Humor and Group Identity

Jeff Foxworthy, for any who don’t know, is a comedian whose whole schtick is his status as a working-class, Southern man. Growing up, my entire family loved him. We owned several of his stand-up specials on cassette, and watched his (short-lived) sitcom every week. We, and every other Southern working-class family we knew, absolutely loved him, and I will admit to a tender place in my heart for him to this day.

Mr. Foxworthy is best known for his “You Might Be A Redneck If…” jokes. These are very short quips about things that mark one as a redneck. One of the most famous is “You own a home that is mobile and 5 cars that aren’t.” Another is “If your family tree does not fork, you might be a redneck”. This bit gets a laugh every time he does it.

So, then, why are the following jokes by Bob Farmer, the Democratic Candidate for Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, considered offensive to rural Kentuckians?

In content, most of these jokes are no different from Mr. Foxworthy’s. The difference is that Mr. Farmer explicitly casts himself as the outsider from the “big city”, whereas Mr. Foxworthy plays up that he is joking about his family and his life. (For those unfamiliar with Kentucky geography, the comedy bit was done in a suburb of Louisville, just across the river in Indiana.) Mr. Foxworthy has the identity, the “cultural capital”, to be accepted within the “redneck” community. Mr. Farmer, simply, does not.*

This same rule applies to the use of slang as well. Slang is a marker of identity, and using it correctly and appropriately is a marker that you are a member of a group. It is another form of “cultural capital.” On the other hand, when used by someone not within that community, its use can be seen as disrespectful or offensive.

Which brings me to this clip from Fox Business:

http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/pl55.swf

I will leave aside the racist insinuations of President Obama loving “hoodlums” because he met with the leader of an independent country and a well-respected rapper. Instead, I want to focus on the use of words like “Hizzouse” and “crib”. Both of these words have a distinct setting, like all slang. Both come from African-American slang, though (and I may be wrong) both might be considered rather passe at this point.

Mr. Bolling, the host, does not try to communicate in any way that he belongs to the culture in which such words would be considered acceptable. His use of this slang then becomes instead, intentionally or not, a way of mocking that culture and the President at the same time. It is alienating, and thus offensive.

Humor and slang can be used to good effect in many cases. However, they can also torpedo you quite badly if the joke does not go over well, if the joke is considered offensive, or if the proper background is not done. As with most things, when in doubt, get a second opinion before running with it.

*Back to Bob Farmer: His even running for state-wide office, when these comments of his were available on YouTube, has to be the dumbest instance of forgetting that anyone can see anything on the internet. Moreover, his apology was one of the weakest I’ve ever seen. He explicitly said the problem was a lack of sense of humor in his opponents, rather than the fact that he was mocking his would-be constituents. Completely incredible.

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