On Oct. 3, the “O’Reilly Factor” aired a segment where Jesse Watters “interviewed” several people in Chinatown, New York to inquire about their opinions concerning the election. Aside from many journalistic malpractices such as conflating Chinese, Japanese and Koreans with “Chinatown,” as well as taking advantage of non-English speakers, the segment garnered controversy for being offensive. I want to take the opportunity to discuss the nature of offensive jokes, and explain why the segment is offensive.
Humor is usually deemed offensive when it transgresses a certain boundary that is agreed upon by the viewers. However, not everything that is offensive is morally wrong, and the boundary in question is usually some assumption, moral or otherwise, that is often unjustified. Offensive humor can be helpful for developing the moral integrity of a society when it takes no assumption as sacred. There are many assumptions people hold as true without justification, and offensive humor should tear these down to show the underlying strangeness of all one previously held as absolute. Upon this realization, the morality of an assumption can be thoroughly examined and discarded if it is shown to be immoral.
Offensive humor is soured when comedians pick assumptions that favor them and people similar to them, which implies that the joker and those like him are necessarily superior because their assumptions, which favor them, are superior. The Watters segment might look like the former type of offensive humor, in that it attempts to tear down those “evil, left, Marxist” liberal assumptions that Chinese people do not like Trump.
However, the segment holds many assumptions as sacred, refusing to engage in actual offensive humor. The segment still holds, rather stupidly, that Chinatown is an actual representation of China. Watters still assumes that intelligent, reasonable Americans speak English, so when Watters confronts people in Chinatown who can’t speak English, they are presented as mentally challenged and stupid, as evidenced by Watters intercutting a scene from “Young Frankenstein” where a woman shouts at Frankenstein’s monster, commanding him to speak, but the monster can’t because his brain is established as “abnormal.” The Watters segment keeps Watters and, by extension, white, male, educated and affluent America on its pedestal while attempting to dismantle assumptions that Asian-Americans are intelligent, have valid opinions or deserve respect as American citizens. Thereby, the joke is morally wrong.
The first and typical straw man response is that, because I claim a bit of humor is morally wrong, I am advocating censorship of everything American. I am obviously a Marxist who wants to turn all of America into a Stalinist, Orwellian dictatorship. Nowhere in this article have I advocated for censorship. Nevertheless, holding creators morally responsible is important. If anyone wants to create offensive humor, then no assumption should be held sacred, particularly in race, religion and gender relations. As soon as one group’s assumption of superiority is maintained at the expense of others, then the comedy is morally objectionable humor.