When the Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Joke

Dave Chappelle, Matthew Yglesias, and highlights in a fraught week for humor

Dave Chappelle
Eamonn M. McCormack / Getty

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.

Question of the Week

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? Extra credit for responses that are funny, but don’t refrain from unfunny responses.

Send responses to conor@theatlantic.com or reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Last year, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in Washington, D.C., proposed to honor the comedian Dave Chappelle, a former student and donor, by naming its performing-arts theater after him. Then Chappelle released a comedy special that included jokes about trans people, rendering him problematic in the eyes of many progressives, including some students at his alma mater. As those jokes became enmeshed in the culture wars, the renaming ceremony was postponed––until this week, when Chappelle surprised an audience gathered for the occasion by explaining that, for now, the venue will be named the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression. His name will be added later, but only if and when the school community is ready for it.

My colleague David Frum, who attended the event, offered this interpretation of Chappelle’s message:

Freud observed that the psychological function of humor is to allow the expression of thoughts that formal society normally forbids. In American myth, the soldiers of World War II were heroes, the Greatest Generation. On The Phil Silvers Show of the 1950s, those soldiers were shown as lazy and venal. In sophisticated comedy, comedians play with the tension between formal and informal beliefs, and Chappelle’s is very sophisticated comedy. The function of humor as a release from the forbidden thought explains why some of the most productive sources of jokes are authoritarian societies, because they forbid so much. In the squares of Moscow today, protesters physically reenact an old Soviet joke, demonstrating with blank signs because “Everybody already knows everything I want to say.” That same function of comedy explains why “woke America” is the target of so much satirical humor today, because so much of wokeness aspires to forbid.

When Chappelle deferred adding his name to the theater of the school to which he’d given so much of himself—not only checks, but return appearances—he was not yielding or apologizing. He was challenging the in-school critics: You don’t understand what I do—not my right to do it, but the reason it matters that I exercise that right. Until you do understand, you cannot have my name. Someday you will understand. You may have it then.

What comedians do is perpetually contested. The line separating good jokes from bad jokes, or people with a good sense of humor from people who are humorless, priggish, or excessively dour, is subjective. And maybe there can be no comedy without people offended by comedy. “It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential,” Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean, recently told The Irish Times. “Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.” Asked about the difference between “punching up” and “punching down,” he added, “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about… What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society? They’re not all in houses of parliament or in monarchies. There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

Of course, most every comic has a different notion of what makes a good or bad joke, and in every society, the authoritarian impulse to punish “bad” jokes is ever present––though the ability to satisfy that impulse waxes and wanes across eras and settings. In liberal moments and places, the consequences for a “bad” joke is silence, jeers, or criticism. In other eras or places, telling the wrong joke can cost you your liberty or even your life.

Western democracies remain relatively liberal, despite concerning signs. For example, last year, the BBC reported on a Canadian comic who was hauled before a Human Rights Commission and fought a 10-year legal battle over a joke. And this week, the BBC reports that the British comedian Joe Lycett was investigated by police, who asked him to explain the context of a joke after an audience member at one of his shows complained about it. Today in the U.S., we mostly mete out no punishment for jokes worse than temporary hits to one’s livelihood, as when Bill Maher lost his show after the September 11 attacks, probably due in part to a controversial quip about the terrorists, and when Kathy Griffin suffered career setbacks for holding up a mock severed head of President Trump.

Of course, professional comedians aren’t alone in being punished for jokes.

A recent case study in journalism involves a Washington Post reporter who retweeted the joke “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” Some argued that if the newspaper allowed an employee to retweet that joke without consequence, it would signal institutional willingness to tolerate sexism, undermining its workplace culture or the trust of female readers. The reporter was ultimately reprimanded and suspended for a month without pay.

Critics of that punishment objected for a variety of reasons. Dan Drezner was among those who found the punishment excessive, as he articulated in his final column at The Washington Post:

We live in an age in which retweeting a tasteless joke and then apologizing and deleting it 10 minutes later still winds up being on your permanent record. Not all infractions are equal, and in some cases such behavior merits serious sanctions. There is something bizarre, however, about the capricious nature of reactions and overreactions to acts that less than a decade ago would barely have merited a shrug … We need a more forgiving public discourse, one in which it is possible for mistakes to be made, apologies to be sincere, criticism to be tolerated, and respect to be preserved across genuine ideological disagreements.

On the Feminine Chaos podcast, the academic Amna Khalid and the novelist and journalist Kat Rosenfield focused on what they see as problematic labor precedents such punishments set:

Khalid: There are some serious issues here. One is what kind of freedom do you have to say what you want when you’re off the clock? This is tied closely to my interest in academic freedom because it is something that happens to professors all the time. What can and can’t you say when you’re indulging in extramural speech? Now, in this case, I think, the joke was a joke, and I’m probably going to be highly unpopular for articulating this position, I’m not that offended by the joke. As a woman who identifies as a feminist, yes, it’s a little off-color. But jokes tend to be, and that’s in the nature of humor. I think the way we’re policing humor these days is troubling because we’re leaving very little room for humor to actually take root … The assumption there is that he’s retweeting it because he’s endorsing it. But that assumption in itself makes me a little uncomfortable.

Rosenfield: Retelling a joke is such a basic human behavior. You hear a joke, you find it to be funny or provocative, or maybe you just think other people might, so you tell it to your friends. And I wonder, if the policy at Washington Post is that you cannot retell a joke in this form, are you also barred from retelling a joke in other forms? What makes it fundamentally different to retweet a joke on your Twitter feed versus be overheard telling a joke to your friends at a bar? To take it a step further, what if you are a Washington Post reporter and you do standup comedy as a hobby? What if you’re writing your own material and some of it is a little off-color even though it’s very funny? Can your employer reasonably dictate what sort of jokes you tell on the stage because at no point are you not considered a representative of the place where you work?

Khalid: What kind of power are we giving these organizations and institutions where we work? Are they beginning to own our time and what we can say when we’re not at work? … It has the potential to become highly authoritarian in terms of watching over what people can say. That doesn’t bode well for us ... I’m not saying we’re there yet, but broadly, we’re beginning to display signs of authoritarian social policing, which is troubling to me. I come from a place back in Pakistan where this is the norm and it doesn’t go down well, ever.

This week, two other journalists I read and like personally, Matt Yglesias and Taylor Lorenz, had a social-media interaction about a joke that helped me clarify some of my own thinking. Yglesias tweeted, “Some personal news: I have contracted the novel coronavirus. Frankly, I think the virus should respect Father’s Day more than this. FYI, all future typos are due to long Covid.”

Lorenz replied, “I’m glad it’s a joke for u Matt and that you’re lucky enough to get access to great care, but for those who have had their lives destroyed by the virus and who have had loved ones die from or suffer w/ LC it’s not funny. Hope you can have a little more empathy, especially today.”

In my estimation, joking about something serious, even something deadly, doesn’t at all imply a belief that the thing in question “is a joke” or that one has a lack of empathy for those affected by it; the impulse to humor often reflects a deep recognition of a subject’s cosmic awfulness. (“Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you,” David Gerrold writes. “Be grateful if it happens in that order.” I laughed, and not because I take hardship or death lightly.)

Were the intent behind humor always understood, some who presently take offense at some jokes might feel less aggrieved. Still, I found it very human for Lorenz to react as she did. Even those of us who use humor to deal with dark parts of life are, in some tough moments, in no mood for jokes. Being immunocompromised years into a pandemic may be such a moment for Lorenz. Sometimes, the best resolution to a joke controversy is more grace for all involved, rather than treating mere disagreement as a national scandal.

Regardless, I found the ensuing commentary useful. The Twitter user @historyboomer reacted by writing, “If someone makes a joke you think isn’t funny, ignore it.” As he sees it, “There is harm in an overly censorious attitude that is too willing to see jokes as harmful.” To which the journalist Issac J. Bailey responded, “If someone makes a joke you think is harmful, don’t ignore it.” Following along, I thought, Neither of you is quite right. If someone makes a joke that you think is harmful, neither presume your thought is correct nor do nothing. Take an additional analytic step: See if you’re able to identify any actual, specific harm of significance that the joke caused any actual person. Jokes can and do cross that threshold. But many jokes dubbed harmful do not meet it. People are just offended––but with mere offense, the case for attacking jokesters is weak, so harm is invoked. I suspect people would talk past one another less in controversies over jokes if claims about harms a joke purportedly caused were specific and falsifiable.

Provocation of the Week

Among scholars, the execution of Socrates is typically regarded as suboptimal. Responding to the firing of Joshua Katz from Princeton, Nadya Williams, an ancient-history professor at the University of West Georgia, invokes the philosopher’s fate to argue that today’s right and left should unite in canceling intellectuals for character flaws:

​​For decades, Socrates was the leading public intellectual in Athens, grooming students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. In the process, he was also grooming them in other ways, sleeping with at least one of them—Alcibiades. Ultimately, the results of Socrates’s teaching were decidedly problematic. His students went on to overthrow the Athenian democracy twice in the final decade of the Peloponnesian War.

And so, when the Athenians put Socrates on trial in 399 B.C.E. on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, it seems that they were judging, more than anything, his character.

Specifically, seeing the fruits of his teaching in his students, the Athenians saw his character as dangerous to the democracy. Socrates’s defense in the process, about the high quality of his scholarship as the “gadfly” stinging Athenians into thinking more deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to those Athenians who voted to condemn him as Katz’s own words ring now to some. Cancellations of public intellectuals are never random. They represent a character judgment that should unite the left and the right, so-called liberals and conservatives, those who espouse a faith and those who live with a secular compass.

Should this ethos ever prevail, I will switch positions to “defund the academy.”

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