the slipperiest slope of all.

This brings us to Cards Against Humanity, a kind of analog computer for generating offensive jokes, which, revealingly, often evokes the specter of “white privilege” to justify itself. When asked to explain its expansion pack “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa,” one of the game’s designers told the Daily Dot: “It’s a joke that we meant to poke fun at white privilege, ignorance, and laziness.” This amounts to a defense of the entire game, in which players theoretically interrogate their privilege by forcing one another to make what Goldberg calls “irreverent and dark jokes.” In the same article, Jaya Saxena neatly sums up the company’s position:

The Cards Against Humanity team is stalled in the middle of that narrative: understanding that there is a cultural hierarchy that disenfranchises people, making it clear they’re aware of the privilege they hold, attempting to use their humor to separate themselves from those who don’t get it, and apologizing for their mistakes when they’re called out.

This raises two related issues. One is whether this kind of scrutiny is, in fact, what most players of the game think they’re doing. The other is whether this activity is worthwhile. I would argue that the answer to both questions is “probably not.” This isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of a logical and comedic inconsistency—and, frankly, of “privilege, ignorance, and laziness”—in the sort of humor involved. Let’s say that you’ve made a “transgressive” joke of the type that got these prospective Harvard freshmen in trouble. Now imagine how you’d react if it had been said by Milo Yiannopoulos or posted as a meme on the alt-right. If it bothers you, then the only conclusion is that your identity as a progressive somehow justifies statements that would be horrifyingly racist in the mouth of someone of whom you disapprove. You can make the joke because you, as a “horny bourgeois teen,” know better.

This sounds a lot like privilege to me. I won’t say that it’s worse or more insidious than other forms of racism, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t problematic, especially if you believe that transgressive humor is something to be celebrated. As Dan Brooks writes in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine: “The whole architecture of the game is designed to provide the thrill of transgression with none of the responsibility—to let players feel horrible, if you will, without feeling bad.” It’s a mechanical simulation of transgression, and, like bad art that allows for an emotional release that absolves the viewer from other kinds of empathy, it can numb us to the real thing, leaving us unable to make the distinction. Just because you were smart enough to get into Harvard—and believe me, I know—doesn’t make you Michael O’Donoghue. On that level, the college made the right call. It has the right to withdraw admission if “an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” and even if these teenagers share their assumptions with millions of other “good liberals,” that doesn’t make them any less wrong. Max Temkin, the primary creative force behind Cards Against Humanity, has impeccably progressive credentials and has done a lot of admirable things, but he has also said “We removed all of the ‘rape’ jokes from Cards Against Humanity years ago,” as if this were commendable in itself. They cull the cards that they’ve personally outgrown, as if objective standards of acceptability have changed simply because they’re no longer in their early twenties, and I’m not even sure if this strikes them as problematic. As a profile of the company in Fusion notes:

As part of their job, [the creators] periodically pull cards that seemed funny to college seniors in their parents’ basement, but are a little less funny now…Meanwhile some [cards], like “passable transvestites” and “date rape,” were pulled when the guys realized that kind of “humor” wasn’t actually very humorous.

The reference to “the guys” speaks volumes. But this kind of culling is something that we all do, as we leave behind our adolescent selves, and it has one inevitable conclusion. Speaking of the “passable transvestites” card, Temkin said: “It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life that that was funny.” And for a lot of us, that includes the game as a whole.

3 Responses

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  1. Something I don’t understand is who gets to decide whether someone’s joke is a joke against X oppressed group, or a joke against Y privileged group’s attitudes towards X? Should we be held accountable for the literal (offensive) interpretation of our words if we intend a metaphorical, let’s say, (non offensive) meaning?


    June 7, 2017 at 7:10 am

  2. There are times when we need to recognise that things might be reasonable in the sense that they should be allowed, but nevertheless should not be done. It’s a bit like when someone says ‘I’m not racist but…’.


    June 8, 2017 at 4:48 am

  3. @Darren: That seems like a good rule to follow.


    July 17, 2017 at 8:16 pm

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