Personally, I like to think I have a good sense of humor, though some might want to argue that point, I appreciate a good joke. I follow a few social media pages dedicated to humor and it is an almost daily occurrence for me to see in the comments, “relax, it’s a joke” or to see someone post about how humor is a dying art because everyone is offended. This fact bothers me because humor is a vital part of society; and even God has a sense of humor (though many seem to miss the jokes). Humor helps us take the edge off life, by forcing us not to make mountains out of molehills, or seeing a brighter side to our mountains. But, it is a fact that people are more offended by jokes now than at any time I can remember… or then again maybe not. Yes, in some ways we live in a hyper-sensitized world, but that is not all bad.
I grew up in a fairly racist environment, I can remember some of my friends telling explicitly racist jokes. Why was no one offended then, because everyone in the group was white and no one was concerned with the people being mocked. I am sure some people would have been very offended by some of the jokes I heard but they were not present. Our world is perceived as more sensitive today because we are in closer contact with those at the wrong end of the joke. It is not as easy to avoid those negatively impacted by our humor; rather, the person telling the joke must see the inadvertent damage caused by the joke. I have some severe vision issues, which can be a struggle for me, and some of my favorite hobbies are ones where I hear a number of blind jokes. I recognize that sometimes I am sensitive to those jokes and react rather negatively. In my reflection on my sensitivity in this area I recognize that I am often fine with my friends making jokes about my handicap, but only because they have earned the right. Why am I sensitive to people who I consider outsiders making jokes I would laugh at coming from friends– there is no love. My friends are able to make jokes about my eyes (most of the time) because they are also the ones who know when I am hurting and grieve with me. Humor is about lifting people up and making lives light. My friends do that even when they harass me about my eyes. Strangers on social media, who do not know the difficulties I face and who are not going to walk into the difficult times with me, are not making my burden lighter they are weighing me down.
Our culture has to realize that humor cuts, and if I am not the one receiving the blow I have to be cautious in how I use my words. This is at least part of James’ point when he says:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. James 3:3-6
The primary concern for James is using the tongue in anger to lash out at others, however his words are just as true for us when we try to be funny. What James warns us about is not thinking about the consequences of our speech and that applies to humor as much as to anger. Much of the humor that people find offensive begins in noticing something odd, wrong, or different in the world (or in some cases creating a false stereotype about the world). The result is that anyone who falls into that category is isolated from normal. What I mean is that when a group of people with good vision tell a joke about an individual being blind, I am suddenly isolated from that group, they share a laugh by highlighting how I am different. Why can my friends tell the same joke and I laugh, because in that setting I begin with the knowledge that I am not isolated (though there are still times I might say to them, “not today”). Why do I find The Honeymooners to be offensive, because I have known individuals who have been hurt by domestic abuse and the show seems to lack sympathy for those who have been harmed by abuse.
Have some taken being offended too far, (as always) of course. But the reality is that many in our society do not give near enough thought to how their words impact others. Are there times I need to just turn my head and ignore the blind joke because it is funny and I am overly sensitive, yes. But, should I keep my experience in mind as I tell jokes which might hurt others, you bet. Humor done right will heal the wounds of this world, but humor abused will lead to even greater social havoc. If we want jokes to be funny, we need to connect to those who are hurt by those jokes and learn how to speak and act in a way which brings honor and life to all situations. In the mean time there are always puns.