WU Panel Explores Politics of Humor

Can humor ever be offensive or threatening? Where do we draw the line between what is funny and what is insensitive? Do our jokes ever liberate or empower us? Pomona’s Women’s Union held a student panel discussion Oct. 26 called “Am I Allowed to Say That!?” which examined these questions and explored the boundary between comedy and morality.

The event, which drew around 30 people, was entirely student-organized and student-run. Women’s Union staff member Maria Zhu PO ’13 said she wanted to take advantage of the freedom offered by the WU to explore different issues and hold a variety of events. Zhu selected four students for the panel: Katie Bent PO ’13, theory friction practice PO ’12, Ryan Jawetz PO ’12, and Lexie Kelly PO ’15.

“I really wanted to bring in students and student perspective,” Zhu said.

Zhu had compiled a list of questions about humor taboos that she hoped would prompt a thoughtful discussion. After establishing a safe space, she read each question aloud and then opened the floor to the panelists. The conversation flowed easily between the panelists and touched on a range of ideas, from the subjectivity of humor to the danger of perpetuating stereotypes to the value of self-reflection.

All panelists agreed that, when telling a joke, it is crucial to “know thy audience,” as Kelly put it.

“Self-effacing humor can be great!” Kelly continued, offering two thumbs up. “There are certain things you would say within the confines of your own home that you would not say in a different situation to different groups of people. Thoughts are gonna happen, but you also have to develop that filter,” Kelly explained. practice agreed with Kelly.

“Transgression is part of comedy, but it’s about what you are using that transgression in the service of,” practice said.

Jawetz raised the point that humor is merely a tool, something that can be used “for good or evil.” According to Kelly, at its best humor can be a “coping mechanism,” or, according to Bent, “a way to look at ourselves critically.” practice, however cautioned that “we should be wary… revolution and liberation are different things than comedy.”

Panelists’ opinions differed on the issue of whether or not we should try to repress our instincts to laugh at or accept controversial jokes. Bent explained that she has tried to teach herself that certain jokes are not funny because they have the power to offend. practice challenged this notion, and said that “doing anti-racist work is valuable, but trying to make yourself an anti-racist is just to make you feel better about yourself… the impulse is from a good place, but that should not be the goal of all your work.”

At the conclusion of the hour-long discussion, the group was ultimately unable to establish the definite boundaries of humor. They ended up raising even more questions than those Zhu provided, which was proof of a thorough and thoughtful debate.

“Overall, I think it went extremely well,” Zhu said after the discussion. “There was a good rapport between panelists and audience; everyone was respectful but not afraid to say what they thought.”

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