Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

When Is Hate Speech Funny?

June 14th, 2006 · 5 Comments

Like Feministe, I’ve always found it a little odd to read nominal progressives in the blogosphere offering attacks like… well, I’ll just quote:

Jeff Goldstein is a paste-eating ‘tard. Ann Coulter is an anorexic cunt with an Adam’s apple. Hey Michelle Malkin, me love you long time!

Something else I’ve noticed, that may explain what’s up: Some of my liberal friends—people I’m as sure as one can be have not a homophobic bone in their bodies—will use “fag” as a casual pejorative (though never directed at an actual gay person except by another gay person); the conservatives and libertarians I know never will. This seems (and seemed to me) strange on face, but I think it makes sense for two reasons.

First, at least among people who know him, the progressive can probably be relatively confident that the hateful views we associate with that term aren’t going to be imputed to him. The conservative (I’m talking about the sort of conservative I’m capable of being friends with here, which excludes the actual bigots) will probably be acutely aware that there are plenty of conservatives who harbor those views, and especially keen not to be mistaken for one of them. Think of how you’ll find people who know each other well making tongue-in-cheek jokes based on each other’s race or religion or orientation or whatever that they wouldn’t dream of uttering in a public setting. (In a weird way, the ability to exchange such “offensive” jokes is a sign of friendship: If someone you’d known for a long time never prodded you or had fun at your expense or generally gave you shit, you might take it as a kind of formality suggesting a lack of closeness. Update: Commenter JK points to a Slavoj Zizek interview with some interesting thoughts in this vein.)

Second, one reason that jokes like that are actually funny—one reason the South Park kids’ “Jew” and “fat fuck” banter works, or at least worked when the show debuted—was that because they’re rooted in genuinely offensive attitudes, they still retain the power to shock that’s necessary for that kind of humor. “Fucker” and “shithead,” while more likely to raise hackles at the FCC, wouldn’t have the same frission, because what you’re actually going to laugh at has to at least flirt with the violation of your own taboos. My recollection (I’m too lazy to check this now) is that the evolutionary function of laughter is to serve as a kind of “all clear” signal in the face of apparent danger. Somone tickles you—but it’s not a real attack, though it might look like one—and we laugh. Most verbal jokes turn on either some kind of reversal of expectations or the harmless violation of taboo; slapstick is all about the appearance of injury without actual harm. Someone stubbing her toe isn’t funny; someone falling and cracking her skull isn’t funny; someone doing a wild pratfall, then sitting up shaking her head, dazed but unharmed, might be hilarious. The more dramatic the pratfall, the funnier it is when it proves to be harmless; the stronger the taboo, the more potential humor in its (“harmless”) violation.

So it seems like you might find racist/religious/sexist/etc epithets or jokes in two very different kinds of context: First, sincerely, among actual racists, sexists, and other bigots. Second, in groups where there’s a strong taboo against those actual attitudes, but the people communicating are sufficiently confident of themselves and each other on that score that boundary-pushing results in that all-clear humor reaction. The problem on the Internet, of course, is that you often end up with a forum that feels like a small close knit community but is actually available to thousands of casual readers—a tension I expect we’ll be negotiating for a long while yet. Anyway, that might be one reason you find the kind of rhetoric the Feministe folk were so appalled by in particular among the blogs and chat boards of the left, where people are both especially likely to be conscious of speech taboos and confident that everyone’s actually got the right sorts of views.

Tags: Language and Literature



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barry // Jun 14, 2006 at 2:48 pm

    I think that it comes from a combination of some genuine prejudice, and a lot of resentment. Michelle Malkin serves as the Asian who justifies discrimination and repression of non-“whites”. Coulter is the woman who gets away with lies and evil which no liberal could. I’m not sure what the liberal equivalent of Goldstein would be, but he’d probably be the first blogger put into Gitmo.

  • 2 Lane // Jun 15, 2006 at 8:33 am

    Isn’t this what The Aristocrats was all about?

  • 3 James // Jun 15, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Just a few days ago, there was a posting on Firedoglake directed at Anna Marie Cox that left me pretty uncomfortable. The language that was used was that of sexual degradation and humiliation (the title was “Time Magazine Launches a Bukkake Festival”), and I just couldn’t see any way that it wasn’t tapping into deep misogeny. The closest thing to a plausible justification I could find (implausible ones include “she deserved it” and “she was asking for it”) was a friend’s suggestion that it was similar to blacks being allowed to call each other n—–, with the understanding that said language is still off limits to whites. But whatever the merits of either, they still seem pretty different to me.

    I’ve noticed that something similar seems to be the case with Paris Hilton. I recently wrote an essay entitled “Why I like Paris Hilton” in which I observed that, unlike practically every other member of her social class, she actually has had jobs, earned money, and (important to me, anyway) paid Social Security taxes. Yet despising her seems to be one thing that progressives and social conservatives agree on.

    The only thing that I can think of that explains it all is that misogeny, racism, and homophobia run pretty deep, and if the social inhibitions that prevent its expression are somehow switched off in a given situation, it just rushes to the surface like some sort of Freudian geyser. Even so, I’d think that civilized people should at least pay attention to it — as a warning, if nothing else.

  • 4 Will Wilkinson // Jun 17, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    I would say something vile with respect to your ethnicity, as a show of friendship, naturally, but according to The Columbia Guide to Standard American English “there appears to be no ethnic slur or other pejorative sense attached to Spaniard, as has sometimes been alleged.” So I’m stumped, you mouthbreathing cockgagger.

  • 5 Anono // Jul 6, 2006 at 10:21 am

    There’s a big difference between close friends joking around with seemingly-offensive language, and the commenter that you quote (who was not joking around with Coulter or Malkin).