February 8, 2013 § 4 Comments
As an addendum to our ongoing discussion of the dichotomy between wit and composed jokes, I want to take this week out to discuss racist, homophobic, and sexist humor. Last post, in linking wit to liberalism and jokes to conservatism, I used hate humor as evidence, pointing out that our culture’s vast catalogue of such jokes serve to conserve prestige and privilege for the group telling them.
Proofreading right before posting, though, I realized I had missed a possible contradiction to my argument: racist wit. If the divide between wit and jokes is really like a road that humor crosses back and forth over, it makes sense that there would be a sort of wit that would correspond to jokes that rely on hate speech. Does such a wit exist, and if so, would it mean that wit isn’t actual the liberal side of the street?
Irresponsible, I know, but I posted anyway and decided to figure out if what I had written was right or wrong later. And after a week of consideration, I think I was right all along: there is no such thing as hateful wit. I might just be trying to make the world into what I want it to be with this line of reasoning, but I truly believe that wit is by definition open and searching, and as a result, closed-minded comments can never really be witty.
What ultimately convinced me of this was considering examples from life. Most of the hate humor I’ve come across has, thankfully, not been from my friends and family but at work, where we don’t have as much power choosing our conversation partners. For example, for a while I was forced to work closely with a particularly miserable guy we’ll call K; whenever the rest of us at work would get a nice, convivial, and witty conversation going, he’d have to interject his a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment to get in on the fun. But it never came across as witty, just another instance of K trying to force his agenda on our otherwise free-ranging conversation.
(Looking back, I don’t think K’s agenda was propagating a misogynist worldview as much as satiating his need to control the conversation, making everyone feel uncomfortable so he could feel power. I think there was a bit of jealousy in it, as well; unwilling or unable to open himself up to the creativity of wit, he was often left behind in our conversations and probably wanted to ruin what he couldn’t participate in.)
All hate humor has an agenda; even it’s most spontaneous expression is built on preconceived notions for the purpose further propagating those notions—and as such, it is never pure wit. Finding the opportune moment to say what you’ve been wanting to say is a different thing than finding the novel words this fresh moment demands. As such, hate humor is also the enemy of conversation; a moment of such forced “wit” will always end a conversation uncomfortably if the audience doesn’t agree (as with K) or tighten it into something less than a conversation, as all the participants talk only to reinforce their shared opinions instead of exchanging foreign ideas.