Lecture on Morreal, The Negative Ethics of HumorThe topic of the discussion is bigoted humor that relies on stereotypes. Racist jokes, in particular, will be used to make the point. I. Racist Jokes Exaggerate StereotypesSuch a bigoted humor relies on character traits that belong to the demographic – whether it’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. – according to stereotypes. Racist jokes exaggerate these character traits to the point of laughter. For example, “preposterous degrees of stupidity, sexual promiscuity, etc.” are often attributed to races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, etc. II. The Paradox Of Racist Jokes: They Are Harmless And HarmfulOf concern to us is that, on the one hand, they are just jokes, and no one takes them seriously – and, to that extent we do not have anything to worry about. Especially if the jokes are communicated in the right context and by the right people: for example, in comedy clubs, by comedians of that same demographic, or among friends, perhaps also by people of the same demographic. But, on the other hand, and this is what is really of concern to us, such jokes are harmful, and, therefore, immoral – regardless of the context and by whom. The latter is Morreal’s contention.III. Jokes Are Beyond Morality – They Are Aesthetic Fictions Beyond Cognition And Practical ReasonSo, why is there nothing wrong with these jokes? And how are they able to produce laughter? If there was something seriously wrong with these jokes, we would presumably, not laugh at them, when we know there is something wrong with them. Yet we laugh while we know that they are morally wrong, in a mode that seems to be so beyond morality, that we are tempted to say that our morality, our moral character, who we are as moral beings, is not affected by laughing at these jokes. We must address the workings of this laughter – whether it is independent of and does not affect our moral character – first.Morreal is working with the classical philosophical conception of the rational human mind. Jokes produce laughter due to the judgment that our mind makes that jokes are funny. The mind has three functions, or performs three kinds of judgments. One, the cognitive judgment, “this is true” – most clearly presented and employed in math and natural sciences. For example, water consists of hydrogen and oxygen, or I am now typing this presentation on my laptop. Two, the practical judgment, “this is good or right” – most clearly presented and employed in our thinking about morals and other practical matters. For example, murder is immoral, or I should finish this presentation today. And, the aesthetic judgment, “this is beautiful” or “this is interesting” or “this is entertaining” or “this is funny” – most clearly presented in our contemplation of fine arts, landscapes, persons, entertainment, jokes, etc. While the cognitive judgment relies on our perception, and the practical judgment relies on our reason and feelings, the aesthetic judgment relies on the process of play of our imagination. If a painting, landscape, person, or joke are able to engage the play of our imagination in some novel, exciting, or clever, or pleasing manner, then we respond by feeling the pleasure and the excitement of beauty or laughter or other aesthetic feelings and reactions.Morreal calls the cognitive and the practical judgments engaged, while he calls the aesthetic judgment disengaged. The cognitive and practical judgments are serious, in that they are about what reality is and how we should act in it, whereas the aesthetic judgment is disengaged, in that it is not about reality but about the play of our imagination. The first two kinds of judgments engage and produce information about reality, while the aesthetic judgment engages and produces fiction. Because we are aware that we are engaging fiction, we can contemplate and enjoy all sorts of things (both pleasant and painful, happiness and suffering) in art, film, and humor.
Were those same things witnessed by us in reality, we would react and respond to them with feeling and action – we would not be able to contemplate and enjoy them.Morreal’s point is that when we attend to jokes, and even to racist jokes that are full of exaggerated negative stereotypes, we are in this disengaged mode and know that we are attending to fiction for contemplation and enjoyment We know that we are not processing information about reality for us to respond to. No one thinks that those exaggerated stereotypes are true and that we should treat people depicted in those stereotypes accordingly. Thus, we just enjoy the play of our imagination in the novelty and excitement of all kinds of excesses that take place in jokes that we do not encounter in everyday reality. For this reason, we can laugh at that person slipping on a banana peel and rolling down a set of stairs and landing in a puddle, etc. We would not dare to laugh if it was happening in reality as we would be overwhelmed by grief for the person’s suffering and our urge to run over and help him. All of the preceding explains why we should think that jokes – and other aesthetic enjoyments and their objects – are independent of and do not affect our moral character. To put it plainly, one need not be a racist to laugh at a racist joke. It is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a racist , in order to laugh at a racist joke. That’s the conclusion that one can draw from all this.IV. Racist Jokes Are Not Beyond Morality – They Can Lead To Moral Irresponsibility, Callousness, And Unconscious Indifference That Produce HarmAdmittedly, however, Morreal further tells us, jokes can be abused. “Humor can disengage us from what we are doing or failing to do.” We may make jokes to distract ourselves from taking responsibility for our actions. People will tell jokes when they have an uneasy conscience doing something. Also, “… humor is often used by politicians to deflect criticism.” In other words, humor can promote irresponsibility.Also, we can use humor – tell jokes – to block feelings of compassionin us. We can make jokes when someone is suffering and we are trying to counteract the compassion in us that moves us to act.
For example, we may laugh at someone who slipped in front of us in reality. This is very different than laughing at someone doing so in a work of fiction (in a movie, for example). A person who laughs at someone’s suffering in real life is callous and insensitive. Of course, such a person is also likely to be irresponsible – though we can conceive of being irresponsible in situations that have nothing to do with compassion and we can probably conceive of a callous person who does not shirk responsibility (but who is still blameworthy for being callous) So, even though, callousness is likely to lead to irresponsibility often enough, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for irresponsibility.Humor disengages people – in order to relieve them from moral responsibility and compassion – from the practical use of the mind an judgment. Morreal’s discussion of the trouble with racist jokes, however, centers on how humor disengages the cognitive use of the mind and judgment. The core of the article is in the following.Morreal claims that when we do not question or scrutinize the content of jokes, but let it roll over our shoulders, we become indifferent to their content. We do not ask and scrutinize whether the stereotypes in jokes are true. That way, ideas are “slipped into people’s heads without being morally evaluated.” By aesthecizing jokes, we remove the stereotypes contained in them from moral scrutiny.The trouble with stereotypes internalized in this fashion is familiar – individuals are not treated as individuals but as homogenous group members. This is the homogenization problem we have encountered in Blum’s article. More than that, echoing another of Blum’s themes, the exaggerated content of these stereotypes makes those exposed to them treat minorities portrayed in them as inferior. Blum spoke of this process as unconscious, and Kelly and Roedder identified it as implicit (not explicit) racial bias in our snap judgments. Here is Morreal: “… nothing as cognitively sophisticated as belief is required for such jokes to do harm. Mere repeated thinking of groups in negative stereotypes is enough to prompt us to treat real individuals not according to their actual merits and shortcomings, and so justly, but as automatically inferior because they belong to those groups. In milder cases, this mistreatment may involve only condescension, but in other cases, … it involves malicious distrust, hatred, oppression, and even murder.” It not difficult to think of stereotypes of black males as violent that are contained in humor that lead to the Weapons Bias and the death of Officer Young.V. Stereotypes Contained In Jokes Require Vulnerable Populations As Their Targets, In Order To Be DangerousMorreal ends the section by pointing out that not all jokes that exaggerate stereotypes are equally harmful, or even harmful at all. He points out that jokes toying with lawyer stereotypes are harmless – since lawyers are not in a position in which they can be easily mistreated in terms of, for example, condescension, insult, or employment denial. However, black people, women, and homosexuals are in a position of vulnerability and are discriminated against. “Stereotypes are part of the social system that marginalizes and “keeps them in their place.””VI. Some ImplicationsHumor is part of communication – and communication ethics should touch upon ethics of humor. We allow and enjoy in humor to be expressed the sorts of things that we would not tolerate in other contexts. There are good reasons for saying that that is ok – but, it seems, that there are even stronger reasons to take responsibility and discontinue this process when it comes at the expense of marginalized groups. At a conscious level, we are beyond the immoral influence of racist humor, bu we are very much affected by it at the unconscious level that is expressed in the Implicit Racial Bias.But is humor the only context in which bigoted stereotypes enjoy protected existence? Are these stereotypes also communicated in works of art, news reporting, etc.? Or, is the case for the unconscious being overstated here? Are we not all autonomous adults enough to guard our assessments of reality and actions from being infected by stereotypes – and we should not deprive ourselves of humor, fiction, and news reports that contain would-be stereotypes that we are too wise to fall prey to? Are there techniques of communication that artists and news commentators can employ that would lessen the malignant unconscious effect of the stereotypes?