Members of Newcastle’s Mechanical Engineering Society have recently come under scrutiny for wearing t-shirts exhibiting ‘jokes’ about the Holocaust. The shirts were worn as part of a ‘White T-Shirt Social’, a common event in many universities where students wear self-decorated white t-shirts. Having been merely let off with a suspension from their society, I think these boys got off far, far too lightly.
“It was just a joke”, you may claim. “They didn’t mean any harm”, others could add. Though it might not seem that way, such people could definitely be right. Whether we would like to admit it or not, we have all made an offensive joke, or at least laughed at one. This might not be as bad as making the joke, but you’re definitely still complicit in some way.
They were neither sharing a serious opinion, nor offering real thoughts on another
However, we can know that we don’t actually find the situation funny, or based on knowing our friends and family that they don’t actually find the situation funny either. I am also not condemning all offensive jokes. But I am outraged by the boys’ behaviour, and to bound and casually brandish jokes about a mass genocide, despite the deep hurt and emotional pain this could bring others, is an act both confusing and appalling. Whether it was “just a joke” is simply not very relevant. Not only is the Holocaust an issue of unique gravity, but this line of argument assumes that the offence is just our responsibility. Why should we be expected to know when something is “just a joke”, and when something is supposed to be serious?
“What about free speech?” someone else could add. While this may be tempting, it’s hard to justify the boys’ behaviour on these grounds. They were neither sharing a serious opinion, nor offering real thoughts on another. It was just pathetic, childish mocking for kicks. There are lots of things to joke about – and maybe mock – other than the Jews and the Holocaust. At the very least, then, pick a better group.
That the boys received a mere slap on the wrist is something that seems both outrageous and deeply unfair
This incident also points at a more general issue in society. From young black men whose “threatening” clothing justifies their arrest, or women clad in “revealing” clothing who ask for their own rape, many of us are now – for good or ill – forced to consider other people’s perceptions in our appearance. And that the boys received a mere slap on the wrist is something that seems both outrageous and deeply unfair.
We could all agree that offensive jokes can sometimes be taken too far, but who’s to say when? It’s an important question, but it seems obvious that jokes about a mass racial genocide probably cross that line, notwithstanding where it is precisely.
Despite the fact that these boys may have “just” been joking and though I do not condemn all offensive jokes, I certainly think they deserved a greater punishment. Mocking a whole race and its tragic history in the name of “fun” isn’t just grossly offensive and immature – it’s downright nasty.