Wendy Kaminer: Satire is the enemy of political correctness. In this photo, taken May 14, 2009, actor Martin Sommerlatte plays Adolf Hitler in the musical 'The Producers' during a dress rehearsal in Berlin. (Maya Hitij/AP, File)

I know a few Holocaust jokes. I learned them from the children of survivors. I suspect they’d disagree with the Harvard student who declared that pain was no laughing matter.

“I don’t think that jokes should trigger on any type of pain,” 20-year-old Dakota Rot explained to the Boston Globe. She was responding to satirical fliers distributed on campus advertising a fake social club, noting “Jews need not apply,” and “Coloreds Okay,” and including a reference to date rape. “If you’re a person that’s part Jewish or a person of color or a woman who has been in any dangerous situation, you shouldn’t have to read this.” Rot declared.

Satire is intentionally, inherently offensive: It laughs at sacred cows; it mocks painful, serious issues and ideas.

It should go without saying that, “you don’t have to read this.” But if you’re confronted with offensive speech and fail to avert your eyes or plug your ears, you will probably survive the encounter.

I am “a person that’s part Jewish” as well as a “woman who’s been in a dangerous situation,” and I feel fine reading and writing about “offensive” language in the Harvard fliers. (I have read and viewed much worse over the years, and, even then, felt fine.)

Harvard Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, however, feels less than fine about the fliers. She denounced them as “hurtful and offensive,” an affront to Harvard’s values and its standards of “thoughtfulness and respect.” Hammond offered the usual, obligatory statement of support for free speech, but it seems limited to support for speech she doesn’t find offensive.

Perhaps Harvard should change its motto to “No Laughing Allowed,” because satire is intentionally, inherently offensive: It laughs at sacred cows; it mocks painful, serious issues and ideas. Consider just a few headlines from The Onion.

“God Answers Prayers Of Paralyzed Little Boy. ‘No,’ Says God.”

“Turkey Pardon Mishap Results in Accidental Release of Serial Rapist

“Recession-Proof Jobs Include Any in Which You Witness Your Boss Kill Someone.”

I confess to having laughed at these stories. Some people probably found The Onion’s jokes about rape, workplace murder, crippled children and religious faith “hurtful and offensive” and exploitative of extraordinary pain. But I bet I was not alone in guiltlessly finding them funny.

I have even laughed at my old friend’s Holocaust jokes. Here’s one: “In Forest Hills (known years ago as a community of survivors) people crowded into bakeries don’t take numbers; they just raise their arms.” I have laughed at my late father in law’s definition of an anti-Semite as “someone who hates Jews more than he should.”

This doesn’t mean I find the Holocaust or anti-Semitism funny. It does mean I have a sense of black humor, which is utterly lacking on many college and university campuses today, along with any sense of irony. Satire is the enemy of political correctness, which makes it a frequent target of campus censors and speech codes that prohibit offensive jokes.

Perhaps Harvard should change its motto to “No Laughing Allowed,”

“(M)uch of comedy is saying what we all know we shouldn’t say,” Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
observes. His new book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” describes the dramatic decline of humor and free speech on campus.

At Washington State University, a student received death threats after writing and directing a satirical musical mocking identity politics in order to “show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of.” A mob of students disrupted the play and “threatened to turn a theater performance into a full-scale riot.”

At Lone Star College, a student group was “threatened with dissolution for distributing a tongue in cheek flyer listing ‘Top Ten Gun Safety Tips,’” including “No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling, “‘I have a gun. I have a gun.’”

At Yale, students were chastised for decorating a T-shirt with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” The administration declared the t-shirts unacceptable and “pulled the design.”

These incidents are not anomalous. They’re typical. Censorship on campus is routine and perversely equated with tolerance. Harvard officials condemned the satirical social club fliers as acts of intolerance, but the only intolerant actors in this familiar controversy are students and administrators who refuse to tolerate offensive speech.

Censors are often blind to their own close-mindedness. They take themselves and their ideas so very seriously; their self-awareness suffers. Place yourself beyond the reach of satire and you’ll never see yourself as others do. Laughing matters.


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  • Craig Donnelly
  • MelissaJane

    Seriously? I thought irony was all-pervasive and ruining civilization.

  • geraldfnord

    No-one has the right never to be offended; this would put control of the psychic territory in play entirely in the hands of those most prone to taking offence. On the other hand, continually taking pleasure from giving offence to the inoffensive were loutish and wrong, and represents in its own way a seizure of psychic territory. This makes me think that private institutions—for example, Harvard—have the right to set standards of proper conduct for those privileged to be in them as conditions of membership, but have the duty to make them as little onerous as they can manage.

    (Greater attention must be paid, however, when there is a strong power differential in play—a King’s derision means more than a farmer’s kick, and our society is still wildly hierarchical. Of course, this gives incentive for those who want too many restrictions to characterise all relations as such, but a virtue’s bearing with it the possibility of misuse is not a veto of it…not all slopes are all that slippery.)

    • Doubting_Thomas12

      Just remember… Thoughtcrime does not entail death; thoughtcrime IS death!

  • Roger Freberg

    Satire often allows us to have a fresh look on an unpleasant situation. It is similar to how a fresh fruit cleanses the palate so that we can better appreciate the next course.

    A few years ago, our sanctimonious semi-divine detached college President was trying to ruthlessly ram a project through the university. It didn’t help that it potentially violated various laws and ethical standards… but virtually everyone was in fear of his wrath. Then, someone posted a picture of him in a clown suit… once the laughing died down ( an it took a long time), faculty, staff and the community turned the project down and it justifiably died.

    Satire is valuable to sustaining free speech and intellectual honesty.

  • RWB

    This is not an “education” topic. This is a cancer eating away at the core of our liberties. There are far too many people who would be content to censor others.

    Everything which might cause doubt about the wisdom of the government or create discontent will be kept from the people. The basis of unfavorable comparisons with elsewhere, the knowledge of possible alternatives to the course actually taken, information which might suggest failure on the part of the government to live up to its promises or to take advantage of opportunities to improve conditions–all will be suppressed. There is consequently no field where the systematic control of information will not be practiced and uniformity of views not enforced.

  • imax87

    I’d like to point out how many time she say “I”, “me”, and “my” This seems like it is more about her and her beliefs and her fear of being offended, and other people being offended. Everyone is offended by something, and therefore everything can be considered offensive. What she has done is try to make herself comfortable, not some idealistic, altruistic goal. That is incredibly selfish and self-richtious, and quite offensive.

  • johnfembup

    I have felt for years that the greater the commitment to liberalism, the less sense of humor is present.

    Oh, there’s sarcasm aplenty. Just little good humor.

  • Randy C.

    Yup, John Fembub, though I’m a garden-vriety libe4ral on most topics, I bgan learning back in my bartending days that groups of liberals were more tight-ass and officious than their conservative counterparts, and pooreer tippers. The most committed among them seem to have had their sense of humo9r surgically removed in their youth. Yes, that’s a generalization, & yes there are thousands of exceptions, at least, but since we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, or millions of examples, the generlization still holds. Christopher Hichens & George Orwell uwsed to write about this phenomonon as well. 2 observations of the campus scene: while the ‘official’ line on campus may be politically correct–say on rape–you only need to look at parts of the student papeers, like the comics, or stop into any campus hangout bar to hear some very dark and casual viewpoints on that subject indeed, denoting kind of a collective schizophrenia; also, I think the type of person most likely to rise in the academic hierarchy is the kind described in Ms. Kaminer’s article, i.e. they don’t know the constitution, but they know what they like.

  • Canvasback

    These colleges seem to still be trying to act ‘in loco parentis’. That’s a mistake. The flier by the fake social club was sophomoronic and a year or two from now even the boys who did it will admit that’s true. The F. Scott Fitzgerald t-shirt was kind of funny. The Lone Star College flier – see Molly Ivins’ writing for the Texas sense of humor, no harm there. I didn’t get to see the WSU play – but the theme reminds me of a song from Avenue Q: “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist.” My 15 year-old sang it to me after he saw Avenue Q; which he said was excellent.

    A sense of fear will typically stifle a sense of humor. College administrators are afraid of lawsuits or a loss of donations and therefore have an abundance of caution. Humorless students are afraid of things they don’t understand. Because they huddle together they can make up a solid bloc of campus political power. Humorists are typically outliers. That tension will always be there. Somewhere, somehow, we need to find real leadership at the university level.

  • Doubting_Thomas12

    The only people I’ve found who really CAN’T take a joke, are the ones who aren’t comfortable with who or what they identify themselves as. What you might consider the “most offensive” asian jokes I learned from my asian wife and friends, who laugh as well because they know they’re constructed around a kernel of truth. Same with Jewish jokes, which I learned from my Hebrew and Israeli friends.

    As long as the recipients know that you still have respect for their culture and heritage, they usually don’t mind. If they’re not comfortable with some aspect of themselves, they might. Doesn’t mean you should go around offending everyone for fun, but hopefully will shed some additional light on why some people “can’t take a joke”.