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Should Race and Culture Be Off-Limits in Comedy?

Posted on the 29 November 2013 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73

Image by Gage Skidmore

Image by Gage Skidmore

Having lived in Korea for nearly 5 years now (and married into a Korean family for over 3 years), the way Korea and Asia as a whole is portrayed in Western media and the entertainment industry and the reaction to this portrayal has been something that has interested me quite a bit. I can remember the kind of picture that was painted for me before I lived in Korea and now I can actually analyze whether there is any truth and fairness to how they do it. However, as to whether some of the material put out there is offensive and wrong - and if so how we should deal with it - well that appears to be a matter of some debate.
The entertainment industry is an area where the subject of racism towards Asian people comes up frequently in the field of comedy. Let's first focus on Seth Macfarlane, who has come in for a fair bit of criticism recently for some of the scenes he promoted for his new sitcom "Dads" - weeks before the pilot even aired - because of its use of some Asian stereotypes as a subject for humor. Many have also argued that the show that made him famous, Family Guy, also has gone too far and stepped over the line (numerous times) into racism, not just of Asians but other races too.
Huff Post Debate
Dads on CNN
A couple of other examples also became prominent recently on Jimmy Kimmel and on the Dutch version of X-Factor when a Chinese man auditioned.  Both are neatly summed-up in this article in the Atlantic.
I actually agree with the conclusion in the piece in the Atlantic that anti-Chinese (and even Asian generally) racism is a greater problem than many people realize in the West.  As I wrote in a post on my own site a couple of weeks ago, I myself was shocked at how people in my own country treated my wife when I lived there for a year with her.  There is a big taboo on criticising or making fun of race and culture in the UK, but it doesn't seem to be helping much in alleviating people's ignorance on the matter and making Western countries free of prejudice.  I do believe the taboo on race and culture has reached the limit of its effectiveness and it is time for some honesty and open dialog.
Jimmy Kimmel and the Dutch judge on X-Factor appear to be pretty cut and dry examples of attempted comedy that is not funny and that stepped over a line.  With the Dutch judge it is easy to see why he was wrong, he simply discriminated against another human being, treated him differently, made a joke of him as an individual in front of the audience, and made him and everyone else feel mightily uncomfortable as a result.  With Jimmy Kimmel, the joke was bad taste, but the fact that such a nasty thing was uttered from the mouth of a child also probably helped push the joke into being something wholly distasteful.
When it comes to comedy generally, however, I do see a great many issues and it is not clear to me how best to handle things and where to draw lines, if that's indeed what we need to do.
Being Offended by Possibly Racist (in fact any) Jokes is Almost Always Counter-Productive

The minute people become offended by something, when it is presented as comedy, they run the risk - 90 times out of 100 - of only benefiting those they are upset with. If you are the member of any sports team, you may learn to pick this up quite quickly. The producers of "Dads" played the game perfectly; they got their exposure on the news and had people talking about the new show. When the show actually aired its first episode the probability is that more people tuned-in. Of course, they ran a fine line between notoriety and a ban, but if they had agreed this plan of action to their broadcaster beforehand, there was very little risk of that actually happening.
The other reason becoming offended works in the comedian's favour is that the jokes they make only end up being funny precisely because of the potential offense they might cause. If it could be plotted on a graph, one would see a steady upward curve showing a correlation between a joke's potential hilarity and its level of offensiveness, perhaps until you hit a subject that truly isn't worthy of humor and then the line will become a sudden precipice, the Holocaust for example, although even that is not completely untouched territory. Even AIDS in Africa can be manipulated by comedians to get laughs. Now I am not supporting these kinds of jokes (especially the AIDS one!), but the reality is that if a bunch of people get offended by them, it is more than likely a comedian has done nothing more than forwarded their career.
The sad fact for those who wish to rid the world of racist, culturalist, sexist, ageist, or in fact any bad taste humour, is that there is nothing less funny than political correctness and taboo and nothing funnier than breaking it. Offence simply feeds the desire to produce more of it and if you go down the road of constantly banning and monitoring everything, we end up living in a world lacking freedom of expression, controversy, one that is devoid of a sense of humour, and the ability of people to grow their own thicker skins and defend themselves (this is arguably already happening in the West). A good way to combat it is to confront stereotypes head on and expose them, and it turns out that comedians are often some of the best qualified to do this too.
Should Race and Culture be Off-Limits in Comedy?Another way to kill a subject fit for humor is to make it commonplace, dull, uncontroversial, and tired. To do this, those on the receiving end must brush it off. It sounds a pretty insensitive thing to say in this day and age when we all worry about not offending each other and just getting along, and when some people are more vulnerable than others, but it is simply being pragmatic. Offence is like a defibrillator to a flat-lining joke that brings it back to life again and again.
Many a True Word is said in Jest

Trawl through some clips of Family Guy on youtube, for example, and one can find a large number of little sketches on Asian stereotypes. Here are a few examples:
How God Made Asians
Asian Woman Driver
Asian in-laws
Asian Santa
Asian Family
Asians are Good at Maths
Japanese Girls Laughing
Chinese Dry Cleaners
On all of the above clips I think I can safely say I have known many Asian people born in the UK who are nothing like this and indeed many Koreans who are not like this, but the reason they are quite funny is that I have also known a considerable amount of Asian people during my travels that have fitted each of these stereotypes rather perfectly, far more so than people of a Western background. They are generalisations about behaviour, but they are - it must be said - quite accurate when it comes to identifying patterns of behavior in at least some Asian people, especially those who were not brought-up in a Western country, let's be honest.
What I would really love to see is a comedy program created in a non-Western part of the world that has similar themed gags about Westerners, especially White people. Perhaps I could even suggest a bit of material for them; licentiousness (especially when drinking), being over-weight, arrogance, dumb kids, reality TV shows, clinging to the past (UK in particular), bad dancers, slow runners, lazy workers, ruining beautiful parts of the world, etc. What most of these categories and the Family Guy videos on Asian stereotypes show is that the vast majority of these jokes are not about race at all, they are about culture. Asian, Black, or White racial characteristics just make people more identifiable as belonging to a certain cultural heritage. Here are a couple of specifically White racial/cultural jokes from Family Guy, but you can also find plenty of jokes based on stereotypes of other Western countries and a great many about my own:
White Guys in a Race
White Guys Scared of Other Races
The British
Besides, much of the comedy that revolves around using stereotypes these days makes fun of the people who really believe they reflect the behavior of everyone in a particular group and use it as a means to discriminate, as much if not more so than the group they seem to be mocking.
Western Culture Rebels against Censorship, Thrives on Disobedience, and Enjoys Disrespecting People Who Want to be Respected (at least in principle)

Of course, there is the historical and power dynamic at work here, which makes the whole situation so volatile and it should not be over-looked. Non-Whites will argue that the history of the world makes it a fair bit easier for White people to take a joke about either their race or cultural heritage and there is no doubt this is true. The scales are not balanced, it is simply not fair. The problem is that the world is not fair; how are we to balance the scales? Have an age where Black and Asian people enslave, impoverish, and belittle White people? Would this then make it fair on both sides, so we can start afresh and not worry about joking around with each other? This is not how the world works and not how it moves forward and I realize this is all very easy to say as a White guy, but you can't get around it.
It probably is true that many people from Western countries (again especially if they are White) have a slight superiority complex, particularly when it comes to non-Western cultures, so how can people of other cultures and races get past all of that? Complain to a culture that values freedom of speech and disobedience to authority that, "You can't say that", "It is not fair", "That's not funny", or "We demand you stop and be more respectful." It sounds horrible to say, but this is just not realistic when it comes to comedy. Such things will only fuel the flames and are like a red rag to a bull for many. The ironic thing is that most of the calls for censorship of sensitive material regularly come from Western far-left liberals on the other culture's behalf and it doesn't realize that it simply encourages it even further. Like a vicious circle, the more offended they get, the more they have to be offended about and the more other cultures become the butt of jokes.
Some of the Reasons for Making Fun of Others are Down to Insecurity

This is following the same line of argument as the people who make fun of and bully gay people being the most likely to be closet homosexuals. Unfortunately, race is still an issue for people in the world and culture also, so with this in mind the rise of the East may have unsettled more than a few Westerners and perhaps especially Americans, who have held the honor of belonging to the richest and most powerful nation for a while now (I have certainly noticed more Asian-dissing comedy in the US than the UK). When joking around goes too far or when racial or cultural comedy is taken too seriously, we can often expose jealousies, fears, and insecurities, which are present in many people with regard to Asians and Asian countries. A realisation that this is indeed the case in Asian communities may well help them soften the blows, provide piece of mind and indeed aid them in fighting back.
Try not to be Too Serious or Over-React
Personally, I was a little shocked at the recent reaction to a group of young people dressing-up as the Asiana pilots at Halloween. The article I have linked was so pathetic that it almost served as comedy itself, especially as the writer obviously couldn't see the irony in his little flow diagram at the end. I don't think there was really any harm in wearing what they did, but I am pretty damn sure it didn't deserve the attention and general vitriol that it got either.  In a more recent example, Katy Perry's embarrassing, but harmless performance at the American Music Awards garnered a similar reaction and calls of racism, culturalism or at least disrespect.  Both serve to show-up what is an over-sensitivity towards issues of race and culture.  This over-exaggerated response of outrage clouds minds to more serious issues caused by a shocking level of ignorance among many people.  I believe this is because of lack of dialog about the problem of racism down to political correctness and social taboos.
When it comes to comedy at least, making fun of others is pretty much the norm, it isn't going to go away and if you really think about what makes you laugh on a day to day basis, no one should wish it to disappear. All one needs do is acknowledge it as comedy and not fact and therefore treat everyone you come across as a separate individual, without prejudice. The argument is, however, that allowing such comedy just reinforces people's stereotypes of others. What the factors above tell us though, is that getting angry and trying to ban a brand humor merely is the best way of perpetuating it, promoting it, encouraging it, making it a lot more interesting and funny, and stops people from having serious debates about it and learning from it.
"A joke is not a joke unless it is at the expense of someone else." - Unknown

For comedy to be effective, one need only pick up on patterns of behavior in others, and generalisations of this kind can offend, but I think we are all going to have to live with it and at the end of the day.
There is however, a time and a place for the more edgy and possibly offensive kinds of comedy.  Racial or cultural jokes have no place on the news for example.  More responsibility and care must be taken and I do seriously wonder sometimes whether Western news media are doing a good enough job in this department, let alone other TV programs that are meant to be more family orientated like X-Factor, but we will leave that for another day.  When you tune in to a show like Family Guy, you should expect that some of the material is going to be offensive to some people, when you go to watch a stand-up comedian like Ricky Gervais, Billy Connolly, or Jimmy Carr you should expect the same (sorry, I don't know many stand-up comedians of other nationalities).
To sum things up then, I think I am going to pull a quote from a previous post on stereotypes:
"I have always thought of humor as a key ingredient to getting along with anyone and I think this also applies between groups. When we can make fun of and laugh at each other, without worrying too much about offending each other, this is often a show of acceptance, respect, and generally liking someone and being friendly. In fact, jokes at other's expense are often a test and an invitation to join the group and to test the water as to whether we can trust the other person, especially in men."
There will of course be examples of jokes that are genuinely insulting and done for the purpose of maintaining power or just simply being nasty.  Sometimes outrage is necessary, but we don't need many of the over-blown reactions common in Western culture at the moment in matters of comedy and entertainment.  It does us no favours in ridding the world of prejudice.  Putting social pressure on controversial statements or words in the form of social taboos had an effect, it reduced prejudice and discrimination and raised consciousness, but now it is time to move on and be able to talk openly and honestly about race and culture to take equality and friendship between our fellow human beings to the next level.  Comedy often thrives on blunt honesty and could be the best way to set us on the path to a better relationship between races and cultures.

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