Friday, July 18, 2014

Nothing is Joke-proof

So, very recently, Jason Biggs—from American Pie and, more currently, Orange is the New Black—caused a predictable uproar because he made a joke about the Malaysian airline plane that was shot down. The joke in question? He asked if anyone wanted to buy his Malaysian airline frequent flyer miles. If you’re like me, that’s worth a brief smirk and pretty much nothing else. If you’re like a huge number of other people on Twitter, that’s some kind of hideous crime against humanity. It’s borderline exasperating that I honestly feel obligated to explain why that attitude is ridiculous, but at this point I think it’s an issue worth addressing.

No one would have cared if Biggs had made some unrelated joke that just happened to occur after the plane was hit. No one would care if Biggs had known about the tragedy before making said unrelated joke. But in effect, what’s the big difference? Either way, the goal would be to make you laugh when a tragedy had just occurred. And it isn’t as if Biggs’s joke makes people care less about what happened; it made a lot of people care far more, since they would have probably gone on with their lives as usual, had they not suddenly felt the need to raise some sort of moral outrage about how Jason Biggs is an insensitive monster.

So what’s so offensive about the joke in question, then? The fact that it reflects the fact that Jason Biggs doesn’t care all that much that a bunch of people he never met got killed? I don’t either. Neither do you. Sure, we all think it’s awful, but is anyone outside of the friends and family of the victims really going to do anything other than give some acknowledgment that it was tragic, and horrible, etc., and then move on? They shouldn’t—this event is no more tragic than the sort of things that happen every day. Just more unexpected. If you don’t spend a lot of your life mourning the fact that millions of children die each year of starvation—and again, you shouldn’t, because it accomplishes nothing to sit around and feel bad about it—then you have no right to expect anyone else to enter some mourning period for a couple hundred complete strangers on a plane somewhere thousands of miles away.

And let’s state the obvious here: the people who raised the moral outrage are no different than you or me in this respect. Had they not seen this joke, they would have gone on with their lives as usual, putting the thought of the Malaysian airline tragedy out of mind. Thanks to Jason Biggs and their own self-righteousness, one Tweet has caused them to focus far more on this tragedy than they otherwise would have. So why are they throwing a hissy fit about it? Who did the joke honestly hurt? The victims are dead. Their families probably weren’t paying attention to the Twitter feed of some random actor at the time. In fact, if the families of the victims are now aware of Jason Biggs’s joke, the bold moral crusaders who stirred up so much controversy about it have themselves to blame for that; it would have gone completely under the radar had they not chosen to act like some grave breach of human decency had been committed.

The people who have gotten outraged about this and a thousand other “tasteless” jokes live in a fantasy world where keeping grieving families “in your thoughts and prayers” actually achieves something and where humor is only acceptable for things that upset no one. That’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where every day is a tragedy for someone somewhere—many people, in fact. More than one philosopher throughout history has posited that life itself is suffering, and that view has a lot to back it up. With that in mind, drawing some sort of line between what is and isn’t acceptable to joke about is beyond senseless.

I’m not going to whitewash the reason I think it’s okay to laugh at—and make—jokes about plague, genocide, rape, or pretty much anything else. It’s not because “it helps us deal with tragedy” or something innocuous-sounding like that. It’s because all of those are part of human existence, and so when they happen to someone I never knew and who played no part in my life, I’m not deeply saddened, even though I sympathize with those who are. And even some things that have deeply saddened me, I’m willing to joke about. Humor is based on existence as we know it. As such, it can either be okay to joke about every part of that existence, or none of it at all. That doesn’t mean that every joke has to be funny, but it does mean that no jokes can rightly be offensive—only the message sent by a joke can be offensive. The message sent by Biggs’s joke is that all of us might want to avoid flying Malaysian airlines. I’d tend to agree. Those who want to act like the joke is insensitive need to admit to themselves that deep down, they’re really no more upset by the Malaysian airline crash than Jason Biggs is. If they really are, they might want to read some statistics on world hunger, disease, crime, etc. Then they might want to consider if they could find better uses for their time than getting outraged at a joke.

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