Jokes In Good Taste, Popular Taste or Just Bad Taste?

18 April, 2012 07:44PM · 5 minute read

At what point does a “joke” become a form of abuse? When is it okay to “have a go” at another race, minority group, sexual preference, country, people with disabilities or people from certain parts of your own country even? In most peoples minds it seems that the status quo is generally the gauge relative to the audience you are presenting to.

If you are standing in front of a crowd of hundreds of people from different ethnic backgrounds then a “joke” regarding one of their ethnicities is not going to go down too well. If there are enough of them you might get a minor uprising on your hands. If there aren’t enough in the crowd to cause an uprising it’s up to other people in the crowd to speak up and object but they will only do so if they feel like the rest of the crowd won’t turn on them.

It seems to be a balance of treading on cultural sensitivities relative to your audience, but many times presenters will pass off “jokes” or off-hand misleading, stereotypical or even derogatory comments in such situations as being a “joke” and it was perhaps taken out of context. Whether a “joke” is in good taste, popular taste or just bad taste a better question is why was the “joke” needed at all?

Why can’t people get through a conversation about a given topic without feeling the need to make jokes about other people based on stereotypes? What value does it add? It feels to me like it’s embarrassment-based “humour” whereby people chuckle at such comments only because they feel like the topic is off-limits or uncomfortable.

Many people would argue that if there are people in the audience that aren’t offended by your “joke” then that’s fine so long as most people aren’t. That logic doesn’t track for me.  If you think like that then when does one cross the line? If you offend one person? Two? Ten? Twenty? At what critical mass does the number of people you offend by your “humour” become an issue? Isn’t it simpler to just avoid the commentary altogether?

The audiences grow larger, the demographics change and before long there’s no “joke” you can make that will not offend at least some person. What then? Do you become a straight, scripted monologue written in advance, reviewed by ten other people and read out like the news at 6pm? Certainly that’s what mainstream media have generally done. No-one is offended by the news for what they say at least.

With the advent of the podcast and individuals who have never considered these points of view are now exposing their opinions to a global audience of unknown background and experience. At that point it becomes impossible to predict who will take offence to what. Through download statistics it is possible to at least trace general locations around the world the podcasts are listened to but not a great deal else. So why then persist in making “jokes” about people from other countries for example when you know you have listeners from there? The most likely reason is that people listening to you are at much further than arms-length away. An auto-delete from your Inbox or a block on Twitter and away goes that voice(s) of dissent. You certainly aren’t going to be beaten by an angry mob for your comments and the only real retribution is that fact that you may have just lost a listener. I’ve heard it spelled out on one podcast that “they won’t change” based on offending people from other countries. No big deal? Let’s try it from another angle.

In the same way in a crowd people can put their fingers in their ears to drown out such “humour” the answer, “no-one is making you listen to that podcast” is just as odd as the suggestion, “no-one is making go to that rally to listen to that person speak.” Clearly you have chosen to listen to that person or that podcast and have made the effort to attend/download and listen to them speak. Should you expect more respect from the presenter for them taking your time? Your time is just as important as theirs - why aren’t they respecting your choice to listen to them speak?

Presenters that neglect a portion of their audience are disrespecting those audience members about whom the “joke” was made in an attempt to elicit awkward “humour” from those audience members that were not offended. Many of these “jokes” are based on stereotypes and sometime even oppose that persons own knowledge whereby they “joke” about something being opposite to reality because they think it’s funny.

It’s unfortunate that so many people in the world haven’t travelled to (and lived in) other countries, met (and become friends with) people from different backgrounds to learn tolerance and fairness and understand that some “jokes” are just in bad taste and are essentially pointless. The people listening that aren’t offended are going to keep listening anyway even if you hadn’t made your “joke” and those that were offended have been disrespected and will now stop listening. What did you achieve with your “joke”?

Now some people reading this will say, “I am who I am and I can talk about whatever I want” and may possibly even resort to the catch-phrase: “It’s a free country.” Here’s the thing: No-one is disputing that you can say what you want nor whether your home country is or is not ‘free’. What’s being disputed is whether or not it is simply the right thing to do to make “jokes” about other people for whatever the topic/reason/stereotype.

It’s easy to sit at home in your armchair and commentate on the world at large: other cultures, other places, other people. It’s harder to put yourself out there and open your eyes. I would love to travel more, see more, meet more people from around the world as I know enough to know my eyes are only just barely open. What’s sad to me are those people for whom they believe their eyes are already wide open. All too often they are ones sitting in the dark whose eyes, open or shut, both look the same.