This is a subject that comes up in a rather general question but I'm wondering to specific areas to help sort out how we might think about offense in comedy.
This being a result of watching: Bill Burr Brilliantly Explains the Context of Offensive Language (with support from Colin Quinn) - go youtube it, only allowed 5 vids in one post.
Three things come to mind:
Hurt Vs Harm
The importance of context
The relevance of intent
With hurt Vs harm, there is a different in that one can be hurt but it leave no significantly enduring nor measurable harm to you psychologically or physically. Sure you got really distressed over that one thing but in time that dissipates, it didn't render you permanently damaged.
From this alone, I think it sets a standard in which there can't be restrictions beyond social restriction, we aren't going to impose any binding beyond the approval of the audiences. Because there's no harm, but at the same time one can keep hurting someone and do no harm but we'd still find it morally wrong to some degree. So the person who seeks to actively harm someone, we end up with various opinions about the legitimacy of such attacks.
Some might be like it's not okay to insult anyone at all out of principle, whilst others might shift to, they spoke shit or disrespected me so fuck them or the other end, I can blast anyone I want.
What makes this interesting is watching comedians like Frankie Boyle who actively insults his audience, people go to his shows knowing that's what he does. It's a kind of thing where you give shit to mates except slightly different, its a intimacy between performer and audience but it is on the front of it highly aggressive and nasty. Yet thats why a lot of people enjoy going to his show presumably, they love him for that shocking insulting scathing humor.
So in this, we tend to emphasize that the audience decides what comedy they want to experience and watch, to which some people don't find Boyle to their taste in which case they don't have to pay money to see him.
Now to context, it shapes comedy and I think Frankie Boyle makes an interesting point in the nature of offense when it lacks content, where an offensive word is defended by the BBC but content with uncomfortable subject matter is deemed offensive and worthy of censorship.
Basically that someone like Jeremy Clarkson's offensiveness lacks context and so he wasn't hammered for it. He says nonsense and then ends it with the word nigger, but what is more grating to some groups is offense that touches on really fucked up real world stuff. Like a joke that is political and makes fun of something like kids in the middle east would be better off pretending to be African animals because that way if they got shot, the western world would be up in arms about their death. A point that critiques the manner in which human life is devalued whilst we rant on about the lion that dentist killed and the Gorilla that was shot in the zoo. One can still maintain that such life is important and care about animals, but its useful to portray the manner in which they get attention but humans don't.
To the first video, there is a point of context related to the use of certain words. This I find very interesting and it touches on intent. So Bill Burr brings up points about the use of the word faggot, a term that by itself is readily seen as homophobic to homosexual men. For Bill, he emphasizes the way in which it is distant from that term, it becomes a kind of insult in a context where he was uncomfortable and acknowledges weakness in men being open about being hurt and so kind of pushes back when someone was being nice to him helping him up by calling them a faggot and telling them to back off.
What this makes me think of is how words can have quite different connotations and meanings to people, the word is the same but the manner in which it is interpreted is different.
The Racially Charged Meaning Behind The Word 'Thug' : NPR
What is interesting though I see Bill's point and I don't think I even care to oppose his use of it because it's used in such a context and he would defend it as having no intent of being homophobic in that he himself doesn't maintain homophobic beliefs in opposition to homosexuals and their rights.
A great example of how the word is used to an end that doesn't denigrate a group directly is in Rick and Morty making commentary on the use of the word retard.
But the origins of the term and its cultural connotations is the sort that is a devaluation of feminity and is used to infer lesser status to men. An interesting point being that certain demographics have slang titles which are used to denigrate people. So people call other sissies, bitches, fags, thugs, retards. Words that I would assume one can readily connect to what demographic is being spoken about, whether its lesser status of femininity/women, of being non-white, of being unintelligent/intellectually disabled, being non-heterosexual.
So it would seem a point is that, though one uses it outside of its original context, does this mean the word itself is fundamentally different? Like here in Australia, when me and friends get drunk we regularly call one another cunts casually. To my friends, the term has different connotations to the person who has experienced being called a stupid cunt because they were assertive and stood up in some circumstances and they were dismissed in this way out of anger towards them.
Rick and Morty's commentary makes an interesting point in a neutral use of the word retarded, which was what was used for what is now called intellectually disabled because of the bad connotations of the past word which is the true form of political correctness, a white washing of words. The tension I see is one of intent and I wonder whether that is relevant and to what degree.
Like, I don't have the same connotations in mind with the word nigger as someone raised in the US would, certainly not a black person in America. But because it feels lighter of a word in Australia, even in their awareness of it being offensive word, if I went spouting that off as if I wasn't being reckless, I imagine one would readily realize I was a fool for thinking that it wasn't going to piss some people off. So here, while we might imagine that a person could truly not have the intent to harm, we might suggest that they have the expectation and responsibility to not be so reckless in hurting other people. So an emphasis on the outcome, and thus intent is discarded. You didn't intend to hurt someone emotionally or what ever, but did out of reckless naivety to the connotations of the word.
BUt then we have interesting dynamics in which the word nigger has a tension within itself in the black community. Where Chris Rock said on Inside the Actor's studio said how the word nigger was used for artistic expression, to take its venom and to change it.
But someone like Richard Pryor goes onto really criticize the use of it by anyone.
And then you have someone like Lenny Bruce who speaks to how he thinks one can take away that venom, that by not speaking it empowers it it with its offense.
All of this an interesting dynamics of a word that is seen as bring to surface awareness of white supremecy in the history of the US and to the present day.
Which reminds me of how the word wog here was used to insult Greeks, Italians and people from that part of Europe. Which then became a means of strong identity, many of that area in terms of ancestry identify as being wogs confidently, not letting themselves be a means of insult. Which emphasizes the individuals capacity to negotiate the matter in which they interact with the word, awareness of the venom in the history and the intent when someone really says it to hurt.
Such as Reginald D Hunter speaks to his desire to not be offended by such a term, well not not be offended but perhaps more not seek to let it make him angry.
Reginald D. Hunter - Offensive Words
But in intending to harm someone, it certainly can be offensive even if the word used in itself isn't offensive, the desire to hurt you pisses one off to. In all of this get someone like Zizek you speaks of political correctness as a false means of improving things and instead just self discpline, it doesn't improve racial, gender, disability equality/standards in a society. That there can be a reason to argue against someone being an asshole, but thats as far as it can go, where ones speech seeks to discuss and press against anothers.
Which also brings me to the thought of why are comedians so thoroughly targeted as the purveyors of cultural influence? That even if one got comedians to stop saying nasty words for example, I'm not sure it would do much, in the vein of what Zizek asserts that it doesn't improve things and is only self discipline. To which Zizek makes an interesting point in political corrrectness being a sort of veneer to the reality. The example he uses is that of being friendly with your boss, who might have a good relationship but at the end of the day they are your boss, that is the fundamental relationship one has no matter what shine one puts over it. So in a country like mine and the US there is an aversion to the mention of class, all working class are apparently middle class no matter how fucking poor they are. Yet in England, they are a lot more explicit in their class system, which means there's one less hurdle for people to jump over in recognizing the state of their society and power relations, one that is clearly class based. But at the same time, there's no doubt that many people who have that stuff shoved in their face are aware of these things, some more than others, they don't need to be called a racial slur to be aware that the society is hostile towards them in some degree. So in some sense, one isn't under an illusion, but not having it shoved in your face makes existence more bearable as you're not being persistently hurt. But then, then again, is the pain really gone, because not being explicit about class and racial stuff, though not needing it to be offensive all the time, doesn't do away with the reality. Like for all the emphasis on the US being PC and such, there's no doubt that people are being called niggers or as the NPR article above, thugs where people go on to argue that they don't mean it with racial connotations in a racially charged context such as a police shooting.
This is just a ramble, but I think it might be some interesting considerations.
To what extent does context become relevant to whether something is offensive, is it just the word, is it the intent to harm, is it the sensitivity of the context, is it varying degrees of all based on the demographics involved and their background and understanding of such a word through their lived experiences.
The general sense I have is that we can criticize someone when we think they're being an asshole, the sort of person that is recklessly hurting people and their defense is flimsy like 'just being honest'. But at the same time, we certainly need some sort of limit where we might understand that something can be risky and hurtful but it's not just shut down. In fact, many of these things seem negotiated, if someone was bothered by something and expressed it then you consider for their sake that you would stop, because it would become clear that you keep doing it because you've made a habit from it or you are willfully being inconsiderate.
To which we would just as readily defend someones ability or right to be an asshole to some extent, that they can't persistently seek out and harass someone, but that depending on the context may not really cut off all ties with them. Though some positions evoke greater basis for consequences than others based on what one signifies.
So in the end, how do you navigate offensiveness? What are the things and on what basis, do you persist inspite of it rustling people the wrong way? What makes something feel defensible? I imagine it's things like assertions that it is the truth and that one feels justified in stating their belief. To which a discussion could ensue to the validity of that which isn't a magic bullet as we can all be pretty stubborn in our world view.
These sort of considerations seem to exist even in terms of moderation on this site, that there is no clear line that makes that role easy. Someone could get away with using nasty word here and there, others for a lack of nasty words are able to say terrible shit and be accepted. Which is a point Bill Burr makes that it allowed those with truly prejudice thoughts and intentions to navigate offense by avoiding those charged words. So someone who uses dog whistle politics for example, which to me seems intuitively more problematic because of their beliefs and intent than the person whose intent is benign and they are simply reckless in their words.