Monday, May 12, 2008


15,238 words later, I win at Yale.

A small sample (1 section):

3) A sense of “naughtiness” generated by racist beliefs in conflict with one’s “actual” mores. In my discussion thus far, I have been assuming that racist responses to humor are ethically undesirable so long as the premise that holding racist construals is ethically undesirable is granted. This is an assumption that the reader does not necessarily need to accept: I may be mistaken in associating those who are amused in a racist manner by racist humor with those who are actually racist. I take it that those who would claim me to make this sort of error are picking out, as counterexamples to my claim, that set of people who can laugh at racist jokes in the same way that racists do, but yet, in other areas of their lives, evidence fair, unbiased, and equanimous behaviors. I myself have had several friends, particularly in high school, who were fond of telling explicitly racist jokes, or referring to grossly offensive ethnic stereotypes, and laughed at them in much the same way a racist would, yet whom I am fairly certain were not “actually” racist insofar as they did not construe individuals of other races as inferior to or less human then they themselves.

I suspect that this scenario is somewhat like that which Bergmann refers to as a “sense of ‘naughtiness’ generated by sexist beliefs” (73): “Something is ‘naughty’ for adults when they believe it to be forbidden, prohibited, or not spoken of and they also think that indulging in it or alluding to it is harm[less] fun.” Bergmann, however, does not see a distinction between “actually” sexist humor and “merely naughty” sexist humor: she simply classifies the latter as an instantiation of the former, supposing that one must, at some level, harbor a hidden sexist belief in order to find such humorous content amusing. I think that this sells the argument short, though: Bergmann’s thought is that, to see any sort of racist joke as funny, you have to see it as a racist sees it, which is accomplished by your actually being racist. But my objector do not have to believe that people who derive humor from racist jokes in this way are all closeted racists.

The objector might instead claim that is some way in which one can actually not be a racist (i.e., not actually personally subscribe to any racist beliefs) and yet still find “naughty” racist humor amusing: that is, it may be possible to suspend one’s actual racial ethics for the duration of the enjoyment of a joke, then return to one’s initial ethical stance, with no harm done to anyone in the meanwhile. In fact, if this is possible, it may even be preferable, for the reason that amusement or a good sense of humor, all else held equal, improves one’s quality of life. What is wrong, the objector asks, with just trying to get a laugh, with no political purpose behind it, so long as everyone involved knows that the comedian and his audience are not actually racist?

Under this view, I may harbor no conscious or subconscious construals of superiority or ill-will towards African-Americans, temporarily take on the beliefs of someone who does feel superior or malicious towards African-Americans in order to find some racist joke (such as the poster in B.2) against Blacks amusing, then return to my own non-racist stance. Imagine also that I do so alone, with no chance of another ever discovering my momentary point-of-view shift, and having taken no actions within that that period of time with repercussions for myself or others: where does the ethical harm lie in doing so? It seems as though this might be a sort of best-case scenario: I may stake a claim to strong personal ethics, but also derive amusement in ways that would otherwise conflict with those personal ethics.

I, unlike Bergmann, accept that this situation is, in some way, distinct from the case of an actual racist responding to racist humor; but I am still ethically suspicious of this stance. Morality is generally construed to be consequentialist (i.e., things are wrong because they lead to bad outcomes), intrinsic (i.e., things are wrong for some inherent reason), or some combination of both. Regardless of one’s specific meta-ethics, however, I find it difficult to condone such behaviors as outlined above.

If morality is consequentialist, then my ethical concern centers around the claim that one’s actions in adopting, even briefly, the point of view of a racist, can actually have no consequences. Perhaps there are no direct ethical ramifications resulting from my amusement at the racist joke: I will likely not, for example, physically or verbally abuse or disenfranchise any Black individuals during the time I was feeling amusement at that joke. However, morality does not only concern itself with making one-shot moral judgments (“this joke at this time is wrong/right”), but also with the long-term effects of ethical choices in shaping one’s character and aesthetics: “I ought to make choices such that I become this sort of person,” or, in the case of humor, “I ought to/ought not be the sort of person who is amused by these types of jokes.” The role of morality as regards humor lies not only in evaluating an individual instance of a joke as harmful or harmless, but also in shaping an individual’s character such that she becomes the sort of person who finds racist jokes unamusing.

The root of this concern lies in the possibility that taking up a racist view, even in jest, might lead to actual desensitization towards that particular kind of racism. This is a controversial charge, and I have found myself, over the past few years, alternately accepting and questioning it. Certainly, I accept that one’s sense of humor can change. Growing up, I found certain things hilarious; after learning of new things, or simply through mental maturation, I realized that I no longer find those prior amusements hilarious. One’s humorous aesthetic can change, and it is overly simplistic[1] to say that such changes are out of our control. It is generally (though not universally) accepted that same way that upbringing received from one’s parents or other elements of one’s childhood environment (“nurture”) can balance out the effects of one’s natural tendencies (“nature”) in shaping one’s character. Similarly, find it reasonable to claim that a man who makes an ethical judgment that his sense of humor is “naturally” lacking can make moral choices to “nurture” a better aesthetic within himself. If this is so, it then falls well within the realm of morality to demand that an individual moral agent does, to some degree, attempt to effect character change on himself, and one of the best means by which such changes might be effected is through a forced separation from ethically questionable material, despite its retained potential for aesthetic fulfillment.

My critic might here interject that I am demanding more ethical stringency from an everyday moral comic audience member than the finest scholars: for certainly historians, biographers, authors, thespians, and other such academicians place themselves in the shoes of ethically contemptible individuals or characters all the time (imagine C.S. Lewis writing from the perspective of a demon in his Screwtape Letters, or a biographer of Hitler striving to peer through his subject matter’s own eyes). My response is simply that there is something that qualitatively and intentionally distinguishes between the scholarly adoption of a “purely academic” point of view for discussion or research and a viewpoint willingly adopted for reasons of seeking the emotive response of amusement: the concept of scholarly detachment, or a “purely academic” hypothetical question has been promoted precisely because of the need to separate the work of a scholar in exploring potentially unethical points of view from her own personal point of view. To wit, while an academic hypothetical may remain intellectual only, and otherwise unemotional, the danger of emotive responses is precisely that they are affective and emotional, affecting areas of the psyche in which it is far harder to remain divested: I am not even clear on what it means to experience an emotion “hypothetically”, which is very nearly what my critic is claiming a non-racist may do in experiencing amusement elicited by racist construals.

I have a second concern, about the intrinsic harmfulness of such points of view: Roberts, in his 1991, makes the point that “the sinfulness of the emotions is independent of the evil or absurdity of their manifestations” (quoting Harre, 13). Despite a “widespread notion among philosophers that feelings… are not the sort of thing that can be morally assessed,” Roberts evaluates the sort of emotions “that go by such names as ‘envy,’ ‘pride,’… ‘contempt, ‘self-righteousness’… and the like” as inherently censurable, “in themselves… morally offensive” (22). Roberts’s concerns regarding these emotions arise from considering them from the point of view of a family of moralities with the shared trait of highly valuing interpersonal relationships: friendships, brother- and sister- hood, and the like. Within such moral structures, Roberts argues, one’s ethical duty “is constituted not just of behavior of an appropriate kind, but of proper attitudes, and it is these attitudes that are above all contradicted in the wicked feelings [emphasis added]” (22).

The same point translates to racist construals: if one believes morality to be inherently derived, then allowing one’s self to be “temporarily racist” is no better than being “actually racist”. And, presupposing the immorality of racism, it is also immoral to adopt racist beliefs and racially-motivated attitudes of superiority towards others, regardless of whether one does so because of a belief that it is true or simply because it allows one to derive amusement from a particular joke, regardless of whether one does so for a shorter or longer period of time, and regardless of its impact (or lack thereof) on one’s actions and later thoughts. The later reversibility of one’s mental stance it does not alter the fact that one is presently engaging in that particular attitude or construal of other races, and this is in itself morally questionable. If morality about racism is intrinsic, then there are certain racist construals that ought not be accepted, even if only hypothetically and in jest.[2]

[1] A claim that requires support.

[2] The point can be made that there may be a substantive distinction between “being racist” and “pretending to be racist”, in a way such that whatever is inherently wrong about “being racist” is not wrong with “pretending to be racist”. I suspect, though, that Roberts’ paper again provides a response: in the same way that “being a moral friend” involves not only actually acting morally towards one’s friends, but also holding proper attitudes towards those friends, I think that “being non-racist” involves strictly holding non-racist construals of those other races. Given space constraints, however, I have chosen to not include full discussion on this point in this paper.

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