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What defines the line between offensive and humourous?

ByMegan Kenyon

Oct 17, 2017

Last week, students at both the Universities of York and Exeter were called out and criticised for offensive and inappropriate behaviour on nights out. Both groups of students were slated for wearing items of clothing with disgusting and unpleasant phrases on them, making light of serious issues such as rape and the Syrian refugee crisis.

In both instances, the students involved were attempting to have a good time at the expense of others. Going to such lengths for ‘banter’ or to impress one’s peers reflects the growing acceptance of such behaviour in wider society. The students in these cases would perhaps not have been so rash or insensitive in their decision making if the society around them recognised the stupidity and the consequences of making offensive, insensitive and inappropriate jokes.

It is evident that in recent weeks and months, there has been an increase in celebrities and politicians apologising for indecent and distasteful remarks which were initially meant in jest. The fact that those in the public eye have been increasingly provocative in the comments they make reflects the increase in the acceptance of such behaviour.

For example, the treasured TV personality and ‘Late Late Show’ host James Corden has lately been called out for the jokes he made concerning the prosecution of Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein, a top Hollywood producer, has been facing various allegations of sexual harassment and assault and has been dominating the press recently. Corden’s disgusting and grotesque remarks were made with the intention of creating comedy, however to make light of an ongoing investigation which has caused such trauma, upset and distress in the lives of so many is far from a laughing matter.

Another key example of this is Boris Johnson’s unprofessional display in a temple in Myanmar. After reciting extracts of a pro-colonialist poem by Rudyard Kipling, Johnson was reminded by the UK ambassador that the poem was not appropriate in such a context.

Although not intended in a comedic sense, Johnson’s outburst reflects how widespread society’s perception of what is and what isn’t offensive has been warped. The fact that Johnson, a man who is at the top end of government, felt it appropriate to recite a poem with such offensive connotations is merely testament to the loss of decorum and respect for others that we are witnessing in this country.

It is also arguable that social media is having a monumental effect upon what society deems appropriate. The rise of ‘memes’ and increasingly insensitive content online is also laying the foundations for further unpleasant and offensive behaviour in the name of humour. Social media is a platform for many to share, re-tweet and ‘like’ apparently humorous yet inherently offensive content, meaning that increasingly we are losing our perception of what is funny and what is unacceptable.

The increase in this culture of ‘banter’ at the expense of the troubles and difficulties of others, combined with the rise in those in the public eye making miscalculated and outrageous remarks has laid the foundations for incidents such as those which occurred at Exeter and York. Society needs to crack down on how we deal with inappropriate jokes and remarks, ensure that social media is no longer a platform for the growth of offensive humour and realise that there are multitudes of ways to crack a joke, rather than at expense of the trauma of others.


Image: Chatham House via Flickr

By Megan Kenyon

Megan is the current Welfare Officer and a former Editor-in-Chief at The Student. She started writing in her first year, becoming an Editor of the Comment section in her second year and Editor-in-Chief in her third. She studies English literature and religious studies. 

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