Introduction To Irony: Or, How To Take A Joke 101

This article is more than 8 years old.

I know a few Holocaust jokes. I learned them from the children of survivors. I suspect they’d disagree with the Harvard student who declared that pain was no laughing matter.

“I don’t think that jokes should trigger on any type of pain,” 20-year-old Dakota Rot explained to the Boston Globe. She was responding to satirical fliers distributed on campus advertising a fake social club, noting “Jews need not apply,” and “Coloreds Okay,” and including a reference to date rape. “If you’re a person that’s part Jewish or a person of color or a woman who has been in any dangerous situation, you shouldn't have to read this.” Rot declared.

Satire is intentionally, inherently offensive: It laughs at sacred cows; it mocks painful, serious issues and ideas.

It should go without saying that, “you don’t have to read this.” But if you’re confronted with offensive speech and fail to avert your eyes or plug your ears, you will probably survive the encounter.

I am “a person that’s part Jewish” as well as a “woman who’s been in a dangerous situation,” and I feel fine reading and writing about “offensive” language in the Harvard fliers. (I have read and viewed much worse over the years, and, even then, felt fine.)

Harvard Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, however, feels less than fine about the fliers. She denounced them as “hurtful and offensive,” an affront to Harvard’s values and its standards of “thoughtfulness and respect.” Hammond offered the usual, obligatory statement of support for free speech, but it seems limited to support for speech she doesn’t find offensive.

Perhaps Harvard should change its motto to “No Laughing Allowed,” because satire is intentionally, inherently offensive: It laughs at sacred cows; it mocks painful, serious issues and ideas. Consider just a few headlines from The Onion.

“God Answers Prayers Of Paralyzed Little Boy. 'No,' Says God.”

“Turkey Pardon Mishap Results in Accidental Release of Serial Rapist

“Recession-Proof Jobs Include Any in Which You Witness Your Boss Kill Someone.”

I confess to having laughed at these stories. Some people probably found The Onion’s jokes about rape, workplace murder, crippled children and religious faith “hurtful and offensive” and exploitative of extraordinary pain. But I bet I was not alone in guiltlessly finding them funny.

I have even laughed at my old friend’s Holocaust jokes. Here’s one: “In Forest Hills (known years ago as a community of survivors) people crowded into bakeries don’t take numbers; they just raise their arms.” I have laughed at my late father in law’s definition of an anti-Semite as “someone who hates Jews more than he should.”

This doesn’t mean I find the Holocaust or anti-Semitism funny. It does mean I have a sense of black humor, which is utterly lacking on many college and university campuses today, along with any sense of irony. Satire is the enemy of political correctness, which makes it a frequent target of campus censors and speech codes that prohibit offensive jokes.

Perhaps Harvard should change its motto to “No Laughing Allowed,”

“(M)uch of comedy is saying what we all know we shouldn’t say,” Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
observes. His new book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” describes the dramatic decline of humor and free speech on campus.

At Washington State University, a student received death threats after writing and directing a satirical musical mocking identity politics in order to “show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.” A mob of students disrupted the play and “threatened to turn a theater performance into a full-scale riot.”

At Lone Star College, a student group was “threatened with dissolution for distributing a tongue in cheek flyer listing ‘Top Ten Gun Safety Tips,’” including “No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling, “‘I have a gun. I have a gun.’”

At Yale, students were chastised for decorating a T-shirt with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” The administration declared the t-shirts unacceptable and “pulled the design.”

These incidents are not anomalous. They’re typical. Censorship on campus is routine and perversely equated with tolerance. Harvard officials condemned the satirical social club fliers as acts of intolerance, but the only intolerant actors in this familiar controversy are students and administrators who refuse to tolerate offensive speech.

Censors are often blind to their own close-mindedness. They take themselves and their ideas so very seriously; their self-awareness suffers. Place yourself beyond the reach of satire and you’ll never see yourself as others do. Laughing matters.


This program aired on December 4, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.