Monday, June 15, 2009

Humor at Others’ Expense

During a recent opening monologue, late-night talk show host David Letterman made a comment that still has people debating its appropriateness.

Letterman said "an awkward moment" occurred for former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin when, "during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by (Yankee third baseman) Alex Rodriguez." Without naming her, the joke apparently referred to Palin's 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, an unwed mother. But it was 14-year-old daughter, Willow, not Bristol, attending the game.

When Palin reacted the next day with understandable anger, Letterman offered a weak, halfhearted apology – couched within another joke.

I wonder: What if Letterman had said something like that about Chelsea Clinton while the Clintons were in office, or about one of President Barack Obama’s daughters? Or a daughter or granddaughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? No doubt Letterman today would be among the ranks of the unemployed; at the very least taking extreme measures to demonstrate genuine remorse.

Growing up, and even as late as the 1980s, I heard jokes about various ethnic groups – Italians, Poles, Jews, Hispanics, etc. Today most of us agree such efforts to elicit laughs at the expense of individuals or specific groups of people are unkind, inappropriate, and just wrong.

Perhaps because she is Caucasian, conservative and Christian – apparently the “unholy trinity” for elitist, left-wing wags – Palin and her family are considered fair game. But ideological and political differences do not excuse insensitivity and bigotry.

Once again, the Bible offers a simple, yet profound principle to apply to these situations: “Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). In other words, “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all.”

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