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Racist jokes may be worse than racist statements

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Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse tells her father, “Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me, you know—in a joke—it is all a joke.” Mr. Knightley isn’t joking, as he and Emma know; he presents his criticisms without a hint of jocularity. But if Emma persuades Mr. Woodhouse to believe Mr. Knightley is joking, he “would not suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by everyone.” A little over 200 years after Emma was published, the comedian Roseanne Barr defended a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s former adviser, in a further tweet, “It’s a joke—”.It’s probably not often that Austen and Barr belong in the same paragraph, yet despite the cultural differences between Regency England and 21st century America, both trade on a similar idea, that we don’t really mean what we say in jest, and thus we can say things jokingly that we should not say seriously. Both consider jokes to belong in a significantly different communicative category than statements or assertions. Emma’s thought is that if Mr. Woodhouse believes Mr. Knightley is joking, Mr. Woodhouse will think there is no truth to what he says; and Barr’s thought is that if she is joking, she does less—perhaps no—harm.The idea that we can say things jokingly that we should not say seriously explains why people who would not stoop to a racist or sexist statement might make a racist and sexist joke, as the comedian Trevor Noah, born in South Africa under apartheid and himself of mixed race, did about Australian Aborigine women. It also explains why people often defend racist, sexist, and other derogatory comments as misguided attempts at humor. In addition to Barr’s non-apology, recall Don Imus’s initially half-hearted repentance for calling the members of a women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s” during his radio show—it was “meant to be amusing.” Austen, Barr and Imus are right that jokes do not operate in the same way as assertions, but I believe that they, and many of us, are. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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