Content note: anti-LGBT sentiment, antisemitism, racism, sexual assault
Cards Against Humanity is a card game where people combine terms into new phrases in pursuit of dark and edgy mirth and pith. Like Apples to Apples, but focused on all things political, absurdist, and emotionally charged. A lot of progressives like the game, so it’s a useful place to start talking about the progressive tug-of-war between ‘expand the universe of socially accepted speech‘ and ‘make harmful and oppressive speech less socially acceptable‘.
It’s recently come to people’s attention that Max Temkin, CAH co-creator and former Obama campaign staffer, removed the card ‘passable transvestites’ from the game a while ago, calling it “a mean, cheap joke“. Likewise the cards ‘date rape’ and ‘roofies’. That prompted Chris Hallquist to accuse CAH and its progressive fans of hypocrisy:
Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve twice been involved in conversations where someone has suggested that some of the cards in Cards Against Humanity are really offensive and need to be removed from the deck.
To which I say: huh?
Not that some of the cards aren’t offensive—they are. I love the game in spite of this fact, but I totally understand if some people aren’t in to the game’s brand of humor and don’t want to play. What baffles me is the suggestion that it’s just some of the cards, and if you removed them the game would be fine.
[… H]ere are some of the cards from the very first twenty-card sheet found in the free PDF:
- Not giving a shit about the Third World
- A windmill full of corpses
- Bingeing and purging
- The hardworking Mexican (subtly suggests most Mexicans are lazy)
- The gays (which I’m pretty sure is not how people who are sensitive to LBGT issues refer to refer to gay people)
If you’re going to remove the offensive cards from the Cards Against Humanity deck, you’re easily removing 30% or more of the deck. And there are lots of cards that may not be offensive at first glance, but are clearly designed to be combined with other cards in offensive ways. For example, the “African Children” card (also on the first page of the PDF) only sounds innocuous if you’ve never actually played the game before. It suddenly becomes very offensive if someone plays it in response to the question “How did I lose my virginity?”
[… N]ow, I understand that some rape victims have PTSD triggers around discussion of rape, and I can understand someone in that position saying, “I enjoy lots of offensive humor, but jokes about rape are something I, personally, can’t handle.” I certainly wouldn’t recommend telling rape jokes to random strangers you meet on the street.
But when people complain about rape jokes, that’s rarely all they’re saying. Instead, the line is “rape jokes are never okay,” which I find a little hard to accept, especially when the context is Cards Against Humanity. Like, do they really think rape jokes are inherently morally superior to jokes about AIDS and the Holocaust?
Let me make a proposal: if you’ve enjoyed playing Cards Against Humanity (and haven’t repented of your offensive humor enjoying ways and sworn never to play the game again), you really have no business moralizing about what kinds of humor other people enjoy.
If Chris is accurately picking out his friends’ core objections, that’s a fair rebuttal. But I don’t think liberal ambivalence about CAH is generally shaped like that—even when words like ‘offensive’ show up. (Though especially when critics are wise enough to forsake that word.)
Chris’ target bears a close resemblance to some standard misunderstandings of social justice writers’ views:
Straw claim #1: ‘Offensive = bad.’
Ordinary claim: Harmful = bad.
Sometimes offensive things are harmful. And sometimes they’re harmful specifically because of the extreme ways they cause people offense. But offensiveness in itself is fine. Heck, it can be a positive thing if it leads to harmless fun or consciousness-raising.
Straw claim #2: ‘Making jokes about oppressed groups is intrinsically bad, for Reasons. Deep mysterious ineffable ones.’
Ordinary claim: Making jokes about oppressed groups can be bad, if it’s used to harm the group. That’s for common-sense consequentialist reasons.
If your friend Bob just went through a horrible break-up, joking about it might cause him a lot of pain, as opposed to helping lighten the mood. If you care about your friend’s feelings, you should be careful in that context to make break-up jokes ones he’ll find funny, and not ones that are at his expense. Follow his lead, and be sensitive to context.
And don’t assume you can make dickish jokes at his expense just because he’s not in the room at the moment. If you wouldn’t want to say it to his face, think twice about saying it behind his back.
Now, if that’s true for Bob, it should also hold for a whole group of Bobs who collectively went through a Mass Societal Horrible Break-Up. As for individuals, so for groups.
Straw claim #3: ‘Making jokes about offensive topics like rape is always wrong.’
Ordinary claim: It’s hard to make a good rape joke. So, for most people, it’s probably a good heuristic to avoid even trying. But feminists recognize that there can be good rape jokes — both “good” in that they aren’t even mildly immoral, and “good” in that they aren’t shitty jokes.
People who complain about harmful jokes are often accused of being humorless killjoys. Which I’ve always found weird. Consider Hurley and Dennett’s new theory of humor in their book Inside Jokes, which can be summarized in five core claims about the psychology of humor. Their fifth claim is that when an incongruous discovery is funny, “the discovery is not accompanied by any (strong) negative emotional valence”.
To the extent a joke makes you feel really bad, you miss out on experiencing amusement from it. You aren’t just hurting people; you’re also artificially narrowing the audience that can appreciate your jokes, and not because they lack a sense of humor. How is telling inaccessibly painful jokes, and thereby making it impossible for a large swathe of the population to get any enjoyment out of one’s material, not being a ‘killjoy’?
Straw claim #4: ‘Context doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who’s telling the joke, or to whom, or to what effect. Wrong is wrong is wrong.’
Ordinary claim: …?? Huh? Of course context matters.
A group of Holocaust survivors telling zany jokes about the Holocaust can be totally different from a group of neo-nazis telling the exact same jokes. One is a heck of a lot more likely to be tongue-in-cheek (or outright cathartic), and to neither reflect nor reinforce real hate. And there’s continuous variation between those two extremes.
For example, anti-semitism is sufficiently stigmatized in my Super-Liberal Inner Circle of Friends that I, a Jew, feel perfectly comfortable hearing them tell just about any Holocaust joke at a get-together. But put the exact same jokes in the mouths of a group of Midwestern frat boys who I don’t know very well and who have been teasingly calling me ‘Christ-killer’ and shooting me dirty looks, and I will feel uncomfortable, and alienated, and I won’t have a good time.
There are lots of ways to have a good time that aren’t parasitic on others’ good time. Do those things instead.
When I haven’t personally interacted much with a group, I’m forced to fall back on base rates. The base rates for sexual harassment and antisemitism in my community simultaneously inform how likely it is that I personally have been affected by those things, and how confident I can be that a given community member deserves my trust. Those are the guiding stars for responsible-but-hilarious comedians like Louis C.K.. The Raw Badness of real-world rape v. the Raw Badness of real-world ethnic cleansing is a lot less directly relevant.
It isn’t hypocritical to endorse harmless black comedy while criticizing harmful black comedy.
There are some bona fide straw feminists out there. (Straw men are very often weak men.) But off-the-cuff rhetoric isn’t necessarily a good indicator of that, and the more serious position is the one that deserves debate.
I won’t argue here that liberals are being morally consistent if they reject ‘date rape’ and ‘passable transvestites’ while embracing the rest of the CAH deck. But I do want the case for hypocrisy to be made by citing the actual views of typical social justice thinkers. And I want the discussion of this to give people practice at being better nuanced consequentialists. And, perhaps, better friends and entertainers.
A card like ‘date rape’ is likely to cause excessive harm because it makes light of something that needs to be taken more seriously, here and now, by the culture CAH is being played in. And, of course, because a lot of people who play CAH have been raped. Is it hypocritical to let ‘a windmill full of corpses’ slide, while criticizing ‘date rape’? Not if your concerns with ‘date rape’ are consequentialist SJ-type arguments, as opposed to some more conservative appeal to propriety.
Likewise, anti-trans sentiment is a lot more prevalent and acutely harmful these days than anti-gay sentiment. With each passing day, using ‘gay’ as a slur, or treating gay people as weirdo Others, is causing the collective eyebrows of mainstream audiences to raise ever higher. Meanwhile, using slurs like ‘tranny’ or ‘transvestite’ continues to be seen as normal and acceptable even by many liberal audiences (e.g., the sort of people who might watch The Daily Show). Making fun of gay people for being weird still happens, but that no longer dominates their depiction in the way it continues to dominate media portrayals of cross-dressers.
So, although a case could be made that ‘the gays’ and ‘passable transvestites’ are equally harmful, it really isn’t self-evident. The humor in ‘the gays’ involves more of a friendly wink to gay people. Much of the joke is directed at conservatives who treat gay people as an alien monolith. Hence the ‘the’. In contrast, the humor in ‘passable transvestites’ seems to mostly depend on shock value. And what’s shocking is cross-dressers themselves—the tacit assumption being that their existence is freakish and surprising and strange. In a word, comical.
These arguments are complicated. We can’t just ask ‘is the card kind of racey and edgy?’ and call off any further moral evaluation once we have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. To partly side with Chris, I think good arguments can be given that ‘bingeing and purging’ and ‘two midgets shitting into a bucket’ are questionable cards in most CAH groups, because the joke is at the expense of people who really are widely stigmatized and othered even by the liberalest of liberals. It’s common knowledge in most friend circles that ‘racism’ and ‘not giving a shit about the Third World’ are Bad. It’s when things fall in the uncanny valley between Totally Normal and Totally Beyond The Pale that you need to put some thought into whether you’re having your fun at a significant cost to others. (And, yes, the answer will frequently vary based on who’s playing the game.)
Being a good person is about considering the harm your actions might have, which means being sensitive to how many people are affected, and how strongly. We can’t escape the moral facts’ empirical contingency or quantitativeness. That is, we can’t get by without actually thinking about the people affected, and talking to them to find out how they’re affected. If the name of the game is ‘try to make the world more fun for everyone’, there isn’t any simple algorithm (like ‘it’s never OK to offend people’ or ‘it’s always OK to offend people’) that can do the hard work for us.