What people find offensive and why is a question that does not have a simple answer. One person’s joke is another person’s rude comment. What makes one person laugh makes another person blush in embarrassment. What some people consider subtle wit is nothing but an insult to someone else. Some feel humor encourages stereotypes. Some feel it breaks them down. Let’s look at some of the factors that account for some of these differences.
1. Conditioning By Society. We are programmed by our culture, family and other social influences to think that certain things are funny, and that other things are offensive. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is. Although it starts to be bad when the offensive humor begins to ruin relationships and eat away at a group’s self-esteem. Humor based on a stereotype, even if it’s accurate, can have a negative impact on society. On the other hand, humor can disarm a stereotype. The power that the humor has depends on the reader or the listener. Creating effective humor based on stereotypes is not easy.
2. Self Esteem. An interesting thing is that attack and put-down humor is often created by people who are trying to boost their own self esteem. In other words, this type of humor is created by those who lack self esteem in the first place. It’s a negative self worth directed at lowering the self worth of others. I’ve noticed that people who are emotionally healthy and balanced are less likely to use attack and put down humor than those who have self-worth issues.
3. Playing Police Officer. Some people find material offensive not because it offends THEM, but because they are afraid that it will offend someone else. Their self-appointed role is the protector of society and they censor material which feel may cause discomfort to others.
4. The Two Percent. It’s said that two percent of people will be offended by anything you say or do. There is truth to that. Almost every joke in our Gender Contest will probably be found offensive to someone. If your goal is to not offend a single person…don’t speak or write to anyone. A better goal is to find that proper line which divides the humor of good and bad taste and learn not to cross it. And accept the fact that some people will be offended no matter what you do.
5. Perspective. A humor line can be offensive to men for one reason and to women for another reason. In our contest, we had a line: Pants are feminine because in most homes it’s the women who wear them. This can be offensive to women feeling it’s a putdown of assertive women, professional women, women who work outside the home. It can also be offensive to men who feel it’s an attack on their masculinity and that women are superior to them. In either case it doesn’t matter what the attitude or intent of the writer was. To offend or not offend was solely based on the perspective of the reader.
6. Internalized Put Down. Some groups have lived with such a history of oppression that they’ve become conditioned to see a negative put-downs in places where none was intended. Being offended becomes an automatic, knee-jerk reaction. You would think that ultra sensitive reactions to humor would be easy to understand. But that’s not the case…you haven’t lived someone else’s life. You see things only through your own filters. A good personal approach is: Habitually reacting to something in an ultra-sensitive fashion is probably not a productive way to live.
7. The Psychic. Some people are offended because they always know WHY someone created a certain joke. They always know the motivation of the writer or speaker. Of course the truth is that they don’t know the motivation. They are only guessing. My suggestion is not to fall into the trap of labeling other people’s actions and behaviors with the motivations behind them. You are only shooting in the dark. And often your guess will be wrong. And the resulting negative judgements will disempower you.
8. Pushing Buttons With Satire. I found a couple of satire web sites that hit a lot of hot spots. I present these sites to you as interesting case studies. You may or may not find them funny. You may find them offensive. You may love them. We will have subscribers that fall into all those categories. Some feel that satire exposes and breaks down stereotypes. Others feel that it reinforces and encourages stereotypes. Each site, after you read the comments sections, will push buttons for people on both sides of the issues. When you check out the sites, before you read the feedback of others, ask yourself how you feel about the content of the sites. And ask yourself WHY you feel the way you do. Then check out the feedback postings which the sites have received. People on both sides of the issue (black/white and pro-gay/anti-gay) find reasons to be offended or reasons to love the site. On the Black People Site click on Your Letters. On the Gay Marriage Site scroll down to see the posts from people responding to the site’s content. With that said, here are the sites: Black People Love Us and 10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage Will Ruin Society.
9. Your Intent. Get a good understanding on why you use humor. What is your motive behind a specific line? Is it that you really don’t like the group you’re poking fun at? When you’re coming from a negative place, the humor is likely to be off target, offensive and divisive. Remember the person suffering from low self esteem writing put-down jokes to compensate for his or her lack? Don’t be that person. The result is probably offensive. The bigot who writes put down jokes is not helping him or herself and is hurting society as a whole.
10. Don’t be an easy target. Don’t let jokes easily push your buttons. Be “hard to offend.” Don’t try to speculate on the intention of the person who created the humor. That doesn’t mean that you have to think that everything is funny. Rather, you should avoid giving your “emotional remote control” to someone else. View something from a level emotional state. It will empower you to effectively respond to the humor should a response be necessary. Coming from an emotional state disempowers you and reduces your effectiveness and your ability to influence others. Keep your power.
11. Be Challenged. Don’t take the simple road to humor by doing the easy jokes based on sex, body parts and negative stereotypes. Create humor that takes thought and creativity. It’s more challenging. It’s more funny. It’s less offensive.
12. Walk A Mile. Step into the shoes of someone different from you. Be sensitive. Build links, relationships and bonds. Use humor to grow our collective family and not tear it down. Let your positive humor shed light.