Commentary: A discriminatory joke?

Scenario: A discriminatory joke?

Our last ethical scenario addressed a joke told at work at the expense of a targeted group, in this case people from Newfoundland.

Here’s what our readers had to say.

Most of our readers thought that Henri’s “Newfie” joke is unacceptable, especially in the workplace. They considered the joke offensive and some compared it to humiliating people of certain ethnic groups. One reader wrote: “There is no difference between telling “Newfie jokes” and making fun of people of other origins. Jokes that “make fun of” of a group of people are unethical period”.

The issue of asking a person if they want to hear a potentially offensive joke was also raised as it does not, in itself, justify actually telling the joke. Agreeing to hear the joke does not imply it will be positively received. For example, Sally may not have reacted to Henri’s joke simply because she believes it might cause more discomfort between them than the joke itself.

Since not everyone has the same sense of humour, it is difficult – often impossible – to foresee how people will react to controversial jokes. On the other hand, some commenters saw the joke as acceptable and said it should be taken more lightly. Indeed, the “Newfie” joke was not meant to be offensive and Sally made the right decision by not reacting negatively to the joke even though she might have been offended. In reaction to the scenario, one reader ask the following question and commented: “When will ‘people’ stop being offended over everything? Today’s world is losing its sense of humor and becoming a dark and un-fun place to live. Humour is a two-way street, and Newfie Jokes are some of the most sincere forms of flattery in Canadian culture”.

On the other hand, it was also noted that even if the teller of the joke was from Newfoundland (which, in this case he isn’t), it is the reaction, and not the joke teller’s perception, that matters. The origin of the person telling the joke and the one of whom it is directed to is not important, considering that some people from Newfoundland could laugh at a “Newfie” joke while others would feel harmed and offended.

“Respect the dignity of all persons”, the first principle of the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces Code of Values and Ethics, needs to be taken into consideration in this case.

Henri was not considerate of his coworkers’ origins or potential affection for their home province. While it is apparent that the joke was not meant to be harmful to anyone, Henri’s joke was simply not respectful.

That is not to say that jokes should be banned in a workplace or in the presence of colleagues. Joke tellers need to be aware of the possibility that they might offend and create negative reactions. The acceptability of a joke largely depends on the relationship that exists between the person who is telling the joke and those hearing it.

Context matters and while potentially sensitive jokes could be funny to some, joke tellers should pay attention to their audience and be confident that it will not prompt largely negative reactions in the audience.

Thank you to everyone who shared their ideas and contributed to the commentary for this scenario. As always, both your suggestions for scenarios and your feedback on scenarios are appreciated.


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