Social Science Research Supports Free Speech Take on ‘Offensive’ Humor

Bernard Schweizer

“In a civilized society freedom to offend should be protected.”

—Nigel Warburton

Offensive humor has become a hot-button issue. Roseanne Barr tweets a racist joke (or was it a “joke”?) and is exiled to the wilderness. Daniel Tosh makes clumsy rape jokes and unleashes a social-media firestorm. Michelle Wolf mocks President Trump and the partisan outrage machine goes into overdrive.

Judging from these examples, one might think that comical offensiveness is a clear-cut matter with perpetrators and victims neatly separated: on one side are the humorists targeting certain people or groups with degrading laughter, and on the other side are victims who deserve protection from offensive speech. The most extreme proponents of this view would like to curb offensive jokes altogether, while more moderate censors would rely on the social consequences of shaming and career disruption to silence mealy-mouthed comics.

There are several problems with this moralistic approach to comedy and not only because it conflicts with the principle of free speech. The other problem with this line of thinking is that it relies on a faulty understanding of both joking and offensiveness. What those wanting to curb comical speech tend to forget is that humor is distinguished as a form of “non-serious discourse” whose meaning is inherently slippery, indeterminate, unstable, and ironic. Does cracking a Jewish joke make one anti-Semitic? In her recent book The Jewish Joke, Devorah Baum repeatedly turns to this conundrum, stating that even Jews such as she are unsure about whether Jewish jokes reinforce harmful stereotypes or whether they are deconstructive parodies of such stereotypes. The fact that Jews tell Jewish jokes rather tips the balance in favor of the second explanation. Further, does making a race-based joke (or laughing at it) make one a racist? Thinkers such as Steven Gimbel (Isn’t That Clever: A Philosophical Account of Humor and Comedy) disagree. According to Gimbel, to appreciate a joke that invokes a stereotype does not require one to believe the stereotype, only to be familiar with it. So, not all people laughing at a joke about Islam are Islamophobes.

Which brings me to the topic of offensiveness: Together with my colleague, Karl-Heinz Ott, I’ve just published a paper in the European Journal of Humor Research presenting results of our empirical research into the relationship between funniness and offensiveness with regard to religious jokes*. Our study was based on responses from members of different religious traditions, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, as well as agnostics and atheists, all of whom were asked to judge a corpus of twenty-four jokes, including blasphemous ones. The survey participants (N=783) were asked to rate the jokes’ funniness on a scale from “not funny” to “hilarious,” while also indicating whether or not they found the joke offensive and whether or not they understood the joke. Both text-based and cartoon jokes or memes were used. Here I selectively highlight a few points of this study.

First, offensiveness always entails a funniness penalty. No matter what religious tradition the participant belonged to (or if the participant was an unbeliever), if a joke was rated as offensive its funniness was commonly downgraded by about 2.5 points on a funniness scale of 1–9. Among the direct targets of an offensive joke (say, Christians responding to a Jesus joke), up to 50 percent selected “not funny” as their answer choice. This is commonsensical and confirms the idea that in order to be funny, the comedian has to have good audience awareness to sense how far he or she can go (something at which Roseanne demonstrably failed). In Steven Gimbel’s view, an objectionable joke is not one that is tasteless, sick, or unfair but a joke that bombs. Our research indicates that jokes perceived as offensive have indeed a greater chance of bombing, and comedians offend their audiences at their own risk.

Conversely, the jokes on the survey deemed most funny by all groups were harmless nonreligious jokes. Five of the six nonreligious control jokes on the survey ranked in the top six spots of the funniest jokes, almost equally liked by all sub-groups. Differences and sharp disagreements over degree of funniness only opened up with religious jokes, and the more irreverent the joke, the more members of different groups disagreed over the joke’s funniness. Thus, when comedians go to the more edgy, controversial, and potentially offensive material, they cannot be assured that the entire audience is on their side. Still, comedians (and their audiences) are obviously willing to take that risk, engaging in a conspiracy of laughter that ranges from the joyful to the mean-spirited, with no assurance as to which will prevail.

This particular quality of humor—that is, its semantic slipperiness and extremely context-dependent nature—makes it virtually impossible to predict just how a joke will be perceived and processed by the joke’s hearer—or its butt. Our research confirmed that both funniness and offensiveness are ultimately probabilistic phenomena. When it comes to humor appreciation, there are only trends and tendencies, not hard-and-fast rules. Yes, Christians taking our survey were generally offended by this joke: “Definition of Christianity: One woman’s affair that got seriously out of hand” (See Figure 1).

 

 

Almost 50 percent of practicing Christians voted this joke (Q20) to be “not funny,” and roughly the same percentage of Christians indicated that they were offended by this joke. Yet the other half of Christian respondents were not offended by the same joke, and as many as 15 percent (N=14) of Christian participants rated this joke as “funny” or even “hilarious” (red and yellow markers). So, to “shield” Christians from this blasphemous joke would not only abridge the freedom of speech for all, it would deprive a good number of Christians (let alone non-Christians) the pleasure of laughing at the “cleverness” of this joke. The same principle can be extrapolated. Should we ban anti-Islam jokes to protect our Muslim fellow citizens? Well, predicting that all Christians will be offended by a joke that compares the Virgin Mary to an adulteress would be as flawed as predicting that all Muslims will be offended by a joke that compares the Qur’an to a time travel device transporting its readers back to the Middle Ages (Q23, Figure 1). As the above diagram illustrates, while almost 40 percent of Muslims thought this joke “not funny” (with 49 percent voting it “offensive”), at the same time, 18 percent of them (N=10) responded that this joke was “funny” or “hilarious.”

On the other hand, while aggressive jokes may not give offense, humor supposed to be benign may give offense. For instance, a surprising 15 percent of Hindus on the survey voted that the following joke was offensive to them: “How did you get out of Iraq? Iran.” And yet, although 15 percent of Hindu participants thought this joke was offensive, overall the Hindu population still rated the joke funnier on average than all other six sub-populations. This pattern was maintained across all jokes: although as a population, Hindus recorded the second highest proportion of “offended” votes (second only to Muslims), they still gave the highest funniness ratings for all jokes across the board, at a statistically significant level. Thus, for Hindu respondents, joke offensiveness entailed a smaller funniness “penalty” compared to other groups. Hindus, in other words, were more able to be amused despite being offended (see Figure 2). Once again, predicting offensiveness proves to be elusive.

 

 

Finally, I want to address the white elephant in the room—the Muslim responses to irreverent jokes. First of all, I should point out that the Muslim sample was quite small (N=57) and that it was composed mainly of younger (aged twenty to forty) and self-identified liberal Muslims. Geographically, half of the Muslims hailed from India and half from the United States, but extensive statistical testing revealed no geographical confounding. With the exception of one joke, no significant variance in the answer patterns of Muslims from the two nations could be observed. Interestingly, compared to Christians, agnostics, atheists, and controls, Muslims chose higher funniness ratings for non-offensive jokes at a statistically significant level, thus refuting the notion that all Muslims are somehow humor-challenged.

Even when we found what we expected, we were in for a surprise: although the Muslim population posted overall the highest percentage of being offended (24 percent of all joke votes were marked as “offensive” by them), it wasn’t only the irreverent Islam-targeting jokes that offended the Muslims. Muslims also considered jokes targeting other religions as offensive! For instance, 28 percent of Muslims considered three blasphemous jokes about Christianity to be offensive (by comparison, only 15 percent of Christians thought three comparable anti-Islam jokes were offensive). There seems to be an overall lower threshold for offensiveness among Muslims concerning jokes targeting any religion, not just Islam. This may be partially explained by the fact that the Qur’an reveres religious figures central to Jewish and Christian faiths, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, so that joking at the expense of these Biblical figures is also resonant for Muslims.

Finally, here’s a special nugget of interest: We put a cartoon from the French humor periodical Charlie Hebdo into the survey, showing the persons of the Trinity engaged in a kind of three-way sex act (Luz’s cover art for the November 7, 2012, issue). This cartoon was the least well-understood among all twenty-four jokes on the survey, indicating that the “joke” required sophisticated contextual decoding. At the same time, the cartoon was judged the most offensive of all twenty-four jokes. The combination of being least understood and most offensive doomed the joke, leaving the cartoon dead last in terms of funniness rating by all groups (with a low 2.9 funniness rating overall). Even atheists did not enjoy this cartoon (giving it a low 3.4 funniness rating) although only 9 percent of atheists voted it to be offensive (whereas 56 percent of Christians and 35 percent of Muslims thought it offensive). In other words, just as offensiveness does not automatically translate into non-funniness for all joke recipients, so non-offensiveness of a joke does not automatically translate into funniness for all members of a group, even if—as in the case of the Charlie Hebdo caricature—the joke targets an entity one is emphatically not identifying with.

The take-home message is this: offensiveness is far too complex, unpredictable, and probabilistic a phenomenon to use as a basis for any legal or policy action to curb aggressive humor. It is better to let audiences decide what is or is not funny to them and to let the comedian take responsibility for the funniness (or lack thereof) of the joke. According to Steven Gimbel, if everyone in the audience laughs at a joke then it is a good joke, no matter how offensive its content may be. In Gimbel’s view, the “cognitive virtues” involved in humor—including acceptance of ambiguity, mental flexibility, playfulness, and aesthetic pleasure—override the potential offense to some caused by jokes.

Hence, from semantic, philosophical, psychological, or social perspectives, no persuasive case can be made in support of censoring offensive jokes. To try to legislate humor is truly a fool’s errand. Those eager to pursue such a course merit a bit of laughter at their expense.


References

*Karl-Heinz Ott and Bernard Schweizer, “Does Religion Shape People’s Sense of Humour? A Comparative Study of Humour Appreciation among Members of Different Religions and Nonbelievers.” The European Journal of Humor Research, Vol. 6 No. 1 (2018), online only at https://europeanjournalofhumour.org/index.php/ejhr/article/view/229/pdf.

Bernard Schweizer

Bernard Schweizer is a professor of English at Long Island University (Brooklyn). He has authored several books, including Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism and edited collections like Reading Heresy: Religion and Dissent in Literature and Art. Schweizer is currently putting the finishing touches on a book about religion and humor titled The Way, The Truth, and the Laugh: Humor's Triumph in Christian Culture.