comedy, Culture, Top Stories

A Defense of Offensive Jokes

In a paper published in 1940, anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown theorized something that he called the “joking relationship”: a relationship “between two persons in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offense.” As anthropology in the early 20th century was primarily a comparative social science, Radcliffe-Brown noted the existence of this relationship in a variety of cultures around the world, from the Dogon people in Mali to the North American Ojibwe. Even though Radcliffe-Brown’s article is 80 years old, and describes relationships in non-Western societies, it still has much to tell us about why we engage in offensive humour, and how we can perhaps do it better. Rather than the simple justification that “jokes are meant to be funny and edgy, get over it,” Radcliffe-Brown treats the joking relationship as one of many relationships that tie people together. In other words, he analyses the joking relationship like an anthropologist.

Like the early anthropologist Marcel Mauss understood relationships of mutual gift exchange, Radcliffe-Brown saw the joking relationship as central to society, entangling people in mutual obligations to one another. In his famous Essay on The Gift, Mauss argued that relationships of gift exchange create three obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and the obligation to reciprocate. For an obvious example, it is generally unacceptable for anyone but children to receive Christmas presents without giving something in return. Mauss argued that the interpersonal obligations created by gift exchange imbue gifts with a particular social value, the kind of value that ties societies together. Like gift relations, the joking relationship establishes mutual obligations between people: the obligation to joke, the obligation to be the butt of the joke, and the obligation to not be offended. While joking relationships aren’t so broad they hold society together, Radcliffe-Brown notes that their use of “permitted disrespect” can mitigate tension or work through difference in relationships requiring close proximity when their opposite relationship—respect and avoidance—is not socially feasible.

Between the “permitted disrespect” of the joking relationship and its opposite—respect and avoidance—politically correct language tends to land on the side of the latter. In a popular video for Big Think, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses how the demand for politically correct language can often obfuscate problems, rendering them unassailable. While not referencing the joking relationship specifically, Žižek argues it allows us to frankly acknowledge problems, giving people the opportunity to perhaps work through them. For example, Žižek says specifically that having a friendly and personable boss makes it more difficult to disagree with them, and argue that some things are beyond the responsibilities of your job. I certainly felt that way at my first job in a small business, the owner of which knew several members of my extended family. For a topical example along the same lines, it is more difficult to be against monarchies in England than it is in Thailand, because at least the Thai people understand the extent to which their royal family is totally isolated from the day-to-day reality of Thai people. British monarchs, on the other hand, constantly attempt to appear friendly and approachable, as though they are normal people, making it harder to dislike them on the principle of anti-monarchism. These examples show how a façade of niceness, so endemic in our anti-confrontational age, can be surreptitiously used to obscure potential sources of conflict.

So how does the joking relationship allow people to work through potential tensions and conflicts? Radcliffe-Brown’s article deals with this question specifically. His most important quote is as follows:

The show of hostility, the perpetual disrespect, is a continual expression of that social disjunction which is an essential part of the whole structural situation, but over which, without destroying or even weakening it, there is provided the social conjunction of friendliness and mutual aid.

The “permitted disrespect” of the joking relationship allows us to emphasize difference, disjunction, and even hostility, but to do so without diminishing how we are obligated to care for each other. On the Left, one of the most common refrains is that workers around the world have more in common with each other in their social position as workers than they do with their ruling class as citizens of the same nation. A dishwasher working in restaurants in Chennai has more in common with me, the argument goes, than with Narendra Modi. While I do agree with that claim, it is important not to reduce the infinite complexities of culture to superficial differences that can be easily subsumed into class-based similarities. The joking relationship allows us to poke fun at our differences, whether they be our taste in food, our background, or even racial stereotypes, while maintaining our obligation to support each other in spite of those differences. The temptation to reduce or deprioritize the differences between us may be a well-meaning attempt to support a multicultural world, but it also implies that we cannot truly support each other unless our similarities override our differences.

At some risk, I will provide an example from my own life. My job is based in a major metropolitan city and doesn’t require any certification—I prefer not to say “unskilled”—so naturally I work around many people who are either first- or second-generation immigrants, as well as exchange students and people on working visas. Obviously, it takes time getting to know people, especially if you share less cultural reference points than you would with other people. But once you get to know people you work with, and importantly, they know your actual opinions when it comes to matters of race and racism, shared banter on the topic of race is a significant stepping stone in your relationship. (This is also likely because I have worked in typically masculine environments, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I used to work regularly with a second-generation Chinese-Australian. Given Australia’s history of racism against Asians, the infamous White Australia Policy being one example, as well as the fact that we worked in a diverse but relatively poor area, racism was a topic of conversation long before we ever joked about it. One day, my workmate showed me a picture of a cartoon from 1886 called The Mongolian Octopus—Its Grip on Australia, originally published in a mainstream Australian newspaper. The cartoon, like similar cartoons depicting Jews as master manipulators vying for world domination, depicts Chinese people as an octopus, with different tentacles representing “bribery,” “immorality,” and “opium,” among other such stereotypes. Since he showed me that cartoon, the supposed “Chinese Octopus” was a recurring joke between the two of us. Being asked to do basic work tasks would become examples of grand-scale Chinese coercion.

“The Mongolian Octopus” cartoon from 1886

Radcliffe-Brown argues that the joking relationship allows us to work through difference and similarity between people without diminishing either, so how do jokes alluding to the “Chinese Octopus” between my co-worker and me accomplish that? Firstly, our joking relationship acknowledges that we are both Australian. Different kinds of Australian—him a second-generation Chinese-Australian and me a several-generation white Australian—but Australian nonetheless. Moreover, we equally understood the original “Mongolian Octopus” cartoon to be so absurd that it was an effective caricature of Australia’s racist attitudes towards Asians, particularly Chinese people. But the joke also highlighted our differences. Despite both being Australian, cartoons depicting Chinese people as one all-encompassing octopus obviously affect us in different ways. At most I might be called too PC for arguing Australia has not yet fully grappled with its racist legacy. But, unlike my co-worker, at least I don’t get identified with the octopus allegedly tightening its grip on the country.

One crucial factor in the joking relationship between my workmate and me is that he already understood my actual opinions on the topic of racism. Years ago, a style guide for the Daily Stormer was leaked to the public. One of the recommendations for prospective writers of the notorious Neo-Nazi blog insidiously declared that “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.” This rhetorical tactic is incredibly popular online, and many far-right propagandists will use a pretence of “satire” or to use 4chan’s parlance, “the lulz,” to hide their racist intent. Of course, my workmate couldn’t see into my head to decipher my true thoughts on any topic, but after months of talking about a whole range of topics from Australia’s history of racism, the Chinese government, and the “culture war,” it was clear enough to him that I wasn’t making racist jokes to duplicitously smuggle racism into our workplace. One proviso for the joking relationship, then, is that those in the relationship should already be familiar with the actual views of the others.

Another proviso for making offensive jokes in a joking relationship is that they should remain within that relationship, for more than one reason.

The first is to avoid what social media researchers call “context collapse.” The easiest explanation for context collapse is that you simply act differently when speaking to different groups of people, and mixing those different groups leads to potential conflict. You will likely feel freer to curse around your friends than with your mother-in-law, for example, and if the two should meet, you have to make the choice to either curse, offending your mother-in-law, or not curse, confusing your friends. In an episode of Seinfeld, the hapless George Costanza tries to keep “Relationship George,” the person he is around his fiancé, and “Independent George,” the person he is around his friends, as separate as possible.

Social media researchers say that George’s predicament, that Relationship George is bleeding into Independent George, is a legitimate concern for people on Facebook, where your words might have a different meaning to one friend than they do to another. The problem posed by context collapse to the joking relationship should be self-evident; an offensive joke will likely be more acceptable to a person the joke teller is close with, but not a stranger. Hence why making a joke on Twitter is so fraught; it can be re-tweeted and screen-capped and before long, the joke’s reach has snowballed beyond the joke-teller’s intended context. Even offline, I wouldn’t make the same jokes about the “Chinese Octopus” to a co-worker I had just met, or an Uber driver, or a friend of a friend I meet at a party, no matter their background. We don’t share the same relationship as I did with my co-worker. Moreover, these strangers have no pre-conceived notions of what I think and are therefore more likely to view my offensive jokes as examples of racism genuinely expressed.

The second reason for keeping offensive jokes within the boundaries of the joking relationship is because you don’t have the required mutually shared obligations with strangers. One of Radcliffe-Brown’s examples of a joking relationship is a grandchild joking that he wants to marry his grandfather’s wife when he dies, or pretending that she already is his wife. He argues that by joking in this way, the grandchild is holding the differences and similarities between himself and his grandparents at once: They are in the same family, therefore they have a shared connection, but they are also of very different ages. It’s important to recognize that in a close-knit family structure, a grandchild and their grandparents are already entwined in the mutual obligations that come with being in the same family unit. The obligation to not get offended by the teasing jokes to which Radcliffe-Brown refers is already scaffolded by familial obligations. Returning to my co-worker and me, we were tied together by mutual obligations outside the joking relationship before it began. As co-workers, we were expected to work together to achieve our goals, and—going back to the left-wing terminology—we have a shared class interest as workers, compared to our relationship with our bosses. My obligation to my boss is one of subservience, not co-dependence and mutual support, which is less conducive for a friendly joking relationship to emerge.

A likely counterargument will be that, as a white Australian, I can’t share racist jokes with my former Chinese-Australian workmate, or with my current Indian workmates, because I’m bestowed with more social power than them. To a certain point that is true. Like I said above, my Chinese-Australian workmate is the actual subject of cartoons like The Mongolian Octopus, whereas I can merely be astounded by their blatant racism. Jokes about white people not being able to eat spicy food do not really compare. But, on an individual basis, when a workmate of colour makes jokes about how white people can’t dance, and you steadfastly refuse to reciprocate, people are often turned off. One’s unwillingness to engage in the joking relationship when somebody else launches the first volley can be seen as patronizing. Žižek refers to it as a relationship of “cold respect” that keeps people of colour at arms’ length, echoing Radcliffe-Brown’s identification of the joking relationship’s opposite: avoidance and respect.

Another response to the inevitable “white privilege” counterargument is that, frankly, I think the relationships fostered between me and my multicultural co-workers has a more positive effect than acknowledging my white privilege does. (This is not to say white privilege doesn’t exist, because it does. On average, I would’ve had a more difficult life if I was born with black skin in the same circumstances.) One of the problems with white privilege is that acknowledging one’s own privilege(s)—or unconscious biases, while we’re at it—is often seen as an end in itself, with no further action required. One cannot renounce their privilege simply by declaring it. The blog White Hot Harlots recognizes this as well, writing that “acknowledgement doesn’t actually change anything. There is never a Step Two.” Acknowledgements of white privilege, whether in public displays of self-flagellation or otherwise, do nothing to raise the social standing of people of colour. Building a joking relationship on top of a close working relationship, on the other hand, builds closer connections between people based on a series of mutual obligations, the kind of connections that make workers more likely to unionize together, or see value in fighting for each other’s rights outside the workplace, or even support each other with mutual aid, as Radcliffe-Brown writes specifically.

If one ignored the majority of Radcliffe-Brown’s paper, the point could simply be reduced to “You aren’t allowed to be offended by my jokes,” but that is not the case at all. Some jokes, even in the joking relationship, are beyond the pale, and there should be some margin left for pushback against jokes that do actually go over the line. But offensive humour, in private relationships, has a useful purpose and should not be thrown out entirely. In societies that continually want to prioritize the ways in which we are similar so that we can get along, offensive humour can be a valuable tool for holding difference and similarity at the same time, without reducing one for the sake of the other.


Bill Peel doesn’t write for a living, but he infrequently writes about music for