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Abstract

People sometimes resist the idea that racist humor fails on aesthetic grounds because they find it funny. They make the case that we can enjoy its comic aspects by controlling our attention, by focusing on a joke’s rhythm or delivery rather than on its racist content. Ironic intent may reside with the joke teller and/or the audience. I discuss how arguments for the immorality of racist jokes fall short. Ironic racist jokes may be acceptable to an audience that already rejects racism but is comfortable with such ironic racist joking precisely because as individuals they feel confident in their own rejection of genuine racism. Distinguishing between straightforward racist humor and ironically framed racist humor reveals a price that must be paid. The controlled attention demanded, or even extorted, by ironic racist humor is possible only by forsaking empathy as the listener divorces himself from the feelings of those affected and thereby becomes a complicit if impartial spectator. Thus, if I say that a joke is not good because it is racist, it does not necessarily follow that the joke is not funny. What does result, however, is that appreciating such humor entails a lack of empathy for it insists upon numbing the heart.

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