An uncharacteristically silly Dahlia Lithwick piece

What was Dahlia Lithwick thinking? Normally, I very much like her stuff written for Slate and doubleX, both on parenting and on legal issues. But this article just seems loopy to me.

First she says that jokes are "only funny if you accept the premise." I'm not sure what this means, and she does not clarify. It surely can't mean that jokes are only funny if you think the set-up is true -- I don't think that a priest, a rabbi, and a minister really did walk into a bar.

Presumably she means that a joke is only funny if you think the subject worthy of mockery, or you agree that the subject of the joke is either immoral or worthy of being taken lightly. I don't think that's true. In the first case, I could see a funny joke about Obama's Greek columns, even though I didn't believe the columns to be worthy of notice, much less mockery. In the second, the Daily Show has been making repeated jokes about a pedophile van. It's not really funny, but I don't for a second believe that Jon Stewart or the writers on the Daily Show (who do seem to find it funny) actually take pedophilia lightly.

Lithwick says on one hand:

They are funny only if you accept the premise, in this case, that Palin is the slutty mother of sluts or that Letterman is a dirty old man with designs on 'tween girls. If you don't accept that premise, the jokes become cancerous hate speech. There's no middle ground here.

Then in the next paragraph:

It's easy to view this whole Palin/Letterman dust-up through the lens of political opportunism: As Kevin Drum remarks, Palin "was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick." Columnist Mike Littwin calls it "a faux-culture-war story that falls somewhere between sublime and ridiculous, which is exactly where we need a headline-grabbing, culture-war story to land."

Seems those people found a middle ground.

Then she ends, oddly, quoting Freud for three paragraphs as an authority on jokes on their role in our psychology. Um, really? Freud? He has been discredited in so many ways -- either cite someone more recent and less controversial, or simply make the surely widely acceptable point that jokes are sometimes mask hostile intent, and listeners sometimes take offense.

What matters is not the premise or content of the joke. A joke about pedophilia may be neither hate speech nor funny. What really seems to matter is what the listener perceives as the intentions of the joke teller. A joke can be funny so long as the listener feels the teller is telling the joke in good faith, or at least a faith that largely agrees with the listener's (let's say it's a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for funniness). So Jon Stewart might get a pass. Stupid guy joking about Obama and aspirin, not so much. Similarly, each of two movies can depict the same immoral act. But a movie in which there is an implied authorial excoriation of the immoral act will feel quite different than one in which the act is celebrated.

Insofar as people really are taking umbrage at either Palin or Letterman (as opposed to empty posturing), my guess is that it is not because of the actual content of the joke, but by what they take to be mean-spiritedness on the part of the teller.


  1. I agree that the piece is a confusing and muddled piece of sloppy thinking. However, I think the point she was trying to make jibes with your conclusion:

    "The point of the umbrage wars is that both sides insist that the other side is getting away with something. Both sides think that there is a double standard at work here that makes its jokes funny while the enemy spews toxic, dangerous hate." [emphasis in the original]

  2. I agree. I just wish she'd been more clear about it all.

  3. Comics must be held to a lower (or double) standard simply because they have to try to be consistently funny and fresh, a very tall order, so people should shrug off an occasional bad joke, or an unfunny joke. If every joke has to be vetted then things will get boring right quick. If they don't find a comic to their liking, they can simply not watch it. I also recognize some comics go beyond the tolerance level of even their own listeners, like Imus did. However there are comedy shows where the tolerance levels knows no depths. South Park is a show that consistently tries to humorously offend as many people as possible. It often fails miserably but occasionally comes up with very funny bits. It is also completely ignored by the Politicians. I think the Politicians ignore it because they know any umbrage they would take would be welcomed and reveled in.
    In the end, I could not take this battle remotely seriously, since neither an aging late night TV comic nor a clownish Politician themselves are serious people.


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