When is a joke just a joke? When is a response needed?

At the risk of demonstrating clearly that feminist philosophers have no sense of humor at all:

The 86th Philosophers Carnival is up.  The first cited entry is on strong friendships in contrast with romantic relationships.  The first are intrinsically valuable, according to  Aaron Weingott, while the  second are only instrumentally valuable.  The carnival is on a cartoon site and accompanying the reference  is the following cartoon (not by AW):



Words really do fail me, though about 20 minutes after having first seen it, I’m struck by the fact that the race and gender of the cartoonist seem pretty obvious, and the age of the author, Aaron Weingott, also fairly clear. At least, I hope men tend to grow out of this sort of view of human life, though when I think of it …

Earlier (in  comments) we explored the idea of just querying a comment when supposedly jokey remarks employing discriminatory discourse are used in public spaces. I’m thinking that just saying, “Could we just clarify the point of  the brothers-and-whores analogy?” might be better than nothing.

The following thought does also occur to me: “They really think they own the world and provide the model for it.”   But, jj, where is your sense of humor?!?

What do you think?

32 thoughts on “When is a joke just a joke? When is a response needed?

  1. So then I went and looked up AW, who seems to be a philosophy student. O dear, poor boy! Still, maybe he’s a senior student and used to slings and arrows.

  2. Hi JJ,
    Just to clarify – it seems the author of the piece referred to is A.Wiengott, but it looks to me like the cartoon (this one and others) is added by the host of the carnival (chaospet).
    Whilst you might disagree with AW’s views on relationships, I take it that the objection here is to this cartoon, which AW may have nothing to do with…

  3. jj,

    I had much the same first thought, actually, on seeing that particular one: not exactly the best judgment. But stoat is right that the maker of the cartoon is different from Aaron Weingott, who is just the person linked. The cartoonist, whose website it is, is different (also a grad student in philosophy, though).

    I like to distinguish between culpability and complicity (sometimes they overlap, sometimes you can be innocently complicit). I think we can probably make a reasonable distinction between (1) real culpability, and (2) the sort of mistake that makes one complicit with oppression and discrimination; the latter should be avoided, like the former, but to err is human: most of us probably slip into some form of it, sometimes, whatever our background, so a little bit of generosity is called for. It’s still not right, of course, falling short of where we should be; but it’s more a systemic fault we’ve failed to fight than an individual fault. I’m pretty sure this case falls into the second group rather than the first — a case of letting language and common idiom work on its own, so to speak, rather than holding it to higher standards.

  4. stoat and Brandon, I didn’t mean to suggest that AW was responsible for the cartoon – my third para does refer to the cartoonist and the writer separately. The cartoon is mostly the topic.

    Brandon, I appreciate your taking the time to think about this, so I’m taken aback to find myself wanting to hotly disagree.

    I’m not sure that the err-ing in this case is really to be taken so lightly and that generosity should be used to excuse it. There are really three points to be made here:

    a. The pragmatics of just glossing over an incident that could well be construed as both racist and sexist. Glossing over cracks like this might well help excuse the next one, given the systematic excuse just employed.

    b. The more status: I’m not sure about the systematic excuse. We recently had a famous broadcaster fired for using “hos” to refer to young black women. There’s got to be a time when even we academics are held responsible for our speech. That is, there’s got to be a time when we should be aware, and given all the paper and air time given over to the Imus case, now might not be an unreasonable time to start.

    c. OK, it is just a crack attributed to a character, but presumably the cartoonist does not think “That’s why lynching is a good thing” would be good to attribute to a character to sum up an argument for retributive justice. Why don’t we see what’s being said, “There are bros and there are hos,” as really offensive in the same way, if not to the same degree.

  5. This may not be terribly wise of me, but I would like to say a little bit on my own behalf here.

    First, I do apologize if the comic came off as offensive or insensitive. I can see how it came across that way, though that certainly was not my intent. Indeed I reflected considerably before I posted that cartoon, but upon reflection I hoped that my true intent would be apparent. It seems I was mistaken.

    So let me explain my intent behind the cartoon, and you can tell me if it makes any difference or not.

    The cartoon is intended as parody, as a dig at the sort of “frat boy” attitude towards relationships embodied in AW’s piece. If you look at some of the other little cartoons I included with the other pieces (and some of my other comics in general), I use them to the same end. So it’s not me just attributing a dumb and offensive view to a character, and thereby hoping to shield myself from any responsibility for the view expressed. Rather, it was my aim to use the character deliberately to portray the sheer *absurdity* of the view expressed – and to do so using a familiar (and idiotic and yes offensive) idiom.

    This (I think) is quite different than a broadcaster actually himself using offensive language to refer to young black women with no qualms. When used that way the language is celebrated, or at least implicitly approved of. My aim, by contrast, was rather more in line with the way an Archie Bunker character might be used – an idiotic character saying idiotic, offensive things in order to illustrate just how idiotic that they are.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that a lot of the readers of the Carnival aren’t my regular readers, and aren’t familiar with the particular character in that strip – who I often use in a similar fashion. And perhaps part of the problem is that I simply didn’t make my true intent clear enough. And perhaps it doesn’t matter – perhaps the idiom is so offensive that it shouldn’t be used for ANY purpose. I don’t know, but I would appreciate any further thoughts that you have now that I have (hopefully) made my actual intent clearer.

  6. Hi, jj,

    I have no problem with any heated disagreement on this topic! I think it’s actually a rare area where a little heat can sometimes generate a lot of light by putting arguments under pressure; in part because it’s a point where arguments don’t just need to be considered, but put under the pressure of different views.

    In fact, I occasionally worry about your (a) myself. I think there are good general reasons for distinguishing culpability and complicity; but since they can overlap (and probably do much of the time) I think that in particular cases it will often tend to be difficult to draw the line properly (especially when people are drawing it for their own actions). There will always be the nagging question, “But was it really so very innocent and accidental?” And if there isn’t, that in itself is probably a warning sign of (probably culpable) complacency. But that does mean the question will often remain.

    I think my original comment probably should have done a better job of distinguishing thatgeneral question a little more clearly from the question of how to approach the balance between systemic fault and individual fault , because I myself don’t think that it makes sense to talk about systematic faults as if they were no one’s faults; systematic faults are just faults in which everyone in the system is complicitous, and many culpably so. But even where there’s individual culpability, I think it’s a good idea to draw a distinction between(for lack of better terms) culpable lapses and culpable dispositions. I’m inclined to think that in systems that create widespread complicity in oppression or discrimination, everyone has culpable lapses because no one is capable of always fending off the pressure of the system (i.e., of all the bad habits and poorly designed institutions that push out a regularly discriminatory or oppressive result). And so, for instance, those of us who are not blind or deaf will generally, however well-meaning we are or vigilant we try to be, lapse here and there into a practice or type of discourse that supports the network of things that make life difficult for the blind and deaf; white feminists occasionally fail to remember that they can’t just consider whites; liberationists lapse into practices that are detrimental to one group of the poor; etc. This is where I was suggesting that a bit of charity is called for. Part of this is that I don’t think it’s realistic to expect flawless vigilance from anyone; human beings tire, undergo periods of weakened judgment during stress, are easily influenced, fail when in a hurry to consider all the affected points of view. And none of us are immune to this. So I think one can afford to be fairly generous on such matters as long as mistakes are recognized and corrected and progress made. But I would distinguish this sort of failure to be as careful in avoiding participation in the problem as one should have been from deliberate participation in the problem.

    I agree with your (c).

  7. Hello chaospet, thanks for dropping by, and for your comments.

    I think that in addition to the problem you point out, namely,

    a) that some blog visitors may be infrequent readers, and not being familiar with your particular style and may not take a joke as you intended it,

    the following problems also arise:

    b) blog visitors might be quick drop-in visitors. They might (like myself) not read the whole article (I didn’t read AW’s piece properly) so not read enough for any intended irony to make sense.

    c) blog visitors could be anybody; folks who share your sense of the absurd, or who share the sentiments expressed in the cartoon, or a whole bunch of stuff in between.

    Those kinds of concerns make me quite wary about posting stuff that could be misconstrued, especially with respect to offensive idioms…

    I guess the post here is testament to the difficulties of making your message clear (and, in particular, clearly inoffensive, if that is what one is aiming for) in this medium.

    In general, the kind of humour you describe – a silly character saying silly offensive things to poke fun at people who say them – is a form I find difficult… By that I mean that, whilst there are instances of this I’ve laughed at, I feel ambivalent about doing so.

    This is mainly for the following reason (I think there are others, but I can’t articulate them fully or clearly for the time being – as I say, I’m unclear about what I think on this myself!):

    I’ve been in contexts (Borat the movie, for instance) where it has seemed quite obvious that, whilst the intention was to poke fun at (say) racism, the racist utterances being used in ridiculing mimic were clearly being laughed at *in the wrong way* – if that makes sense (?). I mean not as parody and ridicule, but as a funny racist joke.

    That’s just another example of the main issue here, I suppose: a general issue of the extent to which one should be heedful of potential audience interpretations. I’ve had heated discussion of this issue before (not least after watching Borat!) and, as I say, I think there are tricky issues here…

  8. I think if someone reads the passage to the right, it’s obvious the comic is a parody of the position the author is defending. I got your meaning, and wasn’t offended…for what its worth!

  9. If you read the post (and the follow up posts) you’ll see that I employ nothing like Bros-Before-Hos type sexist or racist language. And no, I had nothing to do with the cartoon. If I’d been offered the opportunity, I might have made it a woman saying “chicks-before-dicks ftw!”

    Chaospet – why did you include my post if it’s so patently stupid? You’re reading this “frat-boy” thing in to it which I never even hint at. And, like I said before, it supports ‘chicks-before-dicks’ as much as ‘bros-before-hos’. But really it needn’t support either. If you want to act on it that way, that’s your loss.

    I don’t have an agenda. I’m not some sexist frat-boy trying to justify his misogyny. Sometimes argument will take you to surprising conclusions. Some might even say that’s what philosophy is for.

    Also, I wasn’t familiar with Chaospet’s blog before the carnival, but I understood the joke. I didn’t think he was trying to point out the absurdity of my views, but I understood that it was just a light-hearted silly cartoon. Sure, we’ve all encountered dick-heads who try to pass off their sexism as jocular, but I saw no reason to think that about Chaospet.

    At least, I hope men tend to grow out of this sort of view of human life…

    Again, I don’t have an agenda. It’s just an argument. If it works, so be it. Like I said, that’s just what happens in philosophy. If you don’t like it, join a church — where conclusions are decided on prior to argument.

  10. chaospet,

    Thanks very much for the explanation. I realize I probably did write as though I thought you were in some way speaking the words, and I’m not sure I really thought that; it was clearly a joke and not something to be taken seriously, in some sense. In any case, I think I should apologize for the implication that you did.

    Does it make a difference that people aware of the conventions would know that you’ve explicitly disassociated yourself from the charaters views? I think this is really very complicated, since of course the character is not totally off. The comment is relevant, and it gets the difference in evaluation right.

    It occurs to me that one bottom line is something we looked at when considering how Obama’s team was trying to squelch rumors by negating them (e.g., ‘He is not a ….’), and that one of our readers, noumena mentioned recently: repeating things to deny them or make fun of them can in fact reinforce them. There’s a lot of empirical evidence for that. It is, I regret to say, quite possible that those who read that jokey line will be more tolerate of the next stereotype.

    The point of the Imus example was really that it is pretty clear how offensive the term ‘hos’ is. When terms like that are used at least some of us are going to feel we’re on the other side of a dividing line, however positioned it is in a joke.

    It’s probably not normally worth going on at length about a joke about someone using frat boy humor, but our profession has a huge gender problem. For a lot of the time, many women in philosophy do feel we’re on the other side of a dividing line. So in fact the frat boy line seems more relevant to the interests of this blog, in so far as we’re concerned about who feels alienated.

  11. AW: Just for the record, I wasn’t thinking about the argument at all. What struck me was all your descriptions of relationships just ending, along with your ideas about the delusions of romantic relationships. At some point, you may feel your engagements with people need to be more reflective. Or not.

    Stoat, I also had trouble with Borat. The “kill the jew” episode really was more than I could take, though Borat’s character was based on a funny idea. Or at least it seemed funny for a while. After some time, I even got uncomfortable about the duping of people that was going on.

  12. Aaron: I didn’t mean to imply that your arguments were stupid. I certainly wouldn’t have included your piece if I had thought so. Quite though contrary, I thought the arguments were interesting and worth reading. I also happen to strongly disagree with them, and noticed that they could be used to support a sort of frat-boy mentality (and as you note it supports the inverse position just as well). I shouldn’t have said such a mentality was embodied in your piece, poor choice of words on my part. Rather, I was just noting that such a mentality could be *supported* by your piece – hence the parody. I certainly don’t read anything about your character or agenda from your article.

    Stoat and JJ: You both raise good points; there is a lot of risk inherent in attempting this sort of humor, and I probably didn’t do as good a job as I should have at making my intent explicit (but thanks, Jean, I’m glad someone saw what I was getting at). The issues here are very tricky, and I’m still not fully sure what I think of them. Borat is a good test case…. On the one hand I do think that sort of humor can be valuable, but you’re right that it can also be laughed at in very much the wrong way. I certainly do not want to be a part of perpetuating the acceptance of any negative stereotypes or tolerance for offensive language…

  13. JJ: “At the risk of demonstrating clearly that feminist philosophers have no sense of humor at all:”

    Well, that’s always a risk for anyone wanted to intervene in a joke, critically or not. And one sometimes not worth taking (though perhaps not in this case).

    What you don’t want, both critical observer and joke maker alike, is someone looking over your shoulder. Once you do that, it’s the death of both at least some kinds of humour and much criticism.

    I don’t think much rests on the “I didn’t meant that” defence. The problem with playing the racism/ sexism/ableism/ethnocentrism/yourfavouriteismhere card is that in many cases the humour can work on many levels, including parody and satire; that it involves playing with perspectives and viewpoints; and that offending some people is often about the only way that you can get them to think deeper about something close to them. Take parts of Spiegelman’s *In the Shadow of No Towers* or “Maus*, whose very dark humour I’m sure provides offense to many but seems to me critical to break on through (apologies to The Doors). Contrast this with the truly horrendous reliance on “retard” in *Tropic Thunder*.

  14. Spirit of Our Time, it is true that Borat was trying to get people to think, in part through offending them. I don’t think it worked (I’m relying here on reactions to it that I read about). So it’s a nice question when one can do something positive with the invocation of stereotypes.

    It is so hard to get us to think about what’s wrong about ourselves, so I might wonder whether much of it results in our thinking about others’ mistakes. Borat certainly managed this.

    Some people can invite us in on a path that leads us to find ourselves with thoughts and attitudes we don’t want to own. That seems to be very hard. Am I wrong to remember Chris Rock being very good at that?

  15. Just thought I’d note: This is clearly a case where saying: “Hey, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do here. Can you explain?” is well worth doing. It’s produced a really interesting and productive discussion on all sides, I think– out of something that initially just looked like an unreflectively offensive cartoon. I had initially thought of that question as a polite way of calling attention to the offensiveness. But a further nice thing about it is how well it works in a case like this: where there was actually much more going on, which wasn’t readily apparent.

  16. I agree, Jender. Thanks are certainly due to chaospet for a constructive response that furthered the discussion. And to everyone else for helping in exploring alternatives.

  17. Parodying something doesn’t mean evaluating it as wrong or bad. To wit: all the parodying of Obama on SNL. They obviously love him. Likewise, if the cartoon in question parodied the position, it needn’t be read as insulting the position. It is simply a matter of finding an angle from which it is amusing. In this context–a philosophy carnival–the words in question are obviously not to be taken seriously. I actually thought this particular philosophy carnival was clever and creative…and appreciated the work that went into it.

  18. I’d also like to single out Aaron Weingott for his constructive engagement with all this. Plenty of people react in a far more hostile way to this sort of discussion.

  19. Agreed, though Brandon also took my objections in very good spirit. All in all, we’re a civilized group.

  20. Check out the blog Killing Frogs – http://killingfrogs.wordpress.com/. The author is a one of the smartest progressive writers I’ve read and satirist who has pondered issues like these for a long time.

    I am not sure about the culpability/ innocent complicity distinction and the way this relates to looking at writers’ individual intentions versus the likely cultural impact of their writing.

    On one hand, Voltaire, Twain, Ali G, Stewart and Colbert, demonstrate that political critique delivered in a joke can be more powerful than political critique delivered with self righteous earnestness. Revealing the inanity of some views by putting them in the mouth of an obvious buffoon can be powerful. We can even come to love the buffoon whose language we detest. I think this love is facilitated by putting the buffoon in the innocently complicit category.

    On the other hand, ‘innocently complicit’ is worrisome because of the social forces that work to maintain this innocence. It is in the interests of racists and sexists not to know about racism and sexism and to block discourse that can reveal it. It is in their interests to laugh at Borat’s racism rather than the racist culture that the movie reveals. Innocence is armor protecting its wearer from critique. But, there are some things that we have a duty to learn. Calling someone a humorless feminist is a common way that discourse gets blocked.

    I think that often the kind of innocence that we are talking about is not an unfortunate lack, but rather a political achievement.

    The armor of innocence is commonly misused. One cannot be innocent simply by claiming to be so. How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t mean to be sexist, but did you hear about the dumb blond who…” Of course they mean to be sexist, if they were not worried about being sexist, they wouldn’t have to start with a disclaimer. What they are saying _is_ sexist.

    What they could be saying is that in general they are not sexist, but they like this piece of humor. They don’t have sexist intentions. But, this gets at the worry about the relative importance of intentions and effects. Dumb blond jokes work because the dumb blond is a social category that we are all trained to recognize. Whether or not the joker intends to endorse this categorization can be irrelevant because simply saying the joke reifies the category.

    In the case of a satirist such as our cartoonist, political intentions and political effects can diverge. Innocent, or even politically salutary, intentions can lead to negative political effects. I am not sure whether our moral deliberations should involve intentions or effects. But, I do think that we have a duty to educate ourselves about the effects of what we say and write. We need to ask who is laughing and why.

  21. Wonderful link; thanks!

    I do think innocence can result from a staggering failure of imagination, one aided by the political forces you mention.

  22. I must confess that I’m completely mystified by how Aaron’s post, in particular, could ever have been mistaken for sexist. It’s at least on the surface completely gender neutral: if the message is “bros before hos,” it’s also “sistas before playas,” and, for that matter, non-sexual cross-gender friendships before either heterosexual or homosexual love affairs. There is nothing in his argument that suggests that the romantic feelings men feel for women are any less meaningful than the romantic feelings women feel for men (or the other way around — I’m not sure which would be the sexist implication here, perhaps, bizarrely, both — but it doesn’t matter, because no such implication appears).

    And let us remember that the claim that romantic relationships are mere “pleasure friendships,” on which Aaron heavily relies, has its most recent strong defense in Rosalind Hursthouse’s “Aristotle for Women Who Love Too Much,” Ethics 117: 327–334 (January 2007). Indeed, she takes Aristotle’s diagnosis of erotic relationships as those in which the partner is not (or not necessarily) loved for him/her self as a useful “perspicuous piece of worldly wisdom” that can help women who have been screwed over in love understand what happened, much as she seems to be taking Aristotle to be attempting to offer this wisdom to young men of his time involved in homosexual relationships with older men. Where’s the misogynist message exactly?

    If there’s no sexism in Hursthouse’s account, where might it come in? Perhaps in Aaron’s adaptation? But Aaron’s adaptation just takes the facts that Hursthouse points out, including the frequent reevaluation of one’s beliefs about one’s romantic partners after the relationship ends, and the claim about pleasure friendships, and goes one step further to say that pleasure friendships do not have intrinsic value. It’s very hard to see how sexism could be introduced in that step.

  23. (Also, to what extent is it objectionably heteronormative to assume that the argument must be about heterosexual romantic relationships and homosocial nonromantic relationships?)

  24. paultopia, I’m equally mystified at how anyone could read my post as charging Aaron’s with sexism.

    Who issaying the argumentmust b about heterosexual romantic relationships? The cartoon was, but that’s a different matter.

  25. jj, as I noted on my blog, I understand that the main point of the post is the cartoon, but I took it (e.g., by the comments about Aaron’s age and men outgrowing this view of relationships) that it was partly directed at Aaron too. On re-reading the discussion here, I can see why you might fairly object to that reading… I still think it’s useful to point out why there isn’t a reasonable sexist interpretation of Aaron’s post. Thanks for clearing it up, in my mind at least.

  26. alphafeminist,

    Thanks for the link! And your comments makes for some interesting food for thought. I’m not sure we do put the buffoon character in the ‘innocent complicity’ category; my thought would be that we treat them more as culpable but so absurdly naive or ignorant that it’s hard to do much but laugh at them. But maybe not; that’s something I’ll have to think about.

    One of the reasons I think it is a good idea to draw the distinction between innocent complicity and culpability is that there’s a sense, when dealing with systemic problems, in which culpability is something you have to grow into. Very young children are often complicit in sexist systems, to take just one example, but it’s not really because they’re culpable but because the adults around them are, and they’re not in a position to know better. Likewise, victims of oppression are often complicit in the systems that oppress them — I think this is one of the reasons, in fact, why we should regard oppressive systems as not merely inconvenient or even unjust in an ordinary way, but as seriously morally wrong and perversely unjust, because as they develop incentives and modify institutions to make victims of oppression complicit in the oppression of themselves and other victims. (It’s like taking injustice to the second power. Genocide of the Jews is a seriously perverse and malicious injustice, for instance; but the Nazi regime didn’t stop at this level of injustice. It arranged things so that in many cases Jews were the ones doing all the work of putting this into effect except the final killing. Many of them didn’t know what the result would be, especially early on; they were complicitous but invincibly innocent. Some of them did know exactly what they were doing but thought that they had to sacrifice this person or that person or themselves in order to save others; those were mistaken, and culpable, and victims all at once.) This complicity of victims can be culpable, and in some cases very culpable; but I’m inclined to think that this is not universal. Complicity itself can be a sign of being victimized; and I think culpability here also is something that has to be grown into rather than had from the very beginning.

    This has been a good discussion; it has clarified ideas and raised new angles on the subject that I hadn’t fully thought through before.

  27. legend of mir, guys calling a bunch of other guys “girls” can be meant humorously. It is not. It is just sexist, there is nothing funny there.
    I have a friend, a professor in something medical, who adamantly claims he has no problems with homosexuals whatsoever, but in his conversations with me he still refers to people as “such a fag”. When questioned, he says, oh, but I don’t mean it to be demeaning to homosexuals. Yet it IS.
    People really mean to be humorous when depicting blond women as daft, homosexuals as gay (and in a very sexist way:calling them effeminate, as if there’s something wrong with that), guys as girls, blacks as apes, jews as being mean, arabs as being homocidal bombers, I can go on, but I won’t.
    So no.
    A joke is not a joke because someone meant it in humour, I really think you should take the public, appraising the “joke”, in account.
    And I think a joke must be FUNNY to be a joke. Sexism just isn’t funny, EVER. Nor is racism or any other form of harmful discrimination ever funny.

  28. JJ, I truly like your posts on this, and I apologise for nitpicking, but you say “For a lot of the time, many women in philosophy do feel we’re on the other side of a dividing line.”
    You may be a bit bolder in that, it’s not just that we women philosophers (read academics, if you will) “feel” we are on the other side of the dividing line, we plainly and demonstrably ARE.

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