Why One Shouldn't Joke About Serious Things
When my wife's parents make jokes about me being a dumb redneck from a 3rd world country (South Carolina), it's hilarious. It's funny because it's completely ridiculous. They know that I'm an intelligent, educated young man whom they love and respect. I am the exact opposite of what their sarcastic comments indicate. The sharp contrast between the joke and reality is what makes it so funny. When they make these kinds of jokes, they are drawing attention to the fact that they love and respect me, and it makes me feel good.
But what if my in-laws actually thought I was ignorant, racist, or stupid? Their sarcasm would take on a completely different meaning. Their jokes would be a thinly veiled assault on my character. If I knew they were even partially serious when they made fun of me, then I would be offended by their comments.
To alter the example somewhat: what if I had a self-esteem problem and believed that I actually was, in part, an ignorant redneck? When my in-laws joked about it, I might feel offended, even though no offense was intended. One couldn't blame them if they didn't know I had a self-esteem issue. But what if they knew it made me uncomfortable? Should they refrain from making such jokes?
Or: what if I was relatively ignorant (as a result of poor education) or had a below-average intelligence, and my in-laws knew it? What meaning would their sarcasm have in this case?
To answer these questions, one must understand the proper role and function of humor. The rational man uses humor to ridicule evil and irrationality. Humor is an expression of one's conviction that evil is metaphysically impotent, that "[w]e never had to take any of it seriously". When my in-laws joke about where I came from, they are pretending to adopt a ridiculously irrational viewpoint: that anyone from the south is necessarily ignorant and stupid. They are making fun of irrational prejudice, and calling attention to the fact that I am the exact opposite of the prejudicial stereotype.
But if my in-laws actually accepted the irrational stereotype of southerners, then their humor would have the exact opposite meaning. To them, the evil would be me thinking I could overcome the stereotype. They would be ridiculing my belief that I am intelligent and educated. This kind of derisive sarcasm is common among college professors, as I'm sure many Objectivist students can verify. It represents the nastiest kind of metaphysical premise: hatred of the good for being the good.
Consider now the altered example, in which I am actually intelligent and educated, but have a self-esteem problem. Part of me believes that I can't overcome the stereotype of the southern country boy. One couldn't blame my in-laws if they made well-intentioned jokes that hurt my feelings. They would have no way of knowing about my self-esteem problem unless I communicated it to them. This kind of case is common because many young people retain irrational premises from their upbringing that negatively impact their self-esteem. Oftentimes, one is hurt when others make him the butt of jokes, but he doesn't say anything about it because he doesn't think he should feel offended. (I discuss this kind of error in more detail in my article Are There Bad Emotions?).
The answer here is that one should communicate to others, especially loved ones, if their jokes make him uncomfortable. If one doesn't know why it makes him uncomfortable, then he must introspect to determine the cause of these emotions. Feeling uncomfortable at being the butt of well-intentioned jokes can be a clue that an unresolved self-esteem issue exists. While he is dealing with his psychological problems, he ought to ask his loved ones not to joke about it, because to him it is a very serious issue. Otherwise, resentment and silent animosity can begin to develop in his relationships.
If one knew that his loved one had a self-esteem problem, and he joked about it anyway, then what meaning would the humor have? What evil is being ridiculed? If my in-laws knew that I was insecure about my upbringing, and joked about it anyway, then they would be making fun of my inner struggle. The evil, in their eyes, would be the fact of my self-esteem problem. But psychological problems as such are not evil, and struggling to overcome them is an effort to be admired, not ridiculed. For this reason, I consider it very rude and inappropriate for one to make fun of another's psychological problems, especially if that person has communicated that it makes him uncomfortable.
Finally, consider the example in which I am relatively ignorant or unintelligent. Assuming that my ignorance is not self-inflicted, then it would be highly inappropriate to make fun of me for it. I did not choose where I went to primary school, and my degree of intelligence is also non-volitional. So if one were to make fun of me, the evil he is ridiculing is the fact of my ignorance or lack of intelligence. But these traits are not evil as such, not if they are outside the realm of one's volition. If I saw someone making fun of a man with Downs Syndrome for being stupid - or a frail, elderly man for walking slowly - or a cripple for being confined to a wheelchair -- then I would want to punch his lights out. These kinds of jokes are the basest form of humor. It's like laughing at an innocent man on a torture rack.
While the preceding example is more clear-cut, it's not always obvious when one is using humor inappropriately. Sarcasm between friends can be great fun, but it can also be hurtful, whether well intentioned or not. The key is to keep in mind the nature of humor, identify to oneself what evils he is ridiculing, and communicate with his loved ones if their humor makes him uncomfortable.
In closing, I have a final message to my readers: You are the dumbest, smelliest, most wretched bunch of Kantian sexual deviants I've ever had the displeasure of knowing! Seriously...