Comedian Nikki Glaser came to UR last week and stirred up a storm of angry students with her joke that “people who have been molested are so much cooler.”
Many students reportedly exited the auditorium while she was still talking. Days later, a student tagged her on their Instagram story beside a screenshot of a post by UR’s It’s On Us Committee. The committee, which advocates for sexual assault victims, denounced Glaser’s comments and directed students who were triggered by her attempt at subversiveness to on and off-campus resources. Glaser replied to the student with the words: “Give me a break.”
I was not present for Glaser’s bit, so I can’t judge the quality of the rest of her work. But this joke specifically is both unique and absolutely typical: unique in that it provides this opportunity for a dialogue about humor and privilege, and typical in that it’s representative of a culture where humor gets a pass to take social progress down a notch by claiming to use shock to expand our worldview.
Professional comedians are far from the only people to do this sort of thing. Take the World War III memes from this January, largely made by and for privileged, white Americans (many of whom will never see the consequences of any of the atrocities the U.S. inflicts on the Middle East).
The common belief here is that humor cannot be held accountable. Humor is a coping mechanism or a method of presenting various truths to a wide audience in a palatable way, so offensive humor shouldn’t be treated with the same gravity as other forms of bigotry.
But I don’t think anyone who makes jokes like these actually wants to save the world, and I definitely don’t think they are doing so out of a desire to cope with a tragedy that isn’t actually affecting them.
I’m far from the first person to point out that the people making such jokes are never those whose lives and safety are on the line.
Nikki Glaser says she has never been molested, and Americans tweeting from home have never been oppressed by a foreign government stirring up tensions for their own profit. There is no tragedy for them to cope with because their jokes are about experiences they have never had.
This instills anger in the targets of the joke for two reasons: Not only are the jokes themselves terrible, they’re terrible because the tellers just don’t get it. They use unfamiliar experiences to inflate their own perception of themselves as edgy satirists, redefining the boundaries of humor and human decency. Your identity, and, at times, your trauma are nothing but an ingredient in their lazy substitution for a personality.
If you confront the joke-tellers about their behavior, their excuse will most likely be some variant on an assertion that humor can be used to force people to examine topics with which they are uncomfortable, which supposedly creates some form of change in the world. This argument is a slippery one.
You can’t be too certain that your comedy sketch at a moderately-sized university, or your tweet that will be seen by all 53 of your followers is going to change something about our society, because that sounds completely off-the-wall bonkers.
But you also can’t concede that humor is enjoyable but almost always fundamentally useless. To do so would beg the question of why you consider your own jokes so important that you’re giving yourself license to spew poison, knowing that it will hurt people.
It’s good that Glaser was held accountable by a large number of the people watching, but we need to be sure we bring this attitude into other conversations as well. Nobody gets to dictate when reaffirming a certain bias is harmful and when it’s part of an edgy trend toward darker humor. You are not the star of someone else’s story. Another person’s experiences or identity should never be fodder for your throwaway gag.