This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
In my last newsletter, I asked readers, “What norms should govern jokes in our society? What, if anything, makes a joke harmful? What harm, if any, is there in punishing people for jokes or chilling the expression of jokes? How has humor improved your life? Have jokes ever made your life worse?” Many of you responded with memories of laughter or comedic appreciation. Others shared raw stories of hurt. And one correspondent argued that I should be fired. (Thankfully, her email was not persuasive.)
Nancy strongly dislikes hearing a certain four-letter word in comedy:
I don’t appreciate hearing f this, f ing that––very limited vocabularies besides, since when is “f ing” something bad? Maybe they’re doing it wrong.
That’s reportedly true of at least one randy singer-songwriter.
Laughter as Solace
Victor learned the value of joking about serious subjects amid a family tragedy:
My son Aidan was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in 2018 at the age of 14. In 2019 we were told his cancer had spread to his lungs. There was nothing that could be done for him.
We brought him home to spend his last days with us. We spent a lot of time watching TV together, especially shows about superheroes. One show that stands out is The Boys on Amazon Prime, because of a particular episode. There is a scene where one of the superheroes visits a boy with cancer in the hospital as part of his Make-A-Wish. The boy becomes upset because the superhero was not the one he wanted to meet. Aidan laughed at the scene but he laughed even harder when the Superhero, who is the fastest runner in the world, told the boy he can teach him to run. The boy who was still upset responded, “Can you teach me to outrun cancer?” My initial response was of shock because I didn’t think cancer was funny, but seeing Aidan’s response allowed me to appreciate the power of humor or dark comedy and its ability to make light of difficult situations.
Lisa writes that she’s grateful to have a child who shares her sense of humor:
I am one of those people who has been told many times, “You’re funny. No, I mean it, you’re really funny.” Maybe I really am. I have thought of joining Twitter to simply share humor. However, I am self-aware enough to understand this is said only by those people who know me and give the benefit of doubt to the stuff I say, otherwise known as grace.
Not too long ago, I was having a serious conversation with my child. We were discussing hormones and how they play a part in upsetting our emotions, especially during puberty and menopause. The topic of suicide came up, and my child asked if I had ever had any thoughts along those lines. We had been talking for a while and know each other well. My reply: “I think I would kill your father before I killed myself … What if I’m not the problem?” We laughed. A lot. Out of context, this is obviously a very dark thing to think, much less to say out loud to your child. Now you see why I could never be on Twitter—instant cancellation and probably urgent texts, screenshots, and calls to my husband. Humor requires all of us to be nonbinary in our thinking. It is ironic that the most stridently accepting of everyone’s “TRUTH” often can’t find their funny bone.
Humor got Laura through a dark moment, too:
When my father died, his wake was appropriately somber … at first. He’d had a long stretch of debilitation as a result of cancer and chemo, and my gentle, sweet dad succumbed.
What was wonderful was the laughter, though, as memories of my always-smiling, frequently laughing father started to bubble up. The family and friends gathered to remember him began to talk louder, laugh more, and reminisce about his sense of humor. As we all got sillier, a sudden group self-awareness took over and we all hushed at the impropriety of laughing after death. Until, again as if we were one body, the group realized that was what Dad would have wanted. (I could feel him in the room with us, impatient at our seriousness.) Now, as I help a friend cope with end-stage cancer (again), what strikes me anew is how he and I find relief from the seriousness of his situation in silly jokes about death, his difficulty walking and breathing, and what both of us fear and dread. Humor (we all have different senses of it) helps us cope with what we fear.
Emily’s dad gave her the same gift:
Nothing should be off the table to make jokes about. My dad had one of the darkest senses of humor; he made off color jokes all the time, especially when it came to death. He absolutely believed that everything was funny. If you tried to tell him a joke wasn’t funny, then THAT was funny. My dad had some tough experiences as a young person, so humor for him became how to get through it. It wasn’t an act, though. It wasn’t “Let’s laugh so we don’t cry.” He honestly just learned how to find it all, everything, worth laughing about. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too short to be taken seriously.” Which isn’t a denial of dark things or hard things; it is learning to coexist with them so as to not live in fear.
When my dad died quickly and unexpectedly from Covid in 2020, at 64, it was his humor that helped us get through it. His ability to make you laugh at the exact wrong moment is why I far more often think of him and smile or laugh than I think of him and cry. He, more than anyone, would find his own death hysterical. He would be furious, for sure, but I know he would have us rolling making jokes about it, too. Before his death, I didn’t know it was possible to laugh and cry at the same time about the same thing. Life is only misery and suffering if you can’t learn to laugh about misery and suffering.
Val appreciates being around others who can both dish it out and take it:
Among jokesters, we all take our turn in the barrel. We tell a joke about someone’s nationality or job or hobby—then someone tells a joke about something near and dear to us.
We grin and bear it and sometimes have to admit, “Hey! That’s funny!”
No blood, no foul. Only people with absolutely NO sense of humor should ever be truly offended by a joke. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no standing to laugh at others. I generally find such people to be difficult to be around. I also don’t think they lead very “fun” lives. I think joke tellers need to be sensitive to their audience. It’s definitely possible to go too far or injure people’s feelings. If you don’t know your audience well, it’s possible to strike a little too close to a nerve. This is why I like to be with people with good senses of humor. Still, one always has to be careful about hitting below the belt.
The Pain of Being Mocked
Reb writes with mixed feelings:
This comic [strip] came out when I was in junior high school, and it has stuck with me in the nearly 40 years since. I’ve pulled it up as a reminder many times in my life when either I, or someone else, overreacted. However, I do believe that laughing at a joke is implicit approval of it. I was often the butt of jokes at school—about my speech, physical appearance, and impairment—and yes, it was harmful to my self-image and my willingness to interact with others.
Even if you are not directly named in the joke, if you see yourself in it, it can sting, and if others approve of it, that can be harmful. How you react is the only thing you can control, so maybe you react publicly to object to that harm. As an individual that seems right and fair. I don’t tend to listen to comedians. I have denied them a platform from which to present to me. But is ignoring (or not explicitly rebuking) a comedian (or politician) who says things I find hurtful to me or others also a form of implicit approval?
I think, perhaps, it is.
To the question “Have jokes ever made your life worse?” Adam answers, “Good Lord, yes.” He writes:
I grew up in the U.K. in the 1990s, and I’m a cisgender guy who’s mostly attracted to other guys. I would absolutely not have *dreamed* of coming out at school. You know the one thing I dreaded more than anything else? Not being simply abused, verbally or physically (although both would certainly have happened), but being *ridiculed*. That was the thing I feared the most and would have found most harmful, and it would certainly have happened, as I’d seen it happening to others, whether they were out or just perceived to be gay. The very word gay was a pervasive catchall term of abuse and ridicule.
Being straightforwardly attacked, in a strange way, contains a compliment: You are at least being acknowledged as important enough to fight with. But being ridiculed has no such backhanded compensation. Being ridiculed is the mortal enemy of empathy. It makes you less than a person. It was the one thing I absolutely could not deal with, so I spent a lot of my life trying to hide a lot of who I was. Comedy is no sideline or bystander in this issue, either. It’s absolutely no coincidence that the period in which it became increasingly socially unacceptable to attack people for their sexuality––around the 2000s to 2010s––was exactly the time society stopped tolerating comedy which did the same.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, there was a vein of “comedy” in the U.K. which more or less entirely focused on insulting people for their identity. Bernard Manning was the most notorious of these “comedians,” and if you go looking, you’ll find quite a lot of debate in serious newspapers and so on about him and this genre of comedy, which very much mirrors the current one, with the term politically correct replacing the current term woke for exactly the same purpose. The “jokes” that were directed at normal, everyday women and minorities by normal, everyday people were the same ones these “comedians” told on TV and the popular club circuit. They were very influential. It took a concerted effort by liberals to shift attitudes to the point that, finally, this kind of “humor” was generally no longer considered acceptable, and thankfully still isn’t. History suggests that the best approach is to do the hard labor of shifting people’s attitudes.
Samantha recounts awful abuse that she encountered growing up:
High school, for me, was hell. Depression, anxiety, and stifling academic pressures absolutely played a role, but so did overt bigotry wrapped up as humor. Every time I tried to challenge my classmates and even my teachers on the horrible things they said about me or other minority groups, I would be treated with an eye roll and a mocking laugh about how I just “didn’t understand humor” and “overreacted to everything.” I learned to keep my head down while people laughed so they didn’t see me crying.
What are some of the things my classmates and teachers alike thought were “hilarious”? A student kept calling me, “Hey, Jew!” I asked her to please call me by my name. A different student responded with a laugh, “Jews don’t have names. They only have numbers!”
We watched a documentary about life in prison camps in North Korea. A scene showed a child so hungry that he dug through animal manure for a single piece of corn. My class erupted in laughter at the idea of a starving, tortured child being forced to eat poop. “Jokes” about people raping me. “Jokes” about me burning in a gas chamber. “Jokes” about how people who self-harm should just kill themselves. “Jokes” about wanting to gun down Romani people. This isn’t humor; this is bigotry, cruelty, and bullying.
Lia explains why she is upset with Dave Chappelle:
I am Asian American and transgender. In school I used to get called “eggroll” behind my back, because I was a chubby teenager. I think my life would probably be better if I hadn’t known … Some might say that this is bullying, not comedy. But humor is just a tool, and a tool can be used to various ends. The kids who made fun of me certainly thought these were jokes. If pressed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would have said, “We’re just kidding.” But is “It’s a joke” a proper response to being told that you’ve hurt someone?
When you turn an idea into a joke, you create a premade set of words that anyone can repeat. The joke that Asian men have small penises, which classmates directed at me countless times, is not something that just anyone would come up with on their own. How many middle-school boys are going around doing cross-cultural examinations of relative phallic size? But they heard the joke, and some vague feeling of hatred or phobia that lived inside of them found an easy way to slip out into the world and make itself known. It’s not great that they had those negative feelings inside them to begin with, but by putting those feelings into words, they’ve actively made another person’s life worse as well.
I looked up some of the anti-trans jokes and comments that Dave Chappelle has made. They made my heart sink. When Chappelle says, “I am not saying… trans women aren’t women. I’m just saying that those pussies that they’ve got … y’know what I mean? I’m not saying that’s not pussy, but I’m saying that’s, like, Beyond Pussy or Impossible Pussy, y’know what I mean?” my reaction is not as a progressive, finding his ideas problematic. My reaction is as a trans person, feeling hurt. When I came out as transgender to my mom in college, she threatened to disown me. When I visited her on Christmas that year, she was deep in drink, and laughed at me and groped my breasts and said, “Oh my God, these are real? You look almost like a woman.” Then she told me how she would never be disappointed in me again for the rest of her life, because she learned to stop expecting anything good to come from me, and drank some more.
Yes. I know what you mean, Dave.
If I were a student at Duke Ellington School, what recourse would I have? One thing I could do is keep quiet, and keep hurting to myself, every time I see that a man who has insulted me has been honored as a Great Man and has had a building named after him. Another thing I could do is vandalize the building. But I don’t think that’s a very good idea, since I’d be taking into my own hands the destruction of something that belongs to a community. Ultimately, I think, the only democratic thing I could do that is fair to myself and fair to the community is to object to the dedication. Is that the stifling of free speech, or is it the most civil form of grievance possible for a student?
Olive draws distinctions among jokes:
For me, what makes a joke harmful is not its content or its response, but its intent. A joke told for the sake of hurting other people (not offending or making angry, but causing anguish) is what can be harmful. If a joke makes me angry, it’s usually because it hurt my ego a little and I can recognize that’s not all that bad. But a joke that’s only a thinly veiled insult or bigoted dog whistle defended by “It’s only a joke. Why are you mad?” can be harmful. Jokes show people what’s considered acceptable to say, and communicating to the world that it’s okay to be hateful does more harm than good.
It should be up to the people telling the jokes to measure their own intentions and read the room. Forethought can be put in to consider if a joke will hurt or offend. If it’ll be hurtful, or rile up people with hateful views, a little self-censorship isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if it’ll only offend, it should be told to everyone who needs to hear it. A joke that causes someone to lose their job is ridiculous. But people do have a right to not like a joke. A joke being met with a comment saying it’s not funny isn’t “cancel culture.” Freedom of speech should go both ways, to the people telling jokes and the people complaining, as long as neither has any expectation of a person losing their livelihood.
Standing Up for Jesters
Kathy defends comics from offended audience members:
I love stand-up comedy. I’m particularly drawn to those who are controversial. Dave Chappelle, Doug Stanhope, Chris Rock, and Patton Oswalt have made me laugh, made me think, made me reflect on myself. Louis C. K. is still one of my favorite storyteller comedians. He’s dark, makes me uncomfortable, but he really makes me laugh! And I’m laughing at myself most of the time! Anytime I’ve heard an “offensive” joke, sure, I think, Hmmm … That’s a little wrong. But I also reflect on the joke, find the truth in the humor, feel where it’s affecting me, and see if maybe I’ve got something worth rethinking, healing, or changing. Maybe there’s an old belief or wound the joke is challenging. That’s all mine. I don’t yell at the comedian. It’s not their fault I feel the way I do about their jokes.
Matt is sympathetic to comics, too:
I always look at comics as trying to make people laugh, not expressing their straight opinions. Often, dirty, vulgar, offensive jokes are targeting that balance between being funny because they’re so taboo and going too far. I hesitate on assigning deeper meaning to most jokes in those categories because the comic is performing. It is up to each comic to have the tact to make their jokes in a way that is effective. If they don’t, they won’t be successful in their career. If jokes that are truly offensive and inappropriate are successful, that is a reflection of the audience, and the comic is just a mirror.
If you respect the comedian, take a minute to see if you can’t hear what they’re really saying. Figure out why it bothers you so much and try laughing at yourself. Laughter is the best medicine.
Jim wants comics to be given a wide berth as artists:
If one considers jokes as art, and professional comedians as artists (which I do), then often they lead social culture more than being defined by it. I don’t appreciate all art. I don’t appreciate all jokes. But I appreciate the artists’ courage and willingness to venture into risky territory. Artists who are too perverse, edgy, or ahead-of-their-time often don’t experience the appreciation of their work in their lifetime. That is their punishment.
If society tries to impose a greater punishment than that on comedians or artists, then that society will rob them of their courage to be risky and will end up with safe, largely uninspired art.
Errol defends comics who mock what they find ridiculous:
My all-time hero in comedy has been Lenny Bruce, the guy before George Carlin, who would literally be arrested onstage and taken to jail, banned from certain countries, and essentially facing constant lawsuits throughout his life because he said things like “cocksucker.” He saw through a ridiculous filter on society and risked his life and freedom to expose it. That’s what comedy is. It’s making fun of something you think is ridiculous. The freedom to spotlight that is key to equality and true progressivism. You are very unlikely to be harmed by something that someone says sometimes in your life. That’s living with other people. The world does not revolve around one person, nor does it revolve around one group of people. Life is fleeting, and to spend so much time and energy and anger and pain on a joke is to squander the only gift the universe has given you.
In the case of stand-up comedians, the remote’s right there. You don’t have to watch, pay for, or listen to anything you don’t want to. You can tell your phone, “I’m not interested in ___.”
Greg is the founder of a comedy club and offers this advice:
We need to bring back the word tacky. When a comedian tells a joke that feels a little icky, that seems like it might go over the line a bit, critics jump to offensive immediately, or say that the language does harm, or, God forbid, makes them feel unsafe. Joke tellers might feel less attacked and be less defensive if those critics expressed their displeasure by saying the joke was simply tacky. That’s it. It easily sums up the ideas of it being in poor taste, not being very funny, or just being a bit ugly. But without the accusatory tones of prejudice, bias, racism, and making the world a worse place.
Should We Even Be Talking About This?
Paul castigates me for airing different viewpoints about Chappelle, rather than simply condemning him:
Chappelle’s “comedy” carries the same potential for negative influence on public sentiment that Fox News has. It will lead to more transphobia, more intolerance, more hate, and more violence toward the LGBTQ community and transgender people as well. I find the cavalier attitude people such as you have—with no practical, real-world experience with what you write about—to be disgusting and offensive. I think you should try interviewing people who are trans and parents of transgender children about how they feel about this topic.
I think you will be in for a rude awakening. I am the parent of two wonderful, beautiful, smart, talented, and kind transgender young people. They are the apple of my eye, and I will support and fight for them ’til my dying breath. I suggest you try walking a day in my shoes. But you can’t. You’re a close-minded transphobe who doesn’t understand what it means to protect someone you love who is part of a vulnerable and now legally targeted group.
Megan goes further, urging The Atlantic to fire me. “Because you continue to give a platform to Conor Friedersdorf despite his numerous demonstrably terrible, harmful opinions,” she writes, “yet another cishet white man has yet another opportunity to widely disseminate his completely irrelevant opinion on why things that demonstrably harm marginalized people whose marginalization he materially benefits from Aren’t That Bad, Actually (TM).”
While I didn’t actually express the opinion that Megan describes, I do disagree with anyone who’d stop us from exchanging all these views––open conversation is the path to tolerance and equality.
In contrast, Darren wants to keep me around:
You seem more willing than most to take us, and yourself, outside our comfort zone and ask the uncomfortable questions that need to be asked. That quality—of taking us all out of our comfort zones—is exactly what makes comedy so essential to the work of democracy. I gave a TEDx talk in 2020 on the topic of “The Politics of Laughter” in which I argued that you simply can’t have democracy without comedy. Put differently, if we lose comedy, we lose democracy. I’d even go bigger and say that if we lose comedy, we lose humanity.
As a professor, I work on some pretty grim topics (human-rights violations, genocide, etc.) and the only thing that gets me to the end of the day without fail is a sense of humor. A good joke is like a true friend. I look on with great dismay as a growing chorus of people advocate limits on what comedians can say and what they can tell jokes about. Laughter brings us together in a moment of community, and so silencing comedians will only serve to tear us apart. Comedy has only made my life better, personally and professionally. In fact, comedy only made my life worse one time, when I was attacked by a crowd simply because I told an incite joke. (Sorry, had to end on a bad pun.)
And John says that in a world of terrible acts, targeting jokes for punishment is inapt and counterproductive:
My real problem with all this is simply that while good, moral, and honest people are now walking on eggshells for fear of being the next canceled person for some unspecified, unnormalized offense, plenty of people are saying and doing the most outrageous things and most decidedly not being canceled. We are amplifying those voices dramatically. Actual, outright enemies of democracy are growing in strength every day, and we are still having this stupid conversation. My advice to the entire Twitterati is to stop this bullshit right now. It doesn’t help anybody living in the real world; it makes for great fodder for the right-wing culture war. And it is mistargeted, badly.