April Fools' Day is upon us and for we who hold this holiday dear, humor – or at least attempts at it – will abound. Some will find their mark, some will fall flat, and still others will cause unintentional offense. Sadly, offending people has come to occupy a wrongly inflated place on the hierarchy of social faux pas.
When the makers of SpaghettiOs used Pearl Harbor day last December as an occasion for promoting their product, they received not only wide condemnation, but also a joke from comedian Natasha Leggero who commented that "it sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew." This line generated more howls of protest and demands for an apology from Leggero.
This is not an isolated incident. After making jokes in the wake of the Japanese tsunami like "Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them," Gilbert Gottfried lost his lucrative commercial voice-over job. We take jokes seriously.
Jokes can be used to belittle and bully, to be sure, but is every joke in which the subject is a person or a group of people over the line? When someone is offended by something we have uttered, we often respond with "I was only joking" because there is some sense in which jokes are meant to amuse, not to convey information.