On Being Offended by Jokes

Apparently, the Conan O’Brien twitter account tweeted about a new Marvel character, a Muslim woman. The tweet can be viewed at Firma’s post, but it reads:

“Marvel Comics is introducing a new Muslim Female superhero. She has so many more powers than her husband’s other wives.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Conan O’Brien received some backlash for the tweet. People found it to be in bad taste. Some even labeled the tweet “racist,” “bigotry,” and “having a laugh at the marginalized.” As a result of the backlash and criticism, the tweet was deleted.

Comedy that makes an individual person or group of people the butt of a joke is likely going to offend. Of course, the mere fact that a joke is offensive (i.e., it offends somebody) doesn’t mean it should be condemned. Humor can be a tool for commentary and justice. As such, we must reserve the right to offend. However, this does not mean all offensive humor is in good taste. Sometimes, a joke is exploitative or bigoted. In these cases, it is worthy of condemnation.

Now, I am not bringing this up to pass judgment on the tweet. It was made; it received some backlash; it was taken down. So it is. I’m discussing this matter because Terry Firma’s commentary (admit it, you knew that was coming) on the episode is …how should I put this… interesting (bigoted? Islamophobic? fucking aweful?).

What’s Jeff On About This Time?

It is probably best that you read his post, but I will try to fairly summarize his argument. Basically, Firma notes that the joke is based on the “incontrovertible fact” that the Qu’ran permits polygamy. Because the joke is based on this fact, he treats the joke as akin to any other commentary on Islam.

From here, he proceeds to accuse the complainers of a double standard. He insists that, were the joke made at the expense of Mormons, there would not be the same backlash. Moreover, Firma uses the Mormons as an example of a religious group capable of taking a joke for their even-handed response to the Book of Mormon musical.

Unlike the Mormons, Muslims want special protections from criticism and ridicule. In Firma’s own words: “Muslims and their humorless advocates have no business claiming special treatment for Allah’s tribe. Like many other groups, atheists included, they’ll occasionally come in for a good ribbing. They should learn to like it.”

Throughout the post, Firma links to various examples of people being threatened or punished for using humor to criticize Islam. He links to an article about a Turkish pianist receiving a criminal conviction for joking about Islam on Twitter, an Australian university banning a satirical piece on Islam in fear of it inciting violent protest, and the section on the Charlie Hebdo Wikipedia page about the attacks on the magazine’s office because of an edition satirizing Islam.

It’s Just a Joke

In the comments section, there are a number of people who point out that this was just a joke. And, in a way, they are correct.

Was the joke distasteful? Yeah, probably.
Was it made at the expense of a marginalized group? Sure.
Did it possess any value as social commentary? No, not really.
Was it even funny? I don’t think so.

But was it some grotesque act of villainy? No. Far from it. This is your run-of-the-mill off-color joke. And, it seems to me, this is your run-of-the-mill backlash to an off-color joke.

It’s Just a Backlash

Recently, in Marietta, Georgia, a child bought a children’s book about color in Islamic culture while attending her school’s book fair. When the child brought the book home, her father was upset that she could get the book at the book fair. He didn’t want his daughter reading the book because “[t]hat culture there doesn’t seem to have anything good coming out of it.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I suspect Terry Firma would be in complete agreement with the sentiment expressed by the child’s father. Other people see it as a sign of prejudice. The bad kind of prejudice. [Edit: Terry Firma has rightly called me out for this comment (see the comments section below). I will leave it in for posterity’s sake while acknowledging its inappropriateness.]

In the United States, people are free to voice bigoted viewpoints. They can make off-color jokes. Heck, they can even make musicals poking fun at an entire religious group. As it turns out, people are also allowed to be offended by said bigoted viewpoints. They can be upset by off-color jokes, and they can let it be known that they are upset.

Furthermore, sometimes, an off-color joke appears on the twitter page of a comedian and late night television host. Occasionally, that comedian will receive some backlash for said off-color joke. If the comedian fears that the backlash will harm his career, he may feel motivated to delete the joke. He may, even, feel compelled to apologize.

You’re Either Criticizing Islam or You’re an Islamic Extremist Sympathizer

Apparently, this rather banal and benign description of what transpired is insufficient for Firma. No, the backlash Conan O’Brien is receiving should be lumped in with the criminalizing of blasphemy in Turkey, the censorship at the Australian university, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Why? Well, the only unifying factor I can find is that the controversial comment relates to Islam.

It seems Firma is treating this with the same subtly President Bush brought to American foreign policy post-9/11 – you’re either with us or against us.

A sample of some of the backlash to O’Brien’s tweet can be found here. Here’s an example of one of the tweets:

@LVRiot13: “Really? We get a female Muslim super hero and you decide to diminish this victory with a cheap and tasteless joke? Disappointed”

Here’s another:

@luckyturner: “she’s 16, AMERICAN and reps Jersey City (my town): She’s not an alien. You can do better, Coco”

Somehow, in Terry Firma’s mind, this is akin to Turkey arresting one of its citizens on blasphemy charges or extremists fire-bombing a magazine office simply because the causal factor in all three was a joke related to Islam.

Islam is not a Race

In his post, Firma noted that Islam is a religion, not a race. As such, the charge of racism is misguided. Terry Firma is correct. We should not confuse Islam (a religion) with a race (a group of people). Yet, he seems incapable of making this very same distinction when discussing Muslims. Remember, the joke hinged on an “incontrovertible fact” about Islam. However, Firma finds that the problem is “Muslims and their humorless advocates….” I’m sorry, Mr. Firma, but Islam (a religion) is not Muslims and their humorless advocates (a group of people).

I know what you’re thinking, I’m insisting upon a distinction without a difference. But, consider the joke and the backlash. It may hinge on a fact about Islam, but it is a joke about a Muslim girl. What people are objecting to is that the joke is made at the expense of a positive representation of a Muslim female, a person. They are not objecting to the fact that the joke relates to Islam, a religion.

It is one thing to not make this distinction and insist “it’s just a joke.” It is another thing, entirely, to miss this distinction and conclude that it is another example of “Muslims and their humorless advocates,” of “Allah’s tribe,” demanding special protection from criticism with criminal conviction or fire-bombed offices as a consequence of non-compliance. It seems to me, that requires a certain disdain for Muslims, the people, and not just Islam, the religion.

Other Thoughts:

In a way, what bothers me most is that Firma’s posts are appearing on the Friendly Atheist blog. I’ve always valued that blog because it didn’t fall back on this “religion is evil (especially those rabidly violent Muslims)” bullshit. And, if you remove Firma’s posts, the blog otherwise stays true to form. But Terry Firma’s posts are a near unanimous example in delighting in the demonization of other people.

Here’s a quote from Austin Cline’s atheism.about page on respecting religion and theism:

“Second, beliefs themselves do not merit automatic respect and deference. Humans certainly deserve some basic level of respect and respectful treatment, but beliefs aren’t people.”

I really don’t see this as all that difficult to apply. Yet, over and over again, Firma seems to fail in applying this rule. I suspect this failure is on purpose.



  1. Terry Firma · November 20, 2013

    You say you don’t want to put words into my mouth, but then immediately do it anyway by charging that I would horrified if I discovered that a book about “color in Islam” was available at a local book fair. What on earth?

    Your la-la-land assertion is all the more puzzling because your summing up of my argument was, up till that point, fair.

    I’m not half as blinkered and reactionary as your little excursion into mindreading suggests. For instance, I have a rather deep fondness for North African music, from Oum Kalthoum to the jazz stylings of Rabih Abu Khalil. And I’m on the record with my appreciation of aspects of Muslim culture. Just two weeks ago, I wrote,

    “I still remember visiting the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon in 2004 and being floored by the heart-rending beauty of its Islamic art. I can lose myself in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan‘s mystical music.” Etc.

    Your attempt to paint me as a prejudiced yokel is creative, but wide of the mark.

    • thecaveatlector · November 20, 2013

      Thank you for responding, and you are right to call me out on the line. I have added an edit to the post to acknowledge its inappropriateness. I try to draw connections without making outright accusations because I am working with incomplete and impersonal knowledge. That comment failed in this regard.

  2. Terry Firma · November 20, 2013

    Thank you for the swift acknowledgement, and for the edit.

  3. Pingback: On Communicating when Cataloging Religious Violence | The Caveat Lector

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