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April 11, 2007

No more racist, sexist, ethnic or other hurtful language

Marty Beckerman discusses the several recent brouhahas (brouhahii?) over hurtful epithets:

So when does race-based humor qualify as harmless entertainment — albeit risqué and provocative — and when does it qualify as actual racism?

With my friends of other ethnic backgrounds — and okay, I probably need some more of these — the back-and-forth of boorish jokes is simply a way to kill time, share a few laughs and ease subconscious tension: the other night I joked that my Japanese immigrant friend should have applied for a yellow card instead of a green card; he fired back that if my bad Jewish self ever walked into a brick wall with an erection, I'd suffer a broken nose. (Neither of us felt the need to file a petition with the Anti-Defamation League, although I might need to watch my back for the little guy's razor-sharp throwing stars.) The wider American culture's embrace of stereotype-laced humor serves a similar purpose to our banter: making people feel more comfortable with one another so they can get past their prejudices.

This is why Richards, Coulter and Imus landed on their faces even though Americans love to laugh at bigotry: these entertainers poured salt into centuries-old wounds with cheap punch lines-simple, worthless slurs; spiteful, desperate pleas for attention-instead of throwing our collective ridiculousness back into our faces. Their sin had nothing to do with edgy jokes; it was that instead of shedding light on everyone, they only shed light on themselves.

It really has changed the public sphere over the last generation: racist jokes were very common on the playground when I was a child, and sexist neanderthals still inhabit some niche ecosystems in the working world. Anti-gay jokes are less common — at least I encounter them far less frequently than just a few years ago, although (to borrow a term from Berke Breathed) offensesensitivity seems to be more widespread now than ever before.

There's really only one safe group to joke about: Englishmen. Not English women, certainly. And not British people in general: the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish have been slighted sufficiently. Other Europeans have borne the brunt of more than their fair share of jokes. No other form of stereotyping will pass muster in this day and age, so stick it to the Bloody Poms . . . they're (temporarily) safe to abuse.

Posted by Nicholas at April 11, 2007 10:12 AM

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