Yes, Virginia, Ethics Does Recognize Humor


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Art Cultural Ethics Gender Disparities Politics

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

A Facebook connection, we can call them Virginia, recently posted an image of a metal ring with electrical prongs. The caption said “Introducing the new Trump is not my president ring, insert it into an outlet and bam, Trump is not your president.” Of course, plugging in a metal ring that you are holding into an electrical outlet would electrocute and potentially kill a person. The message is that people who are not supportive of the President should be die. This is not the first time this person posted a similar concept. Each time I point out that it is ethically unacceptable to espouse that a person should be killed for their beliefs. The response was, “But it’s funny. Doesn’t ethics recognize humor?”

Yes, Virginia, ethics does recognize humor, but not humor that debases others, or implies that a person should be harmed for holding a thought that differs from one’s own. I suggested that she change the concept of “Trump is not your president” with “Bam [blank] is no longer present”. The blank could be Jews, gay people, women, or people with disabilities. Does that change whether this is funny or is horrifying? Is it still funny if the group being derided is one to which you belong? The result was silence.

The author improvising in a show, 2009

After 35 years performing, teaching, studying, and producing improvisational comedy, I know a thing or two about funny. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan said that humor is a “sudden glory” when one realizes superiority over another. This is likely the reason for the meme above: It is an attempt to say that one’s position supporting an office holder makes them better than others. It is an argument that does not rely on logic because often there is none. It is a way to dehumanize and demean people who hold different points of views. Humor can be used to maintain the status quo by making people the target of jokes. Humor can be used to establish or reinforce racial, gender, body shape, sexual orientation, political viewpoint, and other group stereotypes. Consider the President who regularly gives people “funny’ nicknames aiming to diminish that target. Usually he uses this tactic for people who do not loyally follow him without question.

Power is not the only use of humor, nor is it the only thing makes humor funny. Novelist and poet George Meredithwrote in 1877’s An Essay on Comedy and he Use of Comic Spirit that something is funny when we expect one thing and suddenly are given something else. Meredith builds on Kant’s description of humor as incongruity in The Critique of Judgement. That sense of funny can be amusement but it can also be discomfort.

As the history of bioethics has shown time and time again, when you objectify and demean a group of people, it becomes easy to stop thinking of them as human and thus, easier to treat them as something less. Dehumanized patients and subjects are often treated poorly, experimented on without their permission, separated from their families for seeking a better life, denied basic human rights, and killed.

There is indeed an ethics of humor. Living this ethics has meant that improv comedy has gone through its own #METOO moment and recognition that making fun of people because they are members of a group is not acceptable. Improv has a long history of eschewing the contributions of women. In recent years, several male comedians have had their careers curtailed when brave women stood up and said enough is too much. Improv had few women in improv because it could be a toxic environment. There was (sadly, probably still is) a long held belief that “women aren’t funny” (see The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for examples of this and disproving it).

Improv also has a whiteness problem. Improv has been an overwhelmingly white art form for a long time. There are some famous and excellent improv groups composed of mainly people of color (often working together to feel safe and welcomed). Saturday Night Light has faced this problem as well. Is improv and comedy now a rainbow of people making us laugh? Hardly, but there is an awareness of this problem and efforts to be more open and welcoming to all people. Some schools and theaters are working to bring more people of color into the art form.

Feminist bioethics, queer bioethics, and disability bioethics encourage us to look at the effects of power, perspective, invisibility, and [lack of] inclusiveness when examining a case, policy, or situation. A critical lens in bioethics asks us to see that people and patients who are different are not the problem, it is a society that is not build to meet the inclusive needs of everyone that is the problem. Bioethics has had to work toward inclusiveness. In the last year there has been a call to not appear on scientific panels that are composed only of men (and we should extend that to only all white people, or straight people, or abled people). A bioethics that is not inclusive does not serve the community, but rather only serves to uphold the power and sense of superiority of those who feel that other populations do not belong under the tent.

More and more jokes that demean others have become unacceptable and are no longer funny. The lessons of improv and its attempt to become more diverse and inclusive mean that some people who were toxic or intolerant are pushed out. Theater directors, artistic directors, and actors have been asked to leave for their behavior toward non-male and non-white actors/comedians. These are lessons that we can keep in mind in bioethics. A bioethics-related organization is currently going through a problem dealing with a person who is wielding MDeity and toxic masculinity that makes many members feel uncomfortable.

Why not just block Virginia from my feed? That would be an easy answer but that also leaves us both further entrenched in our echo chambers. As a bioethicist, I take it as my duty to educate myself and others. Although this meme may seem like a small thing, it is the tip of the iceberg of a social dialogue that increasing hate speech and crimes, and diminishing civility in our conversations and relations. By pointing out the problematic nature of this meme, I fulfill my responsibility to educate. Virginia, your meme is not funny, it is discomforting, dehumanizing, and unethical.

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