Some of you might or might not know that a little while ago there was a schism in the cat_macros community, which led to the creation of the community wtf_catmacros (to show off the more "politically incorrect" captions to place on your pictures of cats).
(Some of you might be boggling that there was a conflict at all on a site that's based on taking photographs of cats and putting silly captions on them. You are now entering The Internet. Motto: "We Hate What You Hate, And We Hate You.")
There was one thread, which I'm not going to link to, centering around a macro that involved raping babies in some way or another. In response to this, one user said that she worked in a neonatal intensive care unit and actually had dealt with a baby who had been raped, brought in, and subsequently died slowly and horribly despite the best efforts of the medical staff; so, in essence, baby rape is nothing to joke about. And the nicest--I mean the absolute kindest and most polite thing that was said in response to her was "Well, I showed this macro to two friends of mine who actually have been raped, and they laughed, so don't tell me what I can and can't say!!"
First off, as a defense of one's actions, this strikes me as being only a small step above the "I'm Not Racist, I Have Black Friends" defense. (Your friends weren't offended? Bully for them. Still doesn't mean it wasn't a dick thing to say in the first place. To put it more crassly: Just because your friends don't mind the smell doesn't mean your shit doesn't stink-- or that it's okay for you to take a dump on the dinner table.)
But, this leads to a deeper question: Why do I even care in the first place? What makes it matter to me what flamewars on the Internet say? Why am I even wasting time and effort on paying attention to this at all?
I admit, they're good questions. But I care because this sort of thing is a representation of something very much Not Okay in the world at large. So, I've been ruminating over it, and here's some opinions I've developed about sick humor and gross jokes.
To begin with, I have to get jargony for a bit...yeah, have to get all ivory-tower and radical and o-noez-it's-teh-Librul-Gestapo now. I need to bring up something that's super-important in progressive and radical theory, called "appropriation." If you haven't run across this theoretical concept before, it works like this: Appropriation is when someone (and in this sense, someone with cultural power / dominance) takes something away from someone else (in this sense, someone without as much cultural power / dominance) and claims it as hir own. For example, rich yuppies who go to a spa in Taos and come back talking about their new Native American spirit guides and dreamcatchers and sage smoke and whatnot else. They don't care about the cultural or historical significance of these things; they just like the trappings and artifacts -- and they'll be put aside just as soon as the next exotic trend comes along.
So, appropriation. Keep this in the back of your mind.
Now, for sick humor. If someone who has actually been through trauma makes a sick joke about that trauma -- for example, someone who's been paralyzed makes a cripple joke, or a parent who's lost a child makes a dead-baby joke -- that's one thing. It's an attempt to face down the horror of what's happened. Making the joke provides a catharsis -- it's a laugh that covers up a scream. (And if you're wondering why someone who's suffered such a horrible thing would even want to joke about it in the first place... well, if you really want to get technical, what the hell else can they do? To be less flip, it's an issue of control. By laughing at what's maimed you [physically and/or emotionally], you can exert a little bit of control over it. Because I think the lack of control is one of the most horrible things about trauma like that -- a good portion of the horror comes not just from what's happened to you or your loved ones, but from the fact that you can't do a damn thing about it.)
(For a much better explanation of this than I can give, check out the cartoonist John Callahan sometime.)
Now, let's say that someone who hasn't been through trauma makes a joke about it, and gets jumped on for it, and can't understand why. I submit that this is an example of appropriation. The person making the joke wants the cool hardcore edgy punchline, wants everyone around him to stand in awe of his awesomely I-laugh-at-pain-and-death attitude, wants people to celebrate his joy at flouting politeness and flaunting his P.I.C.-ness -- but he wants it for free. He wants to make the joke about horrible things without paying the price of actually going through them.
I realize that this may sound like I'm saying "Only people who've gone through horrible things should make sick jokes! If you're not, then go to the P.C. Playground Of White Light And Fluffy Bunnies And Let's All Be Nice And Pretend We're Happy And Nothing Ever Hurts Anyone Ever!" I'm not arguing that people who make sick jokes need to have their freedom of speech taken away from them.
What I am arguing is: Take a look at your audience. Remember that someone telling you "Hey, you're an asshole!" does not infringe your freedom of speech in any way. Remember that politeness and respect for human decency is not automatically tyranny. Remember that, if someone gets offended by your mocking attitude towards something that maimed them, it's not automatically a sign of weakness or moral cowardice.
And also, think about what you're trying to do with your jokes? Are you trying to shock people out of their complacent attitudes? Are you trying to use shocking jokes to get people to change their ways?
Or...are you just hoping that everyone will adore you for being so rude?
(Do you want to be the masturbating chimpanzee at the zoo?)
There is a line between George Carlin and Larry The Cable Guy. You might want to check it out.
There is a time and a place to be an asshole, and it is neither all the time nor every place.