I’m glad I’m a Jew – and I’m a pretty shitty one. I haven’t been bar mitzvah’d, I eat shrimp rings in two seconds flat, hell, I don’t even believe in God. Thanks to the wonderful world of the Torah, though, my one Jewish grandparent is my pass into the chosen people.
What do I get out of this deal, you ask? It’s tempting to say I’m just in it for Hanukah, or the latkes, but it’s not that. It’s certainly not for the dubiously gelatinous gefilte fish. No, I treasure my Jewish roots for one reason above all others: because they give me the right to make offensive jokes about my own ethnic group without mercy or regret. Once that door is opened, I can walk through it into a whole wonderful world of dubious taste.
Although a fine position for me, this is truly a sad statement on our culture’s understanding of humour. Why should we have to defend ourselves with our background bona fides before we can start spreading offense far and wide? The problem goes beyond ethnic jokes; our society is working hard to sap everyday life of satire and humour, so much of which is based on saying things that are, quite frankly, mean.
Western culture has gone through this process before, with another side of our cultural life: music. Not-so-very-long-ago, music was much more a participative than a performative art. Everyone danced. Everyone sang. Everyone played. In a good many languages, there still aren’t different words for “music” and “dancing” – the two are essentially integrated. How far removed is that from the modern musical tradition, where we sit or stand and have music thrown at us.
I fear that our culture’s tentative attitude towards edgy or offensive humour is leading in the very same direction. Every time we get mad when we’re caught buying into satire, or feel anxious about laughing at the person who just fell down in front of us, we drive our society closer and closer towards a world in which comedy is something done for us, not by us.
We rarely think about how much of an impact a sense of humour has on the way we go about our daily lives. How much of our crazily lawsuit-obsessed culture results purely from a refusal to just laugh it off? How often do we watch a parade of offended letters roll in to a newspaper that has dared to publish something that steps on a few toes?
Shows like the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are integrating satire and comedy into our daily media diet, which certainly makes absorbing the news more interesting. The problem is that this picks up a burden we should all be carrying – that of making a giant joke out of all the death, destruction, and incompetence that makes up world events.
The question is, where does this sensitivity come from? Obviously, a certain amount of it is our perfectly reasonable desire not to hurt others’ feelings unnecessarily. There’s a sense that calling to attention the differences between us with wickedly funny jokes works to perpetuate them.
That, though, is a false worry. If anything, shoving things into the realm of taboo only marks them more clearly as unsolved problems. To joke, to satirize, to spoof is to liberate. What a shame if it is reserved to designated zones within our cultural lives.
If we all made one more rude joke a day, read one more satirical article, giggled out loud at one more absurd comment, or grinned at one more solemn moment, we would be doing our part to build a world that people might actually want to take seriously.