So: a priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar – Or wait, a white guy, a Black guy, and an Asian guy have just died and are standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven – No, I mean, a straight person, a gay person, and a paraplegic are in a plane about to crash –
Do any of these sound familiar? You’re unlikely to hear such setups on TV these days, and you don’t want to get caught sharing them on social media, but it’s still pretty common for similar material to be passed among select audiences. This type of humor, to be sure, runs a risk of coming across as ignorant, tasteless, or deeply offensive in polite company, yet the persistence of its premises bears reflection. We can regulate what’s appropriate to say publicly, but we can’t control what any of us finds funny in private.
This tension between acceptable and unacceptable speech has become more pronounced in an age where billions of people use commercial platforms like Twitter or Facebook as their personal electronic commons: the networks are so ubiquitous we forget that casual exchanges within small communities are in fact moderated by outside officials whose job is to enforce rules and punish offenders, and never mind the virtual mobs that can instantly descend on anyone posting a controversial opinion or comment. The disconnect grows even wider under political agendas which insist “difference” must only be celebrated or denied altogether, allowing no possible responses in the middle – no unflattering comparisons, pointed questions, or, God forbid, stupid jokes. What you say about anyone else, however offhand, will definitely be used against you. You’re told to notice, but not to judge. You must approve, but never critique. You can applaud, but you sure can’t laugh.
The point is not that we should all get to trade mean-spirited religious, racial, or sexual caricatures with impunity. Hurting feelings is never cool. But constantly encouraging citizens to appreciate the virtues of diversity, while at the same time cracking down on anyone whose appreciation isn’t quite virtuous enough, is not a sustainable cultural program. We should promote contrasts, not similarities, between people? We’re obligated to acknowledge the specialness of other groups, but the acknowledgement mustn’t be anything but favorable? How well has that ever worked? Either we are all equal members of the same society, having equal rights and held to equal standards, or we are a collection of competing tribes whose varying attributes and failings should be fair game for everyone else to remark on. Instead, today’s dictates uphold both universal equality and countless tiny variances. Blind impartiality is claimed in principle; carefully scrutinized discrimination is the practice. In the name of social justice, authorities doggedly police the boundaries of social division and penalize those who don’t properly respect the lines.
In 2001 the Canadian columnist George Jonas reminded, “Stereotypes might be trite and banal. As clichés, they might be shopworn and boring. They might not fit individuals, and they’ve certainly no place in the legal system. But, contrary to current beliefs, they aren’t untrue or inaccurate by definition.” This may be why there are no punchlines about lazy Chinese, repressed Latins, or clean-minded old men; even crass gags have an inner logic. And so as long as we live in populous countries that harbor a wide, blurry spectrum of humanity – not the artificial identities primly guarded by governments but the spontaneous coexistences organically occurring among ordinary people – it’s hard to imagine that the laughter, whether at their, our, or anyone’s expense, will ever be completely stifled.