You know those really stupid jokes no-one finds funny? I love them. I am such a sucker for a dumb joke. They can literally have me laughing uncontrollably for a good few minutes; tears running down my face, gasping for breath, and just when you think I’ve started to calm down, a new wave of laughter will hit me, and off I go again. It’s not pretty.
But then there are the jokes that are just bad, the jokes that I find difficult to understand how anyone could find funny, that are at the expense of specific groups of people and are just insulting. Those jokes make me pretty uncomfortable. And what makes me even more uncomfortable is when they come from the people I respect, love and admire; my friends and family.
When a person is ridiculed for their gender, race, nationality, sexual or gender identity, religion, and so forth, there’s a strong possibility that they will be offended. Yet jokes on these topics are constantly made. There are whole hosts of these jokes that are told over and over. I flinch whenever I hear them. And it makes my heart sink when these jokes are told by the people I know well.
But am I overreacting by feeling this way? Can these jokes ever be funny?
“I think my reaction to most potentially offensive jokes really depends on the person telling them,” says Julia Ember, a polyamorous bisexual who identifies as genderqueer. “If I know the person well enough to know they’re being sarcastic, then I tend not to mind LGBTQ jokes that focus on stereotypes. I have a few friends who often joke about me being a butch, scary lesbian and I don’t mind, because I’m very femme and I know that those people would love me whether I was femme, butch, or no stereotype at all.”
But Ember knows that such jokes can be insulting. “I have quite conservative extended family members, and when they make jokes about gay people, I do find it really offensive, because I know that they’re making the joke out of a place of misunderstanding, and from the belief that there is actually something lesser about LGBTQ people. Whereas, with a lot of friends, jokes come from an underlying sarcasm/irony, almost like the person is saying, ‘Aren’t these stereotypes completely ridiculous?’”
I know when it comes to sexist jokes, I feel similar. I don’t find them funny, generally, but I’m not necessarily offended if they’re told by those I know. I just roll my eyes and ignore them, because I know they are just trying to get a rise out of me. But as a redhead, I’m definitely offended by ginger jokes I hear, which are always from people I don’t know, and tend to be remarks about how good I am in bed.
What about jokes based on nationality? Adam Page, an Irishman from Belfast, has no problem with them. “I like them. Nine times out of ten, they are funny. The majority of them are the standard, ‘How does an Irishman… ?’ They are the same jokes that have been around for a long time, just with the nationality switched around. But I’ve certainly never been offended by an Irish joke.”
“Let’s face it, most Irish jokes are based around our drinking, our supposed friendliness and the ‘thick Paddy’ jokes, which aren’t far from the truth. It’s mostly English people who make the ‘thick Paddy’ ones. They are easily put down.”
Virginie Busette, a French expat living in the UK, tends to agree. “I do feel that French jokes based on stereotypes can sometimes be funny, but I will clarify that, we do not usually walk around with a beret on our head and garlic around our neck,” she jokes. “However, we have been known to go to the boulangerie early in the morning to buy a baguette so the jokes about a French man and a stick will be numerous.”
But when it comes to racial jokes, Busette, a woman of colour, doesn’t see a funny side. “They are not jokes but simply insulting comments based on someone’s race in an attempt to be funny,” she said. “I would suspect that likeminded people would find them funny, but to me they are simply a way to be overtly racist while hiding behind the apparent safety that humour can provide. I would also say that the same goes for sexist jokes. No matter who is telling the joke, I do not think that I would find humour in it as there is always an underlying attack on the race or gender in question.”
Of course, a joke can go too far. “A good Irish joke can be funny, but anti-Irish jokes are another matter; ones made with real venom and hatred are on another level,” said Page. “But it’s the same whether its nasty jokes about gay people, black people, etc.”
Busette agrees. “Any jokes whether racist, sexist or country specific can be harmful. And once the subject of the joke feels under attack then a line has been crossed and we’re not in humour territory anymore and probably never were to start with.”
On queer jokes, Ember adds, “I think one of the most harmful things is when people make jokes that aren’t directed towards the LGBTQ person, but might tease a straight friend or insult them by calling them a ‘homo’ or some other insult that implies the person is lesser because they are LGBTQ.”
In her book, Girls Will Be Girls, Emer O’Toole talks about ‘speech acts’, where words can be something you do as well as something you say. O’Toole would argue that this kind of language, comes “from a society that discriminates against black people, queer people and disabled people; its performative effect is to normalise that discrimination.” (p170) She goes on to say:
“People who aren’t directly affected by this kind of language have the luxury to see their speech as empty: they don’t understand why people are getting upset. It’s not like they’ve actually done anything: words are words. Sticks and stones, right? They wouldn’t be offended if ‘white’ or ‘man’ or ‘hetero’ or ‘abled’ were used for synonyms for bad. And if they wouldn’t be hurt, then nobody else has a right to be.”1
It’s interesting to think about in regards to offensive jokes, but Page thinks we need to be careful. “We are living in extremely odd times. I know humour is subjective, but not every joke about a girl is sexist. Not every joke about gay people is homophobic. For example, I have gay friends and I have made gay jokes that if a comedian said them in public, they would be eviscerated. They would be destroyed. But I make gay jokes with gay friends, and what do they do? Laugh, then take the piss out of me.”
He adds, “We seem to be living in a time of instant outrage, and it’s dangerous. I am not sexist or homophobic, but if I made a stupid joke on Twitter or Facebook, it could cost me my job, and I would be labelled a hate figure.”
Humour is subjective. We all have our own identities, backgrounds, histories, so whether we find something funny or otherwise is going to be based on that. Perhaps those telling the jokes need to think twice about the joke itself, be sensitive of those around them, and use their discretion depending on their audience.
Busette made an excellent point. “I also think that most people who may find those jokes funny on the spot might not necessarily condone them either. Sometimes you need to take a minute and look back and think, ‘Actually, this is not funny but rather offensive.’ I guess, humour can be a little bit of a grey area.”
Page agreed, adding. “All it takes is a few seconds thought. Is this a hate joke, a funny joke or just an idiot?”
1. O’Toole, Emer, Girls Will Be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently, Orion (2015): p. 171
Joanne Stapley is a writer and book blogger from London. She writes at Jo’s Journal, reviews books at Once Upon a Bookcase, and tweets @JoanneStapley.