I’ve been interested recently in the ways in which norms from some domains impinge on norms from other domains. To that end, I’ve been writing about cruel jokes, wherein the funny and the moral intersect. I don’t at all deny that some cruel jokes are funny; I’ve been known to be amused by many. But there are some cruel jokes that, somehow in virtue of the cruelty, just aren’t jokes. The example I’ve been using is from Stephen King’s book (and/or Brian De Palma’s great film) Carrie. Carrie is raised by a rather terrifying fundamentalist mother, and she is so ignorant about her sexuality that she doesn’t realize what’s happening when she gets her first period in the shower at school. Her classmates tease her relentlessly, and the most cruel among them devise a prank: They make Carrie think she’s the prom queen, and as she’s standing up on stage, soaking in the applause, they dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. They all find this absolutely hilarious…until Carrie gets a little irritated (for the rest, read the damn book!).
This prank just wasn’t funny, I think. There are no comic reasons at all to be amused by it (and so her classmates are flat out incorrect in their response, and criticizable in virtue of it). It’s not as if there were comic reasons that were just heavily outweighed by the cruelty reasons in an all-things-considered determination of what response to have (amusement or anger). Rather, I want to say, the cruelty was such that this was no joke. Yes, it had joke-like features (there was a prank with a certain demand for timing and execution), but the cruelty properties were of such a type or degree that no comic properties were compatible with them. Here’s another example: Sometimes the human body can rest in funny angles. Perhaps you are at a museum and you see a skeleton whose skull seems to be resting at a funny angle relative to the rest of its body. Then you read the placard: This is what it looked like after a Nazi broke a Jew’s neck. Not funny now, no comic properties at all.
Or, again, so I want to say. What say you?
The idea behind and beyond this is that, in order to have competence in the funny domain, i.e., in order not to be fooled into thinking that some joke-like features in some cruel jokes give rise to reasons to be amused, one must be competent in the moral domain, i.e., be able to recognize when some moral properties are in place in a way that is incompatible with the existence of any comic properties.
And vice versa: There are some jokes that bend social conventions and look like slights, but aren’t. Consider insult comics. They (typically) aren’t really slighting anyone, because they mean no ill will. (Here’s a favorite example, just for fun: Jeffrey Ross, at a roast of a very plump William Shatner, to the guest of honor: “You’ve let yourself boldly go.”) So some insults aren’t slights. In order to not to be fooled into thinking that some slight-like properties are slights (and so avoid being a criticizable prig), you’ve got to be competent in the funny domain. Once you see the comic properties actually in place, you ought also to see that no slighting properties could exist compatibly with them.
The moral: True comic competence requires moral competence, and true moral competence requires comic competence. And this should be true across most normative domains that intersect, so that general normative competence is really sophisticated, requiring a whole host of competences, not just in individual normative domains but in the way those domains intersect and impinge on one another.8