The Humour of Hate
“All over People changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler Flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway”- The Clash
I grew up in rural Australia, with some of the most racist, violent and misogynistic humour I have ever come across. We (I was among them) made jokes about drunk, dead, filthy and poor Indigenous people. As well women were rendered objects under the violent and possessive gaze of men via humour. We laughed at this. It was a culture. Humour is the product of culture. That is why it is hard to understand humour in a second or third language as it is not just about words. There are complex contexts that come with them.
Humour is a product of culture. Whether it is ‘woke’ (whatever that means), or racist culture. The idea that all cultures are equal corresponds with people telling jokes about minorities, or foreigners (Asian men in the case of Mr. CK). But at the same time, when the products of the culture that can excuse racist humor are called out, then suddenly it all becomes relative — speech or the essence of culture is suddenly about freedom. It cannot be both. Either cultures are relative, and therefore we have to respect equally the opinions of others (including Islamic fundamentalists) along with their ideas and humour because they are not the same as ours, or there is an absolute of right and wrong and then racist humour is not on as it is demeans and punishes other people for no logical reason.
I do not agree with Jonathan Pie (Tom Walker) here. I do not think the outcry about Louis CK’s routine can be explained by the argument that ‘jokes are not literal’ — that is obvious and explains nothing. Nor can the reactions to the humour of Louis CK be compared to the work of (ancient) morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse or the removal by Netflix of Hasan Minhaj’s satirical comedy episode that criticised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These are comparisons drawn by Tom Walker as the character Jonathan Pie. Anyone can make jokes based on hate, but the desire to control the lives of others, as both Mary Whitehouse and MBS are dedicated, is premised on an absolute right and wrong and the assumption of absolute privilege. This absolutism shares a similar flawed logic to the idea that hate speech should be permitted in the public realm as it is freedom that determines its worth and not the content of the utterance.
Objectifying people is not the same as murdering them for your own power and then trying to keep others silent about it, or telling others what they are allowed to read, see or listen to. Louis CK stereotypes then he gets reactions. He expects people to step over into an understanding about the Other (Jew, Asians, Shooting Victim, Women etc.) and the joke is the entry point. One common way to objectify people is through attributing a race to them and then associating that with stereotypes. Such a concept of Race is part of a larger culture. At its most basic level race uses the pigmentation of the skin or the perception of origin to symbolise a particular way of understanding or classifying a person, regarding identity, beliefs and so on. To label someone of a particular race is to place them within a system of recognitions, histories and hierarchies. This of course happens all the time.
It was Frantz Fanon who wrote
“that racism is a social structure (and that individuals are “racist” because societies are based on the absolute distinction between “masters” and “slaves”) but also on the ambivalence of the psychological effects of this structural racism, that had to be described phenomenologically. What he calls alienation applies to both the colonised and the colonisers, even if does not apply in the same way; it is centred around the phenomenon of ‘divided consciousness’ and the perversion of sexual relationships and fantasies, sometimes going as far as psychosis, that impregnate the mutual representations of dominant and dominated, and the fetishistic identification with their own ‘colour.’”
The idea that racism is more that just a single act or opinion is supported by David Theo Goldberg’s book Racist Culture, which argues that “racial thinking is a function of the transforming categories and conceptions of social subjectivity throughout modernity. He shows that rascisms are often not aberrant or irrational but consistent with prevailing social conceptions, particularly of the reasonable and the normal. He shows how this process is being extended and renewed by categories dominant in present day social sciences: “the West”; “the underclass”; and “the primitive”.
An example of how ethnicity, class and classifying are combined in humour that depends on an awareness of culture is the film Soul Man, a 1986 American comedy film about a white man who temporarily darkens his skin, in order to pretend to be black and qualify for a black-only scholarship at Harvard Law School. The film uses Blackface and it met with controversy from the moment of its release. Despite this the film actually has strong anti-racism themes, such as its use of montage techniques in the above clip to depict the stereotypes of Afro-American men projected onto someone who is perceived to be black by a (stereotypical) middle class white bourgeois family. The basic premise of the film is that race is constructed, as much for whites and it is for blacks, but it is a powerful and every present system that defines much of our social reality. As a construction it uses perception, fear, power, stereotypes and position to enforce what is today often called White Privilege. I believe Louis CK, Jonathan Pie and many other people, including myself, are beneficaries of that privilege too.