Giving Offense: On Comedy & Political Correctness

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


June 12, 2015

Giving Offense

On Comedy & Political Correctness

The renewed culture of political correctness is making us all watch our words—especially our jokes. Some liberals and many comedians see this trend as a descent into neurotic hypersensitivity, while others see it as a positive step toward making American culture more respectful and empathetic to marginalized groups. Having lived outside of the US for more than half of my life, my sense is that American culture—perhaps also Canadian culture—already stigmatizes jokes and offhand remarks related to ethnicity or gender, at least far more so than most other countries.

Relative to the rest of the world, we are one of the leaders in avoiding offending minorities, but this achievement hasn’t stopped us from tolerating high racial disparities in all sorts of important social and economic indicators in education, health, criminal justice, poverty, etc. So for me, the link between racial humor and negative outcomes for minorities intuitively doesn’t seem strong.

Outside the US, many people don’t appreciate racial humor, but it’s taken much less seriously and it’s not unusual to hear it in mainstream media outlets. South African comedian Trevor Noah discovered this cultural difference when some of his old ethnic and gender jokes were unearthed on Twitter shortly after he was named the new Daily Show host. For a US audience, these jokes were deeply offensive, racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic, etc.

In a non-US context, they probably would have been read as irreverent or insolent at worst, and that creates a lot of complications when trying to answer questions about moral objectivity, whether Trevor Noah is a bigot, whether he did anything wrong, and whether he ought to apologize. I won’t try to answer these, or try to argue that we should or should not be offended by racial humor. The purpose of this article is to show how prohibitions against giving offense are deeply ambiguous. There is a dialectical relationship between prohibitions and what they purport to prevent: on one hand, they create negative social consequences for being disrespectful, but at the same time, disrespect is only possible because of them.

Words that give offense often can’t be directly translated. Some vivid examples come from Quebec French, where words related to Catholicism are used as profanities. If a Quebecois called you un tabarnak, you’d probably be more confused than offended, and knowing that the word means a tabernacle would bring you no closer to understanding how the speaker feels about you.

The English system of profanity is largely rooted in bodily functions, so Quebecois insults with religious associations like tabernacle, baptism, sacrament, Calvary, etc. sound innocuous to our ears. We react viscerally and automatically to offensive words in our own language, so it can even be hard to believe that these words could ever carry an offensive connotation.

In contrast, we have no trouble believing that the word un vélo means a bicycle to a French speaker because it conforms to our commonsense understanding of a word as an arbitrary set of syllables which point to an underlying meaning. If both bike and bicycle can refer to the same thing, why not also vélo? But unlike these conventional words, profanities are not interchangeable with their ostensible synonyms, as in shit, poop and feces which differ in the degree of offensiveness even though they all refer to the same thing.

So profanities are not treated as arbitrary signifiers pointing at something disgusting or reprehensible. For a given word, a particular set of letters (or syllables) in a particular configuration is offensive in and of itself. That is why words that become substitutes for profanities share the same sound or spelling, but not their meaning—e.g. shiz, fudge, gosh, darn, heck, etc.

One could almost say that profanities get their synonyms from the dictionary rather than the thesaurus—you simply take the word that follows the profanity alphabetically. This logic can be observed most clearly in controversies over the use of the word niggardly (“adj. not generous; stingy”) which is sometimes understood as the much more offense word which immediately follows it in the dictionary.

Other substitions like n-word and f-word which effectively mean the word that begins with n/f further demonstrate the point: prohibitions against offensive words aren’t aimed at particular meanings or intentions, but surprisingly, operate at a more basic level. Politeness in fact prohibits specific letter combinations or sounds, much as Jewish and Christian traditions prohibit writing or pronouncing the name of God.

In What Did You Call Me? Slurs as Prohibited Words, philosophers of language Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lapore reverse the commonsense belief that slurs are prohibited because they are offensive. They argue to the contrary that slurs are offensive because they are prohibited, a move which evokes the Lacanian link between the Law and its transgression. Far from simply repressing what it prohibits, the Law solicits its own transgression. In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan quotes this passage from Paul in the Book of Romans:

I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.

So the prohibition on the use of ethnic slurs and other kinds of profanity exists precisely so that we may derogate others, not to prevent us from doing so. A slur is hurtful because it implies that the target is undeserving of the dignity and protection of polite treatment, and yet this harm would be impossible without the existence of such protections. The more strictly the prohibition is observed, the more exceptional and humiliating is its violation.

Such logic is clearly at work in the development of Quebecois profanities, which began to be used in the 19th century during a period of oppression by the Catholic Church. Contrary to intuition, these words weren’t created when church authorities prohibited the use of certain phrases and rebellious Quebecois disobeyed as a sign of their disrespect. In France and other francophone countries, these words have no obscene connotations. They’re perfectly acceptable in polite conversation and formal religious ceremonies. They are only considered vulgar by Quebecois, but clearly the prohibition on uttering them in polite company is not intended to protect the dignity of the Catholic religion—just the opposite.

Put differently, those who use prohibited words give offense, but those who are careful to avoid using prohibited words are also complicit. By respecting the boundary between polite and impolite speech, they create the conditions needed to cause offense. Words become degrading, disrespectful and dehumanizing precisely because of our desire to be virtuous and avoid using those words.

Since the prohibition against giving offense produces what it purports to outlaw, it suggests that in countries where racial, ethnic and gender humor are more acceptable, these forms of humor are less hurtful to minorities. It also suggests that the progressive approach to fighting prejudice, bigotry and intolerance is deeply and fatally flawed. These social problems are implicitly treated as ignorant or backwards, as forms of primitive barbarism and savagery that good, kind, enlightened people must suppress with social stigmas, rules and punishments for transgressions.

Although conservatives attempt to tie political correctness to “cultural Marxism”, by linking social problems to our “base, primitive instincts” which must be controlled and civilized through repression, its intellectual heritage can be more easily traced to the 19th century, to the social purity movement, the social hygiene movement, the racial hygiene movement, scientific racism and degeneration theory. In Western countries, much of the thinking of the era was gripped by fears of social decline and descent into barbarism. Many were convinced that progress was achieved through suppression of various forms of savagery, and although there were many different interpretations of what was “savage”, a wide variety of ideas were articulated within this basic template including Nazism, colonialism and eugenics.

Comedy has a long association as a primitive art form going back to the ancient Greeks. Plato believed that it should be reserved only for slaves and outsiders. No wonder that it has become a target for reformers who view it as a sphere where the public indulges in transgressive, barbaric forms of enjoyment. For these reformers, the truth of humanity is that we are primitive animals except for the saving graces of civilized society, which disciplines, corrects and instructs us in the ways of proper behavior. Dignity, humanity, civilization—these are polite fictions which conceal an ugly truth, but the fiction must be maintained if it is to be effective as a form of social control.

Comedians typically have a different view of society, humanity and the truth. They see themselves as truth-tellers, pointing out corruption which society is not willing to admit to. “You Laugh But Its True” is the title of the documentary about Trevor Noah. For social reformers, progress is achieved by suppressing transgression, a self-defeating effort which only produces more transgression. For comedians, is it just the opposite.