Does Liking Offensive Humor Make You A Bad Person? No, An Asshole Maybe
As Social Men we aspire to bring out the best in everyone around us and to leave the world a better place than when we came into it. Yet, we’ve just been watching the BBC’s Real Housewives of ISIS and can’t help LOFAO… Are we raging A-Holes?
Well, the answer is “yes” but it’s OK because it’s not our fault, and, we can take some solace in the fact we’re possibly smarter than your average bears. Confused? Let us explain.
Offensive humor has long been the black sheep of the arts, but perfectly civil people can’t get enough of it; from South Park to Atomic Fart, we spend billions on entertainment that ain’t quite right.
And, recently, we’ve seen a crop of humorous media that not only isn’t PC, but shreds any notion of politesse, including the The Real Housewives of ISIS, The Bad Little Children’s Book, and now the mobile app Wetback Wipeout – The Illegal Immigration Game.
Each has racist content that we reject, and the social media community whipped up firestorms of contempt for them. Still, millions were laughing and our curiosity was piqued – WHY do “good” people laugh at “bad” humor?
If you’re not familiar with the media we’re discussing, here’s a quick 411: The Real Housewives of ISIS is a BBC clip satirizing the reality that young women actually leave their comfortable homes in the UK and elsewhere to marry terrorists in a war zone.
Met by the public with an avalanche equal parts condemnation and celebration, the BBC has now hidden it behind their Facebook page and a UK only media player; however, thanks to the persistence and pervasiveness of all things Web, you can still see it all over YouTube.
The Bad Little Children’s Book is a spoof on the beloved early readers’ Golden Books, but featuring stories like “The Very Hung Caterpillar” and joke covers with illustrations for titles including “Can you still breathe Grandma?” and “The Sperm Man Cometh.”
Even with 66% five-star ratings on Amazon, the 25% one-star ratings and public approbation compelled the publisher to take it out of print. Once again, thanks to the Web, you can also still find it online.
The latest volley in this wave is Wetback Wipeout, a mobile app by a company appropriately named Offensive Games.
Played by swiping the screen to create waves in a river, you win by drowning a migrant before he reaches the opposite riverbank.
Playing on the English-Only movement, it also includes language settings that fittingly feature, “English, or English.”
Available directly from Offensive Games’ site, (since Google Play probably rejected it) it’s very Charlie Hedbo-for-America.
Despite protests, the company isn’t making any apologies. An anonymous source there said “(I)t’s a matter of intellectual freedom versus censorship. You can’t control what people find funny without performing lobotomies.” Touché.
So, we have millions of ostensibly intelligent, caring folks who enjoy these media, yet others are deeply offended by them.
Who is right? Well, real life is messy, so, in reality, both are. Stick with me, this next bit on humor theory is killer material to drop at a cocktail party.
I know, you just fell asleep when you saw the words “humor theory,” but it’ll be worth staying awake.
OK, let’s get it out of the way as fast as possible: The Benign Violation Theory, conceived by A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, is the model that best explains offensive humor. They say that humor happens when you have a “violation” and no one is getting hurt.
In these terms, a “violation” is something that just isn’t right, like an elephant with a purple Mohawk. Does an elephant need a purple Mohawk? No, of course not, so that’s a “violation.” Is anyone getting hurt by the image of an elephant with a purple Mohawk?
No? Great! There, you have humor, feel free to laugh. Now, let’s look at Wetback Wipeout, our most flagrant violator: An image of a drowning migrant is an obvious violation, but it is physically benign. Does that equal humor?
No, but the cartoon character, the bright colors and cheery music all conspire to try to make the violation benign, turning you to the Dark Side.
At its core you have violence, colorfully rendered and set to upbeat music, The Tom & Jerry Formula. Did we just blow your mind?
If you just laughed at the image of a colorful cartoon migrant musically drowning, you aren’t the most horrible person in the world.
There are those who would vocally disagree, but through the prism of humor theory, everything ultimately depends on your perspective. As Henri Bergson wrote in 1900, laughter requires “a detachment from sensibility and emotion.”
Wetback Wipeout isn’t mentally benign if you’re an immigrant or if you just have a great deal of empathy. But, if you’re physically and emotionally removed from the violation, you may find it hysterical.
How close does it hit home? The further away you are from it, the funnier it could be. We don’t like getting poked in the eye, but it’s figgin’ hilarious every time Moe jabs Curly…
There are a host of other good theories on humor, but we don’t want your eyes to glaze over. If you’re interested in more, go look up Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Hobbes, Freud and Bergson. That should earn you that NERD badge.
The other key factor to one’s sense of humor is intellect, which research positively correlates with what is considered a broad sense of humor.
Smart people are often funny; it seems that their ability to deftly process the idiocy around them gives them a lot to laugh about.
Take Stephen Hawking for example. Here’s a genius who can’t move a muscle and painstakingly talks through a computer, but still tried to kill Fry in Futurama (“Anthology of Interest”) and wished that someone would build a remote control mini-him in his wheelchair (see The Big Bang “The Geology Elevation”).
We wouldn’t suggest that he’d like Wetback Wipeout, but it looks like he finds humor readily by not taking things too seriously. The widely-revered members of Monty Python capture this spirit as well.
Graduates of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, nothing was sacrosanct in their pursuit of a laugh; religion, race, class, violence, everything was fair game.
It isn’t to say that laughing at everything marks you as a genius, but life is tough, and it simply appears that many of the brightest among us find a giggle in things that should bring us to tears.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t laugh at things that we knew were “wrong.” Our empathy would overwhelm our distance from the violation. But, it’s not an ideal world, is it?
We’re going to respond naturally to things that ping the theories of humor within our own experiences. So, you shouldn’t feel guilty about what you laugh at, just perhaps more aware why you’re laughing.
We may not be able to live life through eyes other than our own, but we can still respect one another’s lives, treat each other with care, and be The Social Man.