Are you a comedian who complains about people being too “PC” these days? Do you complain about people being “too uptight” or unable to take a joke?
Are you a non-comedian who dislikes seeing others criticize comedians for their use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist humor? Do you feel that it’s all in “good humor”?
If you belong to either of those groups, please listen up, because I have something to say.
That “good humor” you’re talking about? The “rape jokes are funny” humor? That “it’s just a dumb blonde joke”? That joke that relies upon stereotypes about black people? Or the one that makes a punchline about the death of a trans woman?
That’s not “good humor”. In fact, so-called “humor” like that is pretty awful, because it involves Punching Down (capitalized for emphasis, not for grammatical reasons).
What is “Punching Down”?
Consider the punchline of the joke.
Is it meant to make you laugh at women by way of their gender? At a trans person because of their gender identity? At poor folks bc of their socioeconomic status? Disabled people because of a disability? Mentally ill people because of their mental illness?
All those groups are communities who have long been-and continue to be-discriminated against in society.They have been-and continue to be-denied the basic rights and dignity that all humans should be accorded. They have been-and continue to-experience all manner of oppression in society.
Such oppression manifests in a variety of forms. One of those ways is the use of Punching Down humor which uses marginalized groups as the punchline. Punching Down humor invites the audience to laugh at people whom society *already* treats with disdain and contempt. Punching Down humor is basically like saying “See that homeless woman over there? Let’s make her and her life situation the butt of a joke.”
That’s not at all cool (and I really hope I don’t have to explain why).
Now, I know that some believe that this is something incredibly minor and that “it’s just a joke, dude”.
To that, I say FUCK THAT NOISE.
Those jokes are indicative of the mindset of the person who creates them and/or makes them. Those jokes reflect the biases and prejudices an individual has against others. Others, I’ll remind, that large numbers of people already hold negative biases and prejudices against. Many advocates of social justice oppose the use of humor that punches down specifically *BECAUSE* we are advocating for a fairer, more just society for all. Getting there means ridding our society of all manifestations of oppression. Not just the ones that are viewed as the “big ones”. Even the so-called “little ones” are harmful, bc they perpetuate stereotypes about marginalized people.
When comedians complain about people being too PC (Jerry Seinfeld comes to mind), the message they are sending others is “we want to continue making jokes at the expense of those society already treats like shit and we think you should laugh at those jokes bc we feel entitled to your laughter, and really…why should we consider the impact our words have on others?”
So please, if you’re a comedian who makes jokes that denigrate homeless people, jokes that perpetuate stereotypes of gay people, or rape jokes (while there are a handful of comedians who can make funny rape jokes, they manage this by making the rapist the butt of the joke, not rape victims; this takes careful thought and consideration and really is not something I am confident most comedians are capable of) consider the people who are impacted by those words. Think about their humanity. Think about whether or not *they* would appreciate their identities being used to make others laugh. Give some thought to how society perceives these people. What discrimination do they face? What obstacles to their lives do they go through every day? What laws exist that make their lives more difficult, not less? What attitudes and beliefs do these groups consistently hear that undermines their humanity? Consider that further entrenches harmful prejudices about people who need compassion and empathy, but all too often receive mockery and disdain. And then give thought to how your jokes contribute to the negative stereotypes many people hold about people in marginalized groups.
And if you’re the kind of person who laughs at jokes that Punch Down or you launch into a tirade against someone who criticizes a comedian for telling sexist, homophobic, or classist jokes, then I ask you to take some time for self-reflection and examine why you’re laughing at jokes that treat disenfranchised groups so horrendously. Personally, I’m of the opinion that if comedy cannot survive without punching down, then it should fucking die.