A dear friend of mine was hurt recently. If you want the full story, it is (linked with permission) here. The short version is as follows: They were playing a game in which someone puts the name of a character (real or fictional, living or dead) on your forehead, and you ask yes or no questions until you guess the name of the person. My friend discovered that she had spent several hours with the name “Hitler” on her forehead. I know some of you will be feeling a bit queasy on her behalf, and others will be going, “What’s the big deal?” Okay, permit me to add that this took place in Haifa, Israel.
My youngest daughter has recently been hurt in the opposite way: as I understand it, she, an aspiring (and, in my unbiased opinion, very talented) comedian, agreed to take part in a show that had a theme (mental handicaps) that many people found offensive and unsuitable for humor; sufficiently offensive and unsuitable that she has had to sustain barbed comments and cold shoulders from some people she considered friends.
In commenting to my Israeli friend, I said some things that (again, with her permission) I want to repeat here so I can hear smart people (that’s you) talk about them.
Some things are so horrible, that some have to laugh about them or the horror will take over their lives. Others, confronted by that same horror, have to pretend to laugh at them to convince themselves that they’re strong enough not to be beaten down. Others laugh at them because their friends do, and they’ve never stopped to think about it. Others laugh at them because they have no trace of sensitivity, and just don’t give a fuck about other human beings. So, at least four different reasons for the same behavior.
The dilemma, as I see it, is something like this:
1. No one has the right, through humor or any other way, to needlessly hurt someone else.
2. No one has the right to decide for another how and when to use humor to relieve suffering.
This contradiction is what makes it so hard for me to get a grip on. It’s complicated even more because there is absolutely no subject of humor that will not offend or hurt someone.
There are those with an attitude that goes something like this: “It was just a joke. If you can’t take a joke, you need to lighten up.” The kindest thing one can say about this attitude is that it is over-simplified; we don’t all respond the same way to the same kind of pain, and your coping method might be exactly what makes it impossible for me to cope. More typically, someone with that attitude needs to be sequestered from other human beings so he won’t do any more harm.
When in doubt, I err on the side of caution, because the damage to someone who is sensitive about whatever one is laughing at is more significant than the benefit for someone it helps, at any given time (you can tell the joke later when there’s no one around it bothers). But usually, one doesn’t know one has crossed the line until someone reacts badly, and then one is, first, puzzled, then ashamed, then (sometimes) angry or determined to justify one’s self. It’s ugly as hell.
I have no conclusion; I’ve been wrestling with this for years and gotten nowhere.
Edited to add:
Some years ago, my friend Nate Bucklin and I went to visit a friend in the psych ward of a hospital. Because it was Nate and me, we brought guitars, and a party ensued. During the party, Nate played his version of “Mama Don’t Allow,” which humorously references several forms of mental and emotional illness–the very conditions those attending the party were dealing with. I recall very clearly that the patients all found the song delightful; the staff, however, thought it was Not Funny. Take from this what you will.