Is it okay for comedy to cause offence?

Lydia Eavers discusses the fine line between satire and disrespect in contemporary comedy

Lydia Eavers
16th March 2020
Before I begin, I would like to preface this piece by saying that, as a white, able-bodied and cisgender person, I have privilege that will have inevitably influenced my perspective on this topic, and I apologise if any of my views are ignorant – what would this article be for if not for us all to discuss how to be more respectful?

The subject of “offensiveness” is more prevalent than ever these days. There seems to be just as many people arguing that we need to consider how our words portray and affect groups as those who believe making jokes about sensitive issues is one way of tackling them, or that these jokes are simply an exercise of freedom of speech. Indeed, I believe the word “censor” is pretty loaded, and that enforcing censorship is a slippery slope in any society, as it is, in some ways, a restriction of freedom of speech. However, as a clever misc. internet user once put it, freedom of speech does not make one exempt from the consequences of their actions, and people still need to take responsibility for their words if they do hurt people.

Offensive comedy can cover a whole host of sins, from dark humour to satire. I myself enjoy an occasional game of Cards Against Humanity (what uni student doesn’t?), however, as Youtuber Lindsay Ellis outlined in her video essay Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis, there is a fine line between a risqué bit of satire and un/intentionally disrespecting an entire religion. The key question which forms that line is simply who are we laughing at? If a joke is directed at an oppressive group who did a bad thing, it’s probably good satire. If the joke is directed by a member of the powerful group against a less powerful one that society oppresses, it isn’t.

there is the potential for bad satire to be used as a justification for hate groups to discriminate against the marginalised punchlines of this “comedy”

For me, I view jokes against marginalised groups from a more privileged comedian as a sort of kicking-them-while-they’re-down scenario. Members of that group are already at a disadvantage in society, so why add salt to the wound by making jokes about them? And this is only the tip of the social iceberg, given the potential for bad satire to be used as a justification for hate groups to discriminate against the marginalised punchlines of this “comedy”.

Creating a joke that only some people will find funny and others find hurtful isolates the latter group, and perpetuates the idea that there is a group who make up the “norm” and will enjoy an offensive joke, and all those whose culture or lifestyle makes up the punchline fall outside of it. Is this really what we want in a globalised world already rife with political divisions and social inequalities? Surely, comedy should be the refuge where we can spread a little happiness in this virus-ridden, bomb-wielding world. That’s what laughing is for, after all.

We have a right as individuals to respect others, and if someone is really, truly offended by something that a comedian has said, that means the comedian has in some way hurt them, and why should we want to do that? Ever since childhood, we have been taught that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and why should comedy be the exception to this rule? If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t crack out a hurtful joke – it’s not big, it’s not clever, and it is definitely not funny.

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