Is Offensive Humour Appropriate?

I find that sharing a sense of humour with somebody can make a big difference to how well you connect with them. In particular I’ve found that certain types of dark humour can be the most jarring of all if you use it in the wrong way. I consider myself to have a dark sense of humour, but I get the feeling that my definition of it is different to everybody else. Obviously dark humour is focussed on the macabre, including things such as random over the top violence. For me, the important part is that it’s not realistic and I prefer it not to refer to any particular people or tragedies. I loved the humour of Into The Woods or in the game Portal and Aurelio Voltaire is my favourite singer for instance, but was not so keen on the black comedy Sightseers. The latter being a film in which a couple decides to start killing people off during a cross-country road trip. It wasn’t the premise that was the problem, but that some of the deaths were followed up by the reactions of family members, making it all too real. A lot of people also include offensive jokes within dark humour – I personally think of them as two separate types. Jokes covering racism, sexism, real tragedies and deaths or at the expense of others. I was raised to feel like this sort of thing is disrespectful, so for a while I found myself feeling slightly uncomfortable around people that made such jokes. It wasn’t that they personally offended me, just that they can challenge your values and how you feel about certain topics – it can take time to overcome feeling guilty or awkward when values that have been enforced on you for a long time are put to question.

I understand that offensive humour has its place. Just because a person jokes about a sensitive subject it doesn’t mean they support the idea of it or encourage it. Humour can be a form of catharsis and a way to allow people to deal with subjects that make them feel uncomfortable. I think we have to be very careful about whether these things are censored because different people have different ways of expressing themselves, even if we can’t always understand it ourselves. Knowing where to draw the line on what’s acceptable or not is an issue that many will not agree on. It’s also difficult to never offend anybody due to cultural differences and backgrounds.

There are times that I think offensive humour can be used in a clever way to emphasize a point. Certain jokes about racism or sexism are done as a way of showing just how absurd it actually is to hold such attitudes. I find South Park often uses this technique to make statements on important social issues – I’m not so keen on the cruder side of it. Kick-Ass 2 also had its racist moments, but does call itself up on it to show how ridiculous it is – in other words, satire. Another example is the sexism in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. As I mentioned in another post ‘The intention behind the words, the intention behind the joke may be more important than the words themselves and they’re not meant to be taken literally.

On the other hand, such jokes can make it seem like they are making light of serious situations. The subject matter of some may bring back bad memories. I think it’s perfectly understandable if a person who was victimised in some way wouldn’t want to hear a joke about it. Many of us have a past and sensitive spots that are like emotional triggers for us. Some people may use humour as a form of expression, but others use it for escapism and to cheer themselves up. There may also be a risk that joking about a topic could make it seem more socially acceptable by desensitising people to its subject matter – there’s a reason for why we shouldn’t feel comfortable to approach certain topics and this enforces how serious they are.

Jokes are not free from culpability. Some are used to be hurtful to particular individuals, but they’ll often be followed by the words ‘lighten up’ or ‘you’re too sensitive,’ which in turn are also offensive; It puts people in an awkward situation where they feel like they have to deal with the hurtful jokes in order to fit in. If we are to make offensive jokes then we also have to take responsibility for them and be willing to deal with the consequences if they backfire. Having freedom of expression doesn’t mean we’re free from the consequence of how others react to us. I also think it’s expecting too much of others to think they should understand our sense of humour. Whenever we make a joke – offensive or not – we are always taking the risk that the recipients may not react favourably. For that reason it can actually take a lot of confidence to tell a joke and also affects the way many comedians form their material.

Whether I find offensive humour funny or not depends on its purpose and delivery. I can also accept that there are outlets out there for people that do enjoy this sort of thing. I do however, think it’s really important to get to know people a little better first to make sure we don’t accidentally offend them. There are reasons for why certain subjects may upset another person, possibly due to a negative experience in their past; We all have different barriers for what’s acceptable. If we want to enjoy another person’s friendship I consider it to be important to understand and respect each others feelings in this sense. Sometimes we have to be willing to shape ourselves around the company we are with, even if that means toning down a bit. After all, not everybody shares the same sense of humour.

Do you feel that offensive humour is appropriate? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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About wallcat

I have a strong passion for computing. In particular programming for which I am able to use a variety of languages including C++, Visual C#, Blitz Basic, Actionscript 2.0, Python and Lua. I also enjoy web-design and have some knowledge of HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL and Javascript. As well as programming I have a strong background in art and enjoy drawing in my spare time. When I’m not sat at my computer I like to keep fit by going to the gym or using my exercise ball.

5 responses to “Is Offensive Humour Appropriate?”

  1. anonymous says :

    Can’t you make you mind?

    • wallcat says :

      I know a mix of people, some that are more sensitive and others that don’t seem to be bothered by anything, so this is a topic that has come up a few times. I tend to sit more in the middle. I’m ok with it, but it depends on the company I’m with, the time, the place and the purpose of the joke; it goes down to what feels right and common decency really, it’s just difficult to put what that is into words.

  2. Lori L MacLaughlin says :

    I’m one of those that doesn’t like offensive jokes. I guess I can see why some people make them, but I find them disrespectful. To me, there’s nothing funny about death, tragedies, racism, sexism, rape, or any other dark subject. I think people in general have become too desensitized to these things and aren’t offended by things they should be. If people who make these kinds of jokes were to become victims of any of these things, they wouldn’t find them so funny. Just my two cents.

    • wallcat says :

      I’ve met less people that feel that way, so I found that to be able to get along its helped me to understand the reasoning behind it even though I don’t always find it funny. For a while there were times I didn’t enjoy going out because I felt like I was expected to join in and laugh along. I was starting to tire of the words ‘it’s a joke’ or ‘freedom of speech’ because they were starting to feel more like justifications to say and do what they wanted, even if it upset the people around them or just simply wasn’t their cup of tea. I’ve thought that too, that if they were to become the victims of the things they joked about they probably wouldn’t find it so funny (I never like it when people start to joke about topics that are sensitive to my own past.) This is a subject that I’ve found can really split people to one extreme or the other; Either way, I think it’s unfair to force your sense of humour on another person if it makes them feel uncomfortable or they don’t enjoy it. For me, it depends on the purpose of the joke (and I think there are lots of bad examples of dark humour out there,) but I agree that many seem disrespectful.

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