Why are people in positions of power still drawing on the “just a joke” defence when they are accused of being offensive? Early on Tuesday May 29, comedian Roseanne Barr took to Twitter and wrote of African-American former presidential aide, Valerie Jarrett: “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj”. Hours later, her recently relaunched sitcom, Roseanne, was cancelled by ABC.
Scrambling around for a defence, Barr made a series of confusing statements about Jarrett’s race, blamed the Ambien pills she was taking, and claimed, simply: “It’s a joke”.
This is an interesting rhetorical move. There is no doubt that the comment was made in jest – no one is claiming that Barr believed in all seriousness that an ideologically divided political movement and an apocalyptic sci-fi film managed to copulate and reproduce. Yet its status as a joke precludes neither its racism, nor the Islamophobia implicit in using the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Trump administration has sought to designate a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, as shorthand for representing the Muslim world as a source of fear. So the claim “it’s a joke” must signify something more.
The ethics of offence
First, such a defence allows Barr to have her metaphorical cake and eat it. Offensive subject matter is voiced and allowed to have an effect in the world, while the teller of the joke protects themselves with an irresponsible or insincere appeal to the form.
Philosophers from Plato to Hobbes have recognised the malicious attitudes registered through laughter at others. Under the guise of the joke’s format, Barr arguably can wield her perceived political, religious and racial superiority. Free speech theorist Anshuman Mondal maintains that:
Controversies are invariably political, not in an instrumentalist sense, but because what is being performed in the giving and taking of offence is power rather than simply the staking of rival truth-claims.
Following Mondal, what Barr seemingly is performing in her offensive statement is a power play – she portrays herself as superior to the African American woman she ridicules. Interestingly, Trevor Noah blamed Trump for the controversy, for leading his supporters into thinking that they can tweet without facing consequences. It is a truism that satire speaks truth to power, but in the hands of the powerful it can as often be used to punch down and to confirm the status quo.
Second, jokes do not operate in a vacuum. To paraphrase Professor of film, Richard Dyer, the way that people are represented matters – particularly when that representation is repeated and becomes stereotype. It has an impact on how individuals see themselves, their place in society, and their rights.
As I argue in a forthcoming collection edited with Helen Davies, a lecturer at Newman University, Birmingham, on Comedy and the Politics of Representation, the way that individuals and groups are represented is key to the mediation of the relationship between the teller, the audience, and the butt of the joke. Whether audiences identify with or against the butt of a joke depends on their representation. And whether stereotypes are reiterated or subverted through humour comes down to questions of representation.
In this case, Jarrett is made ridiculous – and the ridicule is exercised through racist and Islamophobic sterotyping. Jarrett points to the context in which this joke is uttered, in which racism is an everyday occurrence for African Americans. Demonstrating considerable poise, she confirms that she is “fine” but remains concerned for those without her power and protection who have to negotiate the devastating effects of systemic and individual acts of racism on a daily basis.
Humour is used to shape broader cultural attitudes towards social identities, and the consequences of representing a black woman as ape-like are evident in a political zeitgeist in which “Black Lives Matter” still warrants repetition. Barr made a joke, yes, but it was not satire as political progressiveness knows it.
Accusations of humourlessness
Finally, the “just a joke” defence calls on those who are offended (the butts of the joke and those who identify with them) to confirm the joke’s logic through shared appreciation, ideally marked by laughter. It’s the linguistic equivalent of asking a child why they are hitting themselves while you are the one forcing the child’s hand repeatedly into their face. Those who refuse to confirm the joke’s (racist) logic are cast as humourless, deficient in some crucial aspect of human subjectivity.
To reward a joke with laughter is to endorse its ideology, which is understandably not possible for people who find themselves the butts of jokes when the content is malicious. Accusing people of humourlessness amounts to suggesting that they lack some essential human quality.
This has been the case throughout history and most recently used to discredit #MeToo campaigners and millennial “snowflakes”. This sleight of hand enables the tellers of offensive jokes to cast themselves as victims of the liberal left, censorship, and political correctness “gone mad”. It also undermines and limits the capacity of those fighting for change and justice in an unequal world – as comedian Rachel Parry parodies in this clip from the Daily Mash.
In drawing on the “it’s a joke” defence, it seems that Barr wants to give offence without accepting the consequences – that people will be offended. She apparently wants us to pretend that humour operates in a vacuum in which the ethical responsibility is irrelevant, and to cast herself as the victim of a humourless liberal left. It is important to recognise what is at stake in such a manoeuvre.