When I write about this stuff, I know in advance I'm going to get a positive response from free-spirited avuncular types who to be perfectly honest are rather embarrassing to me, those 60-something men in Hawaiian shirts who remember when women liked to be complimented on their 'gams' and who are wary of that stuff they're teaching the kids in the colleges these days; and I know in advance I'm going to get silence from my peers. But what can I do? The principle of parrhesia cannot be grounded on prior calculations about who one would like to hang out with.
If my would-be political allies were being grown up about these things, they would understand that what they are really after is not something that can be attained by setting down, once and for all, the complete index nominum prohibitorum. Rather, it is a matter of cultivating virtues like tact and discretion: virtues for which there are no easy rules to be mastered in an a priori way, but which always depend upon the combination of a million different social cues.
We are often told that 'it was just a joke' can be no legitimate defense for the person who has publicly transgressed in some way. But the people who say this are interested in accounting principally for transgression or offense. If it were humour, and the nature of joke-telling, that were of principal interest to them, they might be compelled to see that an enunciation's offensiveness does not make it not a joke, and that living one's life under orders from the ironic imagination involves, almost by definition, an unceasing and reckless interest in exploring the boundary between acceptability and what lies beyond it.
I suppose I'm fine with punishing jesters who fail to read their audience right, who say the wrong thing at the wrong moment and are judged to have said something that was not 'just a joke'. But heavens, let us stop pretending that what they've done is to break an explicit a priori rule.
Over and over again, we see a flat equivocation in the reaction to failed satire. Recall the child actress who was called a 'cunt'. The satirical newspaper that transgressed in this way is known and praised for imitating the hypocritical, prurient, and reprehensible tone of mainstream and (more recently) social media. But when it misfires with a joke, all of a sudden it is held responsible for the actual content of the claim, it is held to have directly proposed as true the statement that was meant to be a channeling of the sort of thing someone else would say. I refuse to go along with the condemnations. I'd rather endure an occasional misfire than live in a climate where fear of censorious condemnation leads satirists to hold back their satire where it is most needed.
And let those of us who agree that language can indeed serve as an instrument for maintaining systemic inequality and oppression nonetheless admit that there are genuine competing goods that we have good reason to wish to bring about, and that the elimination of potentially oppressive language might come at the cost of genuinely salutary linguistic tools for the affirmation of solidarity, friendship, or love. Let us admit that there is a vague and unstable boundary between offensive and inoffensive language, that for example in the logic of naming sports teams, or of christening playmates with nicknames, there is always a fine line between mockery and honor. And let us admit that just what it is to be a socially communicating being that enters into significant relationships with other such beings is to negotiate this difficult boundary, sometimes unsuccessfully.
I like obscene jokes, and I like archaic terms for sex acts and orientations and bodily functions and, yes, for illnesses, faiths, and nationalities too. These are like little linguistic treasures, and I can only suppose that people who have no interest in preserving this patrimony are simply deaf to a certain aesthetic register that is very dear to me. My favorite satire is the kind that comes dangerously close to sounding as though it is earnestly expressing the sentiment it aims to lampoon. I live in fear --real, constant fear-- that leading my life at this register will someday get me into a great deal of trouble. I've seen it happen to good people. I strongly disagree with the assertion, so often made by my progressive friends, that only people who are harboring deep prejudices or who have structural privileges to defend will worry about such a fate. I worry about it because I love language, and I wish to be able to use language to adequately express all the queer things that race through my baroque and densely packed imagination.
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