How a racist joke is like a beautiful photograph


MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES is a feature length documentary on the world and work of renowned artist Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky makes large-scale photographs of ‘manufactured landscapes’ – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams. He photographs civilization’s materials and debris, but in a way people describe as “stunning” or “beautiful,” and so raises all kinds of questions about ethics and aesthetics without trying to easily answer them. (From Edwardburtynsky.com)


On Valentine’s Day, I posted a joke card referring to the 9/11 Twin Towers crash. I agree with the comments I got, which is that it was a little sick but I thought it was funny. And then I got to thinking that a lot of the things i have found funny have been sick. It hasn’t been a prerequisite for laughs but its been there quite often. The thing is this; laughing at or about something does not mean endorsing it.

I remember when there was a flurry of dead baby jokes. I thought they were hilarious and tried to make some up as well. Did that mean I thought actual dead babies were funny? Of course not. Nor was I laughing as the towers came down. But I really believe that anything is fair fodder for laughs.

Humour may have evolved as a survival mechanism. There are accounts of humour among the inmates at Auschwitz and the other camps. People who are at death’s door or are undergoing tragic circumstances or are just in trying times can find some solace in making light of their woes. Its not the same as making light of someone else’s but it is not entirely unrelated. And could it be that we are more serious now that our circumstances are so less dire than the circumstances of our ancestors?

I think that part of the message of every joke, what makes us laugh even when we are being misogynistic, racist, sexist, ageist, anthingist, is that we recognize that we are looking in a mirror and seeing our own imperfections. Of course we don’t experience it that way but that might be going on. The reason I think it is not simple cruelty or distancing is that when you hear truly cruel attempts at humour, they just aren’t funny. In my experience, racists are generally very bad at jokes; they will use the format but it doesn’t quite work whereas the comedian can tell a racist joke (and often it is about their own ethnicity which doesn’t change the fact that it still is racial) and it is funny.

Off colour jokes are like beautiful photographs of ugly things. The humour does not imply real cruelty just as the beauty of the design or image need not imply anything about whether the subject is actually good or evil. Burtynsky’s photographs are of processes that are destroying the earth but they are beautiful.

I always worry when someone says that something is off bounds for making fun of. Humour is the act of looking at something from an unexpected angle, and politically it is often the angle that the powers don’t want you to employ. They are depending on channelling your perceptions one way, a serious one dimensional route, a mechanistic no messing around path to their predetermined end state. Let’s get serious usually means let’s look at it only my way. Humour is a mental off road vehicle, a derailer of pomposity and simple mindedness; like art, it is the humane response to life and uses all of life, not just the nice bits, to achieve its goal.

3 comments on “How a racist joke is like a beautiful photograph

  1. I donno. I think someone can imply cruelty and still manage to be funny if they’re skilled at humor. I’ve seen it, an ex-coworker kept many in stitches, but they had an implied target and many of his comments were hurtful toward this person. There was a cold bite underneath.

    I kinda see it similar to literature. Some perspectives might argue that there should be no topic to taboo to write about, but I disagree. I think some books manufacture nothing but ugliness, and certain voices really don’t deserve a medium in which to sound off. Even if trash is well executed, it’s still trash.

    I’ve only come across maybe 2 books ever that I found completely worthless…

    but they’re out there. And there’s humor of the same brand, some things are just ugly, and shouldn’t be aired.

  2. And I guess there might not be anything a smart cruel person can’t use to their advantage be it humour or art or whatever. Perhaps you are right, I don’t know. I hope others will put their two cents in here.

    Next meditation might be something like “if humour is so special how come people are still laughing at bad sitcoms”.

    With the literature angle, though I don’t think there is anything that should not be fit for content, I have been disturbed but how some books have turned out, like American Psycho. Some describe that book as satire but I just found it cruel, and not particularly good.

  3. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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