Can anything be funny?

Can anything be funny? This is what you sometimes hear. And the implication is there behind this that you are a bit suspect if you think not. That you may even be a closet Daily Mailer. Wanting to censure and censor and that perhaps you should lighten up.

Can a rape joke ever be funny?

You hear this question posed from time to time and its one of those tedious misunderstandings. This is the reason why we should teach philosophy in our schools. So that we may think more clearly.

The question arises because it is badly put. And then people argue, and there is very often a good chance that they agree on all the points. It’s just that they don’t know exactly what is being framed for debate.

Lets string it out.

Is rape funny? Inherently. I would say no. Nothing’s inherently funny, and certainly not that.

Can a rape be described in a way that conforms to the conventions of a ‘joke’? Well, probably. But then anything could. But why would you do that? And does that make it funny? Its more complex than that.

Let’s take another example – when Billy Connolly made that joke (it was a throwaway line to be accurate, but that’s not really important), about a man called Ken Bigley who was being held captive in Iraq and threatened with beheading about ten years ago. Was it funny to make a joke?

To make light as his wife waited at home to hear if he had been released or if he had been murdered.

What larks.

But let’s pretend that it was. Or more precisely, let’s say that it followed the conventions of what we understand a joke is (double meaning revealed at the end, an upending of our expectations, whatever).

Whether or not it does is not the (friggin) point.

It can be a ‘successful’ joke (so well timed and following the conventions adequately) or it cannot be. The question is whether it is in good taste to laugh, sneer, or make light of someone else’s suffering.

I believe it is not.

(We must also address ourselves to the mechanism of the joke. The thing that it is predicated upon. Let’s take a Thick Paddy joke. Which you never hear anymore, why’s that I wonder. Because people said enough is enough.

So, if you do, for example, actually believe that Irish people are thick, then if the joke is well told you will laugh. But of course to get to that point you would have to believe that people from Ireland are all largely the same and that, as I said, they are not as intelligent as most other people. In short you would have to be a cretin.)

So there’s another reason why most of these jokes aren’t funny. That have no truth in them and for a joke to be funny it must contain truth. A joke after all is a short short story. It must have something we empathise with. Something we understand.

Similarly, I believe that not wanting to make light of sexual violence, rape, misogyny or racism does not make me a prude or a stick-in-the-mud. But rather it makes me a thoughtful person who does not want to make the world a very slightly nastier, violent, misogynistic or racist place.

And crucially when there is violence at the heart of your ‘joke’ – that for me strips it of any humour. I don’t have to suppress my laughter. It’s just not there. I just listen to these sad sacks – that bearded basstad springs to mind – and I think how lazy are you? How misguided. Am I laughing along? No I am not.

Not a stick-in-the-mud, but someone who wants to say, no I won’t be complicit, in this. No, I’ll stand in opposition to that.

And that’s why rape jokes aren’t funny.

It’s like laughing at someone who has had a (prat)fall but who is then lying prone, bleeding and in distress. Hilarious, huh?


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