Offensive humor perpetuates stereotypes, normalizes harmful student behavior

Comedians such as Trevor Noah and Chris Rock are often praised for both bringing laughter to audiences and a lighthearted approach to relevant world issues. While attempting to tackle complex topics in a humorous way, comedians often employ offensive techniques that glaringly isolate targeted groups and take advantage of their identities and experiences. These jokes often involve an “in-group,” an exclusive group of people who share similar interests and identities, making fun of an excluded or isolated “out-group.” Offensive humor should not be normalized because it is insensitive, exacerbates larger social issues and harms those in the “out-group.”

Offensive or dark humor is a style of comedy that engages with sensitive subjects in a disrespectful manner. To be clear, there are many cases where humor is productive in discourse surrounding controversial topics. For instance, affiliative humor — humor that appeals to everyone in a room — can promote an inclusive, positive environment. Alternatively, comedians such as Hasan Minhaj often integrate humor with facts and explanations to tackle important issues. People may also make jokes about their own identities, but this is far different from attacking others’. With this nuance in mind, offensive humor about someone’s identity — including their race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, religion and socioeconomic status — is unacceptable regardless of intention because it negates their personhood. Those on the receiving end may feel singled out, marginalized or fearful, since offensive jokes imply that there is something inherently wrong with them because of their identity and lived experiences.

According to a study conducted by University of Arizona professor Caleb Warren and University of Colorado professor Peter McGraw, effective humor requires a balance. A joke cannot be so safe or mundane that it bores the audience, but it cannot be so risky that it makes people on the receiving end feel uncomfortable or threatened. Those who are able to strike this balance are perceived as confident, since they take the risk of making a joke that does not land. The ability to make risky jokes is associated
with assertiveness and capability, causing some to step too far and engage in offensive humor for the sake of capturing an audience’s attention.

Offensive jokes often demonstrate entitlement and ignorance, as there is no “superior” group that should judge another for their beliefs or identities. Those who ridicule others lack knowledge about the groups they are joking about. In a community as diverse as Palo Alto, these jokes can normalize unacceptable behaviors. For instance, jokes that hinge on an ethnic or racial trope often end up reinforcing stereotypes, hurting self-perception and well-being.

People engaging in this type of humor may claim that the jokes are only “friendly fire.” Humor, however, is subjective, and it is important to respect other people’s boundaries and opinions. Jokes should be used to enact change and criticize wrongdoing, not disparage others for their mere existence. Racist, homophobic, sexist or religiously bigoted jokes, no matter how harmless they may seem, are off-limits, as they usually end up ridiculing groups rather than welcoming and accepting them.

Offensive humor carries no weight if no one laughs at it. Therefore, its normalization leads to its continued existence. For example, the entertainment industry continues to create sitcoms with derogatory race-related comedy. The popular sitcom show “The Office” is a prime example: The first season’s “Diversity Day” episode — where a well-intended diversity seminar quickly escalates into a slew of stereotypes and prejudiced insults — garnered negative attention for its approach to race and diversity.

Ultimately, empathy is key to combating offensive humor. Before making jokes, students should put themselves in others’ shoes, considering their experiences, beliefs and values. Only then is it possible to foster a progressive and inclusive environment — and have a few laughs along the way.