December 5, 2012

That picture of Harvard you’re always supposed to use when writing about Harvard or someone from AP Style comes and yells at you and asks what the matter is. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)

 

I am always alarmed by the dogged insistence of people who cannot take a joke that, if someone ever made a good joke, they would recognize it instantly.

“It is not that I don’t like jokes,” they say. “I can take a joke. But this is plainly not a joke, or it would be worded better. This is horribly offensive hate speech, and I should not have to listen to it.”

Well, no. 

Most jokes are not funny.

Most satire is not deft.

Most humor, in fact, is total rot. 

For every sublime joke that makes you proud to be a human being, every punchline expressed in the most perfect words, there are thousands upon thousands of lame puns, sexist slurs, too-sooners, farts and material that someone just ripped off LordVoldemort7’s Twitter.

Nobody will tell you he hates jokes or dislikes free speech. Free speech is good, these people say. They love free speech. The more the merrier.

It’s offensive speech that’s the problem.

And satire is welcome, they say. Absolutely. They love a good joke.

It’s the bad jokes that are the trouble. 

They always come for the bad jokes first. And no one says anything. And this is how it starts. 

Look at what’s happening at Harvard right now.

It’s Punch Season, when mysterious letters slide under students’ doors inviting them to join a Final Club, which, depending on your opinion, is either “one of an array of (until recently) racist and (still) sexist organizations” or “a great Harvard tradition that has been preserved in its glory and purity that your friends are involved in” or “somewhere with a basement that you can drink beer in without submitting a lot of forms to the House Dean.”

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of Final Club culture (I spilled some myself, back in the day), and sure enough, some bad joker also took the time to distribute fliers inviting students to join a fake final club called the Pigeon, whose values included “inclusion,” “diversity” and “love,” with footnotes explaining “Jews need not apply,” “Coloreds okay,” and “Rophynol” (misspelled). It invited students to a first event at the frozen yogurt shop Berryline after closing, in “semi-bro” attire.

The outcry was intense.

This has been decried in the Boston Globe as an “anti-Semitic flyer.” An investigation began to root out the originators of the anonymous flier. Dean Evelynn Hammonds sent an e-mail to the Harvard community saying that, “As Dean of the College, and as an educator, I find these flyers offensive. They are not a reflection of the values of our community.”

I assumed that she was referring to the spelling of Rohypnol.

But no.

 “Even if intended as satirical in nature,” she continued, “they are hurtful and offensive to many students, faculty and staff, and do not demonstrate the level of thoughtfulness and respect we expect at Harvard when engaging difficult issues within our community.”

Whoa. If that’s the standard, everyone had better throw in the towel right now. 

Look, subtle, this ain’t. Jonathan Swift, this ain’t. Even the Harvard Lampoon President Owen Banks said it was “basely crass,” not “pretentiously crass.” But there is little doubt that it is intended as satire. No such club exists. If it did, it would not have its first event in semi-bro attire at a closed frozen yogurt place. 

Something doesn’t have to be funny to everyone to be a joke. If it did, there would be no jokes. Even the best jokes in the world are not funny to everyone. Heck, this might not be funny to anyone. But its intent is still clear. 

And this is an odd response from a college whose official policy states:

“Free speech is uniquely important to the University because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning. Curtailment of free speech undercuts the intellectual freedom that defines our purpose. It also deprives some individuals of the right to express unpopular views and others of the right to listen to unpopular views.

Because no other community defines itself so much in terms of knowledge, few others place such a high priority on freedom of speech. As a community, we take certain risks by assigning such a high priority to free speech. We assume that the long-term benefits to our community will outweigh the short-term unpleasant effects of sometimes-noxious views. Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.”

(Boldface mine) This is, to say the least, not the proper response to a disagreeable idea. 

As Nicholas and Erika Christakis write in an excellent piece on the subject, “Our hyper-vigilance about campus speech does the opposite of ensuring ‘safety.’ It infantilizes students and tells them that any time they hear something that makes them uncomfortable, no matter how distasteful it may be, they have reason not only to be offended, but also to restrict the speech of others so that they can avoid their unpleasant feelings.  This is not good pedagogy. 

“For one thing, it denies students the opportunity to learn to think for themselves — an essential life skill without which most humans would be adrift. In the recent Harvard case, it also literally blinds authorities to more pressing problems for our students, such as the sexist and dangerous behaviors that still go unchecked behind closed doors.”

But that is much harder than rooting out a flier. 

So they always come for the bad jokes first. No one wants to defend the bad jokes. If there were some way to be immune from hearing bad jokes, we would all be signed up. 

But by the time you have cleared away all the bad jokes, there is no footing left for the good jokes to stand on. Pretentiously crass humor depends upon the toleration of basely crass humor. The proper response to a flier like this  is to throw it away with a muffled groan and later, if you’re still upset, to write a strongly worded letter about it. To make a better joke. Not to suppress it. Not to hunt down the people behind it. In the purge of the bad jokes, no one will make it out alive. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.