resist the idea that racist humor fails on aesthetic grounds because they find
it funny. They make the case that we can
enjoy its comic aspects by controlling our attention, by focusing on a joke’s
rhythm or delivery rather than on its racist content. Ironic intent may reside with the joke teller
and/or the audience. I discuss how arguments
for the immorality of racist jokes fall short.
Ironic racist jokes may be acceptable to an audience that already
rejects racism but is comfortable with such ironic racist joking precisely
because as individuals they feel confident in their own rejection of genuine
racism. Distinguishing between straightforward
racist humor and ironically framed racist humor reveals a price that must be
controlled attention demanded, or even extorted, by ironic racist humor is possible only by
forsaking empathy as the listener divorces himself from the feelings of those
affected and thereby becomes a complicit if impartial spectator. Thus, if I say that a joke is not good
because it is racist, it does not necessarily follow that the joke is not funny. What does result, however, is that
appreciating such humor entails a lack of empathy for it insists upon numbing
aesthetic affect, empathy, humor, ironic
joking, jokes, race, racial aesthetics, racism
enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of music in a room where dancing is
going on, for the dancers at once to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar
test? Should we not see many of them
suddenly pass from grave to gay on isolating them from the accompanying music
of sentiment? To produce the whole of
its effect, then, the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of
Empathy has been
widely discussed in aesthetics, especially as one of the essential values of
literature and of the arts in general. When we empathize with a character, we
take on that character’s feelings: we are shocked with her and we hurt when she
hurts. This often occurs when reading
fiction or poetry or when watching a film, play, ballet, or opera. Usually we empathize because we identify with
and admire a character, but sometimes a character with whom we identify in a
work of art we would despise in real life.
Both kinds of experience inspire compassion and, perhaps, develop our
I think empathy is an
important topic for at least two reasons. Understanding it, including its theoretical
perspectives, may enrich our experiences of art works. More important, the mechanisms of aesthetic
empathy are vitally relevant to social life.
I believe that if the way in which we relate to fictional characters
affects our relationships with real people, the ethical implications are
obvious. I do not pretend to prove such
a hypothesis. Instead, I examine the
role that empathy or the lack of it, plays in aesthetic uptake. I argue that successful uptake sometimes
requires a distance that diminishes not only the aesthetic experience in the
moment but our empathic capacity as well.
My hypothesis is that racist jokes, ironic or not, put their audience in
a position at odds with the compassion that characterizes empathy.
Although my focus
here is on race, it is possible that other deeply offensive types of humor cwould fit my argument just as well. I focus on race because racist jokes are what
I have personally encountered most often.
In a straightforward racist joke, the fictional characters are immoral
and the audience must adopt the position of the racist character to get the
joke. Through identification with this
imaginary character we distance ourselves from the fictional subject of the
joke. In so doing, I believe we also
distance ourselves from real, nonfictional persons included in the joke’s racism.
Racist jokes told ironically suffer from the same problem. The ironic racist joke is supposed to be a
joke on or at the expense of a racist character, and by implication, on
real-life racists too, yet its effect is often the same: its racist
implications survive the irony, and to enjoy the humor the audience members
must harden their hearts. Aesthetic
appreciation thus places the audience in an immoral position. Since a joke is merely a joke its appreciation seems to suggest that
ethical considerations are irrelevant. Instead
of enlightening us, racist jokes do the opposite. Cold-hearted laughter is not only ugly; it is
deadening. Such laughter results from an
ugliness that has both aesthetic and ethical implications.
philosopher at a recent conference of the American Society for Aesthetics conference
commented, “I wouldn’t want to live in a
world with no offensive jokes.” Ted
Cohen makes a comparable observation in his book, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters: “I have come to
realize that if there is a problem with such [offensive] jokes, the problem is
compounded exactly by the fact that they are funny. Face that fact.” These statements reveal mistrust in moral
condemnation of the arts. They suggest
that as long as a joke is funny, its morality may be suspended. They also seem
to suggest that being offended may be good for us, a point with which I agree. I think these comments allude to humor as one of our most guarded and prized values. We might give up a
lot of laughter if we eliminated offensive jokes.
2. Beauty v. goodness
speaking, empathy lies at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. In ethics, empathy serves to integrate
emotion with an ethics of care; in the aesthetic realm, empathy strengthens the
emotional connection between art work and audience. A strong philosophical tradition links
aesthetics and ethics through the emotions.
Plato made a moral attack on poetry for indulging the emotions and
encouraging irrationality. He wanted it
banned from his republic [607a]. In the Ion,
Plato describes the orator of poetry as out of his mind and scolds audiences
for their approval of fictional characters they would despise in life [534e]. On the other hand, Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy praises catharsis as a means of
aesthetic and moral development through emotion. If we do not feel along with the characters,
we are not affected by the work, and its value for teaching virtue is
diminished. For David Hume, sympathy
explains the transmission of emotion among persons as well as our shared
reactions to works of art. Tolstoy saw
art as a channel of human communication and emotional union.
Gaut, Marcia Eaton, and Noël Carroll, among others, argue for a conceptual
connection between aesthetics and ethics.
Gaut argues for ethicism,
contending that some ethical concerns have aesthetic relevance when ethical
attitudes or values are prescribed by a work.
judgments, Marcia Eaton’s idiosyncratic coinage, are those judgments of merit
that are at once ethical and aesthetic.
She cites the example of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). When one
learns about the widespread damage done to native ecosystems by this flowering
weed, she argues, a judgment of beauty becomes inappropriate.
Noël Carroll’s moderate moralism holds that a moral flaw can, at times, also be an
aesthetic flaw and that for certain genres, moral comment is as appropriate as
formal comment. Carroll argues that
of the emotions that the audience brings to bear, as a condition of narrative
intelligibility, are moral both in the sense that many emotions, like
[justified] anger . . . possess
ineliminable moral components, and in the sense that many of the emotions that
are pertinent to narratives are frequently moral emotions, such as the
indignation that pervades a reading of Uncle
Narrative art works
specifically require audiences to rely upon antecedent moral judgments and
moral emotions to engage and make sense of the story. My goal here is to show that jokes belong to
this kind of narrative since, to “get” a joke, audiences must fill in the
narrative by drawing upon morally suspect inferences.
Moral emotion is not
universally accepted as relevant to judgments of art. Autonomists separate aesthetic and moral
judgment, insisting on maintaining a distinction between goodness and beauty. Whether or not a work of art inspires,
exemplifies, or adheres to tenets of goodness are all questions of morality,
not of artistic value. In this view,
beautiful and profound art works may be the result of cruelty, depict abhorrent
acts, and even inspire evil behavior. However,
as Gaut writes, “The live debate is between those who maintain that ethical
properties are never aesthetically relevant and those who maintain that they
I do not argue that the immoral
consequences of an art work constitute an aesthetic defect, or claim that
racist jokes are flawed simply because they may propagate stereotypes. Eaton
incorporates context and consequence, which makes sense for judgments of
natural beauty in which aesthetic intention is not at stake.
My critique of racist
joking lies closer to Aristotle’s observation that, if comedy is too ugly, it loses its humor.
In comedy, he writes, the artist creates distance between life and art
by representing men as worse than
they really are. Yet comedy “consists in
some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.”
If a joke is too mean-spirited or if the
pain suffered by the subject of the joke is too great, then the intended
comedic effect is not achieved. This shortcoming
is the fault of the comic whose mimesis fails to create the aesthetic distance
between life and art necessary for aesthetic appreciation (which Aristotle also
views as especially critical to the paradoxical pleasure of tragedy). Perhaps racist humor is too painful because
the mimesis is in some sense as bad as, or worse than, the reality the joke
While we certainly can
separate overlapping strands of ethical judgment about art, I am not convinced
that we must. Doing so is useful,
however, to the extent that it clarifies certain scenarios. In particular, what I call the paradox of
offensive humor benefits from such analysis.
It is useful to distinguish three variants of racist joking: the straightforward,
the self-protectively ironic, and the ironic.
In racist joking intended to mean what it seems to mean, the aesthetic
flaw is typically a lack of originality.
Self-protective irony dissimulates genuine feeling rather than
communicating it through a subtext. It is
aesthetically flawed because it hides the aesthetic intention: the joker merely
pretends to be ironic and uses irony as a cover. In contrast, the truly ironic racist joke
capitalizes on the lack of originality in racist jokes and exploits it. Racist joking that is clearly ironic does not
necessarily exhibit either flaw; it may be original and communicate clearly. What then, if anything, is aesthetically wrong with ironic racist
individuals utilize the comment “It’s just a joke” as a defense, they are
implying that responses to jokes are and should be free from real-world
concerns, just as autonomists do when they restrict evaluation of art to narrow
categories of aesthetic relevance. For
them, in a racist joke, real-world oppression is not a relevant or even
appropriate factor in appreciation. Ted
Cohen writes: “Wish that there were no
mean jokes. Try remaking the world so
that such jokes will have no place, will not arise. But do not deny that they are funny. That denial is a pretense that will help
Cohen thus sets humor apart from the
moral: to describe a joke as “mean” is
an inappropriate aesthetic response. He
insists that we recognize the humor in certain mean or racist jokes and
therefore engage in an autonomist approach.
He wants credit for the humor without the blame based on moral objections
or meanness. While he recognizes that
some jokes are objectionable, he sees a problem in identifying their moral
defect: “First is the problem of finding
a basis for any moral judgment passed upon fiction, and then there is the
problem of establishing the impropriety of laughing at something especially
when the something is fictional.”
of us will agree that certain jokes should not be told in front of or by
certain people or on certain occasions. Nevertheless,
some resist the notion that it is wrong to tell a given joke in the absence of
such limiting situations. What is the harm in two close friends, both opponents
of real oppression, exchanging a joke that theoretically might hurt certain
people when there is no chance that they will hear it? The humor of such a case is based on the
uptake required of the hearer, on the intimacy established by the joke between
teller and hearer, and perhaps on the pleasure of relief in laughing at
something unpleasant. None of these
responses seems wrong. Our ability to detach from the joke and the joke’s
larger context allows our enjoyment of a potentially offensive joke and is characteristic
of the autonomist’s position. Particularly in the
case of fiction, an aesthetic response is coupled with the knowledge that we
have some control in our real lives. Some
argue that it is the knowledge that tragedy is not real life that enables us to
appreciate it. If, like Cohen, we think of jokes as short stories, there is no
point in practical ethical objections to racist jokes, since we can have no
influence over a fictional joke world.
Gaut criticizes such arguments against ethical assessment in a way relevant to
racist jokes: “The step from the claim
that the will is disengaged and therefore that ethical assessment has no role
to play does not follow: there is
similarly no possibility of altering historical events, and we are in this
sense forced to have a detached or contemplative attitude toward them, but we
still ethically assess historical characters and actions.” We engage ethically with history and we can
engage with fiction in the same way. The
difference, to borrow from Aristotle, is that “one relates what has
happened, the other what may happen.”
comparison between appropriate ethical responses to history and to fiction is
telling. Surely it would be reasonable,
for example, to admonish a writer for misrepresenting slavery as an acceptable
practice even if we could not show that the misrepresentation had any practical
consequences. We could appeal to the
moral superiority of truthfulness: slavery existed and exists in the real world
and lying about it harms those being misinformed, through lies, especially
because we hope that understanding historical events and their moral importance
will enlighten our current practices and even our feelings about those
practices. Consider Margaret Mitchell’s Gone
with the Wind, a popular novel that dramatizes the antebellum South. We might
criticize the novel for its sentimentality and its tendentious misrepresentation
of the story’s historical background. Such
an accusation of moral failure relies upon a distinction between truth and falseness
even in fiction, even if it is difficult to establish actual detrimental
effects of a novel on society. Of course
it would not make sense to condemn any fiction outright for a simple lack of
truth value; by that criterion, almost all novels would appear de facto immoral. Yet we may demand responsibility to
historical truthfulness beyond the details of fictional character and story. Similarly, even without proof that a morally
objectionable joke has negative real-world consequences, our engagement with it
subjects us to ethical scrutiny.
an argument that departs from the passages quoted above from his book on jokes,
Cohen clearly explains the unacceptability of some jokes to some people:
Suppose that prejudice against P’s is a bad thing, and that
to be amused by an x-joke requires a disposition which is related to anti-P
prejudice, although that disposition is not itself a prejudice. The joke will be accessible only to those who
either have the disposition or can, in imagination, respond as if they had it. The joke is obviously conditional—it is affective;
but it will also be fundamentally parochial (essentially conditional, one might
say) if there are people who cannot find it accessible. What people will be in this position? P’s I think.
Even the imagined possession of the disposition is in conflict with what
makes these people P’s. To appreciate
the joke a P must disfigure himself. He must forsake himself. He should not do that. In fact, he cannot do that while remaining a P.
The rest of us, who are not P’s, should
not appreciate the joke although we can
in a sense in which a P cannot. The joke
is exclusionary and should be resisted.
Cohen, laughing at a racist or sexist joke does not require that I actually hold
racist/sexist views, only that I imagine holding them. Who cannot imagine holding such views? P’s. Cohen recognizes that I cannot find a
joke funny if in so doing I must forsake an essential part of who I am—my
gender, race, or sexuality. “Her reply could be that she cannot bring her sense
of humor to that joke without imaginatively taking on a disposition at odds with
her conception of herself as a woman or a certain kind of woman. And if she is essentially a woman or a
certain kind of woman, then she cannot reach that joke without a hideous cost.”
argue that there are others who could not
appreciate the joke even if they need not forsake some essential part of
themselves to do so. If an audience can find the humor but should not, then the joke fails on moral
grounds. An imagined possession of
anti-P prejudice is also in conflict
with empathy for P’s. When the audience cannot find the humor because the joke
is so parochial as to be sectarian, the joke fails on aesthetic grounds.
though Cohen offers grounds for resisting exclusionary jokes, he retreats from
this position in a more recent book: “I
insist that you not let your conviction that a joke is in bad taste, or
downright immoral, blind you to whether you find it funny.” Contradicting his earlier condemnation of
offensive jokes, he writes: “[M]y
complaint that such jokes are in bad taste or unwholesome comes to nothing more
than my wish to be made free of them.” He asserts that if it were true that such
jokes are symptoms of or cause pernicious beliefs, they would warrant a moral
objection, yet he concludes that no one
can know or show they are or do. Contemporary
moral theories would require proof that a joke produces genuine harm or that it
reduces the moral character of those trafficking in them. Since no moral theory can be invoked, he
argues, we cannot condemn the joke. What
Cohen once described as a “hideous cost” he now considers a matter of personal
taste, a failure on the part of the audience.
Although Cohen maintains that the only person in this role is the person
about whom the joke is made, I contend that this position is equally tenable by
empathetic listeners whose racial, gender, cultural or other personal identity is not under
attack, but who empathize with the person whose self-conception is at odds with
the joke to such a degree that they find no humor in the joke.
3. Empathy and identification
aesthetic identification, sympathy, and empathy are useful in understanding
what I see as the problem in ironic racist jokes. To the extent that it is possible, I want to
avoid a detailed consideration of identification in the nonaesthetic sense. Racial, gender, and sexual identity are
complex topics I could not adequately treat within the scope of this essay. By the term nonaesthetic identification, I intend here to refer straightforwardly
to a person’s concept of what is essential to the self. Of course, identity is socially constructed
at least insofar as culture acknowledges and instructs our ability to
self-identify. I cannot arbitrarily
choose to identify as an African-American male if I am a Latina woman, but the
extent to which being a Latina affects my self-image and projection of self is
to some degree within my control.
identification, on the other hand, is imaginative. It puts us in the position of the other, seeing through that individual’s
eyes. We are likely to identify with
Humbert Humbert in Lolita, for
example, however uncomfortable that may make us because, as a first-person
narrator, he controls our knowledge of the title character.
Identification with a
character or point of view may or may not induce sympathy or empathy. I
characterize the distinction between sympathy and empathy as the difference
between feeling for and feeling as. I feel for Lolita, although Humbert gives me
too little information to really imagine being in her position. Empathic identification, which allows us to
feel what a character feels, is the strongest form of emotional engagement. We
may or may not feel sympathy for the character as well. If we feel Anna Karenina’s despair but think
that she deserves her fate, we could describe our aesthetic identification as
empathic but not sympathetic.
Suppose that racist jokes do not necessarily “propagate
stereotypes” since, as Cohen points out, such a universal claim is difficult to
establish. At least two problems other
than stereotyping deserve attention. When
a racist joke about someone of my race is told in my presence, there are two
ways I might interpret it. On the one
hand, the joke cheats me of my individuality, anonymously grouping me with all
people of a type. On the other hand,
when a person tells a racist joke intending
to exclude me, they disrespect my cultural identity. Consider this recent real-life situation: a
group of my colleagues was discussing the existence of a philosophy list-serve,
called ‘Hisp-list,’ for Latin American philosophers, and one of my colleagues remarked,
“They should call it ‘Spic-list.’” A
round of laughter followed. If the joke
teller didn’t intend to mock me—aiming
at Latino philosophers in general, not me personally—the exclusion was in bad
faith because everyone there knew that I am a Latina philosopher. There was no reason to exclude me from the
mocked group except that I was present. Moreover,
I do not want to be excluded from a group with which I identify. While it is easy to grow weary of discussions
about race in American society, and some would like to discard race as a
subject altogether, we as philosophers must recognize that analysis of race is
necessary so long as people identify and are identified by race and culture.
4. Identification and audience uptake
racist jokes, those jokes allegedly made at a racist character’s expense, and
by implication, at the expense of real racists too, share features with
straightforwardly racist jokes that qualify them for the same critique. Often, when someone tells a joke intended
ironically, some listeners feel uncomfortable even when they recognize the
ironic intent. The listener is asked to
identify with the racist to make the inferences needed to understand the joke. If the listener does not in fact sympathize
with racist sentiments, she is trapped in a perturbing contradiction. Moreover, racist jokes can be disturbing if
we are not certain they are intended in an entirely ironic way—in other words, if
the joke teller is deploying an element of self-protective irony. While the ironic joker claims an intention to
mock racism, if the joke’s message survives the irony, then either the irony
has failed or it was never intended to reverse the racist message.
art works, as David Pole argues, creates an internal incoherence: when a work of art presents an immoral view,
it will be jarring, causing a distortion that detracts from the aesthetic
impact. However, an immoral view will
not distort a work that is immoral as a whole. Furthermore, in the case of jokes, a
nonsensical narrative twist does not necessarily constitute an aesthetic flaw. While internal incoherence detracts from many
forms of art, jokes often depend upon it.
Consider this, from the anthology Truly
Why didn’t the black man want to marry a Mexican?
—He didn’t want the kids to grow up too lazy to steal.
humor here depends incoherently upon racist stereotypes of blacks and Mexicans
as, respectively, criminal and lazy, and upon the counterfactual notion that
learned behavior is inherited. With jokes we are ensnared by more problems than
arise with the ordinary fictions Pole takes into account. In seeking a basis for ethical criticism that
is aesthetically relevant to humor, a critique of mere internal incoherence is
inadequate. The formal structure depends on the twisted logic, as is often the
case with humor.
an alternative, Gaut proposes the “merited response” argument. When a work prescribes an unmerited aesthetic
response, it is aesthetically flawed. If
a tragic love story is more comical than poignant, for example, it is flawed
because it has not earned the kind of response it intends. Genre markers are an
obvious way that works prescribe a particular audience uptake. Consider Gaut’s merited response argument
applied to racist jokes. Jokes by
definition prescribe humor and stereotyping by definition is unimaginative. Thus, even if a racist joke successfully manipulates
its audience to laugh, the quality of their amusement is subject to criticism. Gaut writes: “The aesthetic relevance of prescribed
responses wins further support from noting that much of the value of art
derives from its deployment of an affective mode of cognition—derives from the
way works teach us, not by giving us merely intellectual knowledge but by
bringing that knowledge home to us.”
racist jokes introduce another level of difficulty. Racism is generally unimaginative and racist
jokes are correspondingly dull, qualities resulting from the nature of racism
itself. It would then seem to follow
that racism would constitute an aesthetic flaw.
In ironic racism, as I interpret Gaut, the joke prescribes laughter but
also unease with the cause of that laughter.The resulting revelatory humor reveals
some uncomfortable truth about the world that is usually hidden or ignored. If the revelation is obvious, unenlightening,
or unconvincing, the prescribed unease is unmerited and the laughter
inappropriate. I believe that such revelation
falls flat precisely when the teller lacks empathy with both the subject and
the audience. Revelatory humor depends
upon the need for revelation. Jokes about race often fall flat if the
audience is already aware of their irrationality and has suffered from it. An audience that feels empathy for such
suffering will also make revelatory humor inappropriate and laughter
does revelatory humor succeed? Ted Cohen
directs his attention to devices for achieving intimacy. A Polish or Irish joke in which it really matters
that the character is Polish or Irish demands more of the hearer, involves him
more intimately, and gives him a greater opportunity for self-congratulation in
his appreciation of the joke. In Cohen’s
view, then, the devices a joke employs to achieve intimacy with its audience
are relevant to its appreciation. However,
self-protective irony precludes intimacy.
Thus it follows that the role of self-protective irony in joking must
also be relevant to its appreciation.
the following offensive joke:
How do you keep blacks out of your backyard?
—Hang one in your front yard.
would categorize a joke like this as conditional because it requires background
knowledge in its audience and affective because the background required is a
certain prejudice or feeling. Consider a
listener without the necessary background: How would she have access to the joke without
analyze the stages of my own response upon hearing this joke, I realize that I
first considered the teller: He likely comes
from a mostly segregated community. I then recalled hearing an old man on
television worrying about undesirables moving into that community’s “backyard.” I grasped the literal and figurative meaning of
backyard. I considered the vile American
history of lynching black people, the joke’s sinister subtext. Finally, I also smelled the stench of a
certain nostalgia that anticipates a particular inclination: To get this joke, the listener must recall the
early twentieth century, and a predominantly rural America in which most people
had back and front yards and lynching was an essential part of the regime of
terror that maintained Jim Crow. A joke
like this told to an audience without the requisite background requires too
much effort for the uptake of humor than a more straightforward racist joke requires. Apparently, then, it must have been told
ironically, since the audience was diverse and lacking the affective
disposition I have described. However,
the revelatory success of irony also requires conditions not met by this
audience. Telling the joke, then, falls
into the category of self-protective irony because it demands inferences that
convey the straightforward message without intending second-order revelation.
5. Getting it: empathy and affect
If I am the subject
of the joke or empathic with its victims, there are certain conditions under
which I will not find it funny, conditions that set up a tension between my
self-respect and my ability to step outside myself and assume an external
viewpoint. When the joke demeans some
valued aspect of my identity, aesthetic appreciation requires objectivity
beyond the joke’s worth; to laugh requires that I rank humor above my own
subjective experience. A joke that
belittles women would require me as a woman to demean myself. It is one thing to laugh at oneself; we
humans are funny animals. Yet a
contradiction in values arises when I must unidentify
with a hard-won and perhaps still threatened self-conception or belief.
I explain Cohen’s
original explanation for some people’s inability to laugh at certain jokes because
of a predisposition that interferes with a particular aesthetic value thus:
The joke in question demeans
X, and I am
Either laughter is more
valuable or X’s
self-respect is more valuable.
Thus aesthetic appreciation
in the form of
laughter implies negation of the value of
Self-respect prohibits laughter and
appreciation of X-demeaning jokes.
However, Cohen holds that a personal reaction alone does not
establish a joke’s immorality: “This
does not mean that it is unreal, that you should persist in telling me such
jokes on the grounds that is only a personal, subjective matter that they do
not agree with me, but it would mean that my complaint that such jokes are in
bad taste or unwholesome comes to nothing more than my wish to be free of
I cannot condemn the joke in itself; I
may merely assert my wish to be free of it.
What if I am predisposed to be offended by a given joke by
virtue not of my identity but my empathetic imagination? Consider the following paradigm:
joke in question demeans X, and I put
myself in X’s shoes (I imagine being X,
specifically, what it feels like to be X in this
2. Either laughter
is more valuable or X’s
self-respect is more valuable.
aesthetic appreciation in the form
of laughter implies negation of the value
prohibits laughter at X’s.
Empathy for X prohibits laughter at and
appreciation of X-demeaning jokes.
I believe that
empathy, not sympathy, makes the humor in such cases inaccessible. Being sympathetic to X, I would disapprove of
and discourage such jokes, but my sympathy would not necessarily interfere with
aesthetic appreciation. If I am kindwhen I hear a well-constructed racist
joke, I might laugh and then
disapprove, precisely the paradoxical response of the listener who does not
like the joke but insists that ethical objections do not prevent his finding
the joke funny. Nonetheless, ironic
racist joking depends on an absence of feeling that compromises the listener’s
humanity, and this constitutes an aesthetic as well as an ethical flaw.
people laugh at racist jokes, even those told ironically, they often feel
uncomfortable. Why should someone who
finds a joke immoral laugh? I believe a suspension
of identification allows the listener to follow the joke’s logic while an
awareness of the assumptions necessary to get the joke provokes guilty feelings. Identifying with the racist point of view
enables the assumptions; shifting away from that point of view entails the
guilt. Moreover, perhaps catching the
implications too easily makes the listener feel self-conscious about making
Ironic racist jokes
are jokes at racists’ expense. Here is
my favorite example, a philosopher’s joke about
racist jokes, a meta-joke:
many X’s does it take to screw in a light bulb?
whole lot, because they are so dirty and stupid.
Here X is not a
variable but a constant that signals the variability and thus the irrelevance
of ethnicity in this class of jokes. The
irony succeeds in part because the joke offends no particular group. The ulterior message demonstrates the
absurdity and bad faith of the surface message in ordinary jokes of this form. The irony here is entirely distinct from
self-protective irony, through which the speaker invests feeling in the joke’s
overt message but seeks to disguise that feeling with apparent irony. This is also a good example of revelatory
humor, because it shifts the focus of the behind the scene facts of so many
offensive jokes: they are meaningless
except to express hatred.
I am interested here primarily
in neither this rare kind of meta-joke nor in self-protective racist irony, but
in ironically framed and delivered racist jokes as I defined them above. I do not argue that ironic racist jokes numb
the heart differently from nonironic
ones. Rather, I seek to fill the gap
where arguments for the immorality of racist jokes fall short. Ironic racist jokes are acceptable to an
audience that already rejects racism but feels comfortable with ironic racist
joking precisely because its members feel confident in their own rejection of
have argued that empathy with marginalized people interferes with finding humor
in at least some racist jokes, ironic or otherwise. Yet I question how certain individuals who
are not racist nonetheless at times find racist jokes humorous? I argue that this reaction results not from
their inherent immorality but because they lack empathy specifically for those
who are the object of the joke. Their
laughter reflects denial of the real nature of their response, a detachment
from the concerns of the real world outside the joke world. When we are “just joking,” we claim not to truly
believe the ideas we entertain. Such
detachment superficially resembles the appreciation some philosophers prescribe
for any aesthetic response. In Gaut’s
terms, the revelatory aspect is lost when the lack of empathy makes the
first-order prescription for laughter impossible.
example may help here. The film Guess Who? (2005) attempts an ironic
twist on the classic Guess Who’s Coming
to Dinner in which a white girl brings her black fiancé home to meet her
parents. In Guess Who? Theresa Jones, a black woman, brings her white fiancé,
Simon, to dinner at her parents’ home to meet her family. By dinnertime her father, Percy, who is
unhappy about his daughter’s white fiancé and determined to dislike him, has
set Simon up for failure several times already.
Over dinner, Percy continues to manipulate Simon into revealing how
unfit for Theresa he really is. While
Percy’s motive is to encourage Simon’s unwitting self-destruction, the insight
lying behind that motive warrants attention.
Simon comments on his distaste for racist jokes, Percy pounces, asking for
examples of the jokes he has in mind, expecting Simon to slide cluelessly down
the inevitable slippery slope and expose the chasm between himself and the
Joneses, and indeed all who cannot empathize with someone whose racial identity
differs from their own. Theresa quickly
recognizes the setup and begs Simon to refuse, but he gives in, with the best
intentions. Since he tells the jokes
ironically, Simon believes no harm can be done:
Jokes Clip 
first jokes are met with mild giggling and cause no offense. When Percy encourages Simon to tell more, he
obliges. The screenwriters calculate the
scene’s progression tellingly, with each joke slightly less innocent than the
one before. As the jokes become more
provocative, they produce bigger laughs.
Finally, Simon tells a joke that manages to insult and hurt everyone at
the table. Clearly, Simon intended to
tell his jokes ironically; he even explicitly stated that by telling such
jokes, he believes he lessens their power.
Yet despite his explicit intentions, the irony is doomed to failure.
progression of jokes in the movie’s dinner scene demonstrates the subtle
distinction between harmless jokes and hateful ones when ironic intentions fail.
There is no question of self-protective racist irony in Guess Who? The jokes’ racist
messages are in no way valorized. The
Joneses are not insulted because they believe that Simon agrees with the racist
message he ironically mocks. Before the dinner scene we witnessed the
particularly high value the Joneses place on the dignity of employment. By
telling the final offensive joke, Simon has communicated a lack of respect for
the experience of workplace racial discrimination. The perceived insult is not rooted in a vague
belief that Simon is a racist despite his assertion to the contrary; rather,
his offense lies in his singular lack of empathy toward job discrimination.
6. Difference and indifference
Ironic racist joking
requires a certain complicit objectivity on the audience’s part. Listeners cannot empathize with the
particular ethnicity being disparaged. If
they merely sympathize, however, they may enjoy the joke despite their ethical
disapproval, laughing or conceding that the joke is funny, while then
expressing feelings of guilt, discomfort, or even making a comment such as
“That’s just wrong.” Cohen insists that our ethical disapproval
not blind us to the fact that such a joke is funny.
The problem with
racist and otherwise offensive jokes is perhaps less specific than other
categories of aesthetic flaw that I have discussed. The arts—and here I consider joke telling a
kind of art—enliven our interaction with the world. They teach us to see more, to see more
clearly, and to see differently. Eaton
emphasizes that the aesthetic is the opposite of the anesthetic, that art
should bring the world into focus and make us feel more of the world, not less.
When we must detach ourselves from our
feelings for others in order to laugh, the intrinsic nature of the aesthetic
experience is twisted. Invoking detachment, feeling less of the world for the
sake of laughter, numbs the heart, whereas the aesthetic should make life more
appreciation of a joke, play, or movie, etc., can result from a performance
that overcomes the artistic shortcomings of its text . It is therefore not
inconsistent to say that the Chapelle’s
Show is funny and at the same
time racist if Dave Chapelle’s skill as a performer outweighs the faults of his
material. People sometimes resist the
idea that racist humor fails on aesthetic grounds, simply because they find it
funny. They make the case that we can
enjoy its comic aspects by directing our attention more to the rhythm or
delivery than to the content.
peculiar form of humor is a kind of distorted mirror image of tragedy in which
a listener who does not condone racism laughs at a racist joke. The nonracist
listener’s pleasure depends upon following a racist joke’s inferences to
successfully get the joke, while he enjoys something that in principle disgusts
him. Likewise, we enjoy the sadness resulting from our empathy with a tragic
fictional character such as Anna Karenina.
Yet when we feel heartbroken at her death, our response is expected and
appropriate. By contrast, the controlled
attention demanded or even extorted by ironic racist humor is made possible
only by forsaking empathy, as the listener divorces himself from the feelings
of those affected and he becomes a complicit if impartial spectator.
I say that a joke is not good because it is racist, it does not necessarily
follow that there is nothing funny in the joke.
What does result, however, is that appreciating such humor entails a
lack of empathy, for it insists upon numbing the heart.
Tanya Rodriguez, Ph.D., works on the intersection between
aesthetics and ethics, with a focus on empathy in film and humor. She has recently published essays in the International Journal of the Arts and
Society and Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia.
Published on November 25, 2014.
 Henri Bergson. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the
Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1914), p.5.
 Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 84. Hereafter, Cohen 1999.
 See Aristotle’s Poetics,
Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, and
Tolstoy’s What is Art?
See Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion and
Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Hereafter, Gaut 2007.
Marcia Muelder Eaton, Merit,
Aesthetic and Ethical (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Noël Carroll, “Moderate Moralism,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 36, 3
(1996), 223–238; ref on 223.
Aristotle, Poetics, trans.
Gerald F. Else (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), p. 62.
 Berys Gaut,
“The Ethical Criticism of Art,” in Aesthetics
and Ethics, ed. Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1998), p. 183. Hereafter, Gaut 1998.
 Ted Cohen, “Jokes,” in Pleasure, Preference and Value: Studies in
Philosophical Aesthetics, ed. Eva Schaper (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983), pp. 120–36; ref. on p. 134. Hereafter, Cohen 1983.
 See David Pole,’s Aesthetics, Form, and Emotion (London:
Knot, ed., Truly Tasteless Jokes (New
York: Ballentine, 1982), p. 35.
I have my friend and colleague, Tim Murphy, to thank for this excellent
 Guess Who?,
dir. Kevin Rodney Sullivan; written by David Ronn, Jay Scherick, Peter Tolan,
and William Rose (2005; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, USA, 2005), DVD.
 A warm thank you to the anonymous reviewer of
Contemporary Aesthetics, whose thoughtful comments contributed much to
improve this paper.