Tuesday, April 03, 2007

PV and Marx: Tasteless Jokes and Bill Simmons

I have no objection to jokes about sex, no matter how crude (The Aristocrats counts as a high moment in my life). When comedians joke about race, I'm not really too uptight. When most standup comedians make jokes about race, it's not at the expense of a minority but at the expense of racism itself (most of these jokes revel in the racist stereotypes to such an explicit extent that an intelligent listener knows that it is the racist stereotypes that are being mocked). I tend to stay away from misogynist jokes--they're too easy, too prevalent, and too damaging. Even then I'm likely to merely roll my eyes in frustration.

But there's one type of joke that I can't abide: jokes about class. I HATE jokes that mock somebody of a lower class. Such jokes are disturbing whether made by members of a dominant or ruling class. They're also distasteful when members of the middle class engage in them. When a middle class person makes a joke about a lower class person, he/she is allowing himself/herself to be coopted into the values of the ruling class. The insidious nature of ideological superstructure is that members of the oppressed class internalize the values of the ruling class, i.e., when a member of the proletariat believes the bourgeoisie principle that hard work equals success. And when different factions of the middle class engage in class mockery, they are shifting away from examination of the economical and political power structure that allows another group (in our case, probably corporations) to rule over them.

Which brings me to this little jab by Holy Cross alum Bill Simmons in today's Basketball blog:

"some OSU fans apparently misconstrued the point of yesterday's ... mini-column..... I don't blame them for missing the point; after all, Ohio State is a state school. So allow me to teach them a little lesson in reading comprehension."

State schools are considered (mainly by people who attend private schools) to be inferior. But why? Many of the people who attend a public school do so BECAUSE THEY CANNOT AFFORD TUITION AT A PRIVATE SCHOOL. So a joke mocking the intelligence of a state school student or alum might seem like a mere mockery of intelligence. But it's a mockery of class.

In this case, the state school student whose family doesn't have enough money to afford private school is being made fun of by somebody who was able to attend private school.

Of course, this goes further. Most high schools are funded in part by the property taxes of their communities, meaning rich communities can send their kids to better-funded schools than poor communities. But I won't even dive into that here. Even if a student comes from a good high school and is highly intelligent, he/she may struggle just to afford that public school, much less think about private school tuition. Sure, there are scholarships and grants that benefit the most intelligent and the most needy. But there are plenty of very intelligent students who attend state schools for financial reasons. And it should be noted, too, that many state schools provide an excellent education. A random citizen that attends or attended a state school should not be assumed to be less intelligent than a random citizen that attends or attended a private school. The idea that private schools are superior to public schools is another aspect of the ideological superstructure; such an idea allows those with money and power to keep their money and power. Because the rich can send their children to private schools without difficulty, the idea that their children are also getting a superior education (or are superiorly intelligent) allows them to maintain the myth that their family is successful because of a meritocricy, not a self-perpetuating system that allows the powerful to stay powerful (for if private schools are more prestigious, the private school graduates can get better jobs; the mere BELIEF that private school education is superior to public school education makes the private school education more valuable currency in the job market).

When a private school alum makes fun of a state school alum's education, what I hear is not "You're stupid" but "You're poor." So while I'm frequently disgusted by Bill Simmons' sexism, misogyny, and female stereotyping, I feel here he's gone in another reprehensible direction. By insulting the value of a state school education, he is engaging in class stereotyping--the kind of class stereotyping that maintains society's structure of power.


  1. Anonymous11:49 PM

    I wouldn't go to a private school if I had 100 million dollars.
    I could go into my reasoning, but I'd be stereotyping private school students and faculty, something you probably don't agree with doing.

  2. Anonymous8:52 AM

    Does that mean we should stop making all those jokes about Packer fans living in single wide trailers, living on Old Miwaukee and brats, wearing the wife beater, etc...?

  3. I just can't believe that someone from New England would do something like this.

    I went to a state school for undergrad and go to a private school for law. I encountered a bunch of dummies in both places.

    I'm not sure it's even class any more, though it certainly has that component. I think its more of an in-grouping/labeling thing. Some people go to private schools so they'll be perceived as smart without actually needing to be smart. The US News rankings just came out and my private law school dropped one (1) spot in the rankings. This caused a not insignificant portion of my school to have a hissy fit. My public undergrad school bounced around 3 or 4 spots every year and no one seemed to care. And I hung out with all the nerdy honors kids.

  4. Anonymous5:25 PM

    I know you are probably not a Bill Simmons fan but the '...' in your story is strategically placed to make the joke seem much more harsh than it actually was:

    I don't blame them for missing the point; after all, Ohio State is a state school. Just kidding. But allow me to give a little lesson in reading comprehension. When somebody writes the following lines

  5. Anon, I may be mistaken, but I am almost positive that that "Just kidding" wasn't there yesterday when I read the article. I think it was added later. If I had seen the "Just kidding," I might not have reacted as I did. I think that either Simmons or the editors added the "Just kidding" after some emails with reactions similar to mine.

    When I placed ellipses originally, I took out material that was simply not necessary to the point I was making, not something that altered the point I was making.

  6. Actually, I KNOW it was added. I didn't put ellipses between "school" and "But" where "Just kidding" is now. I cut and pasted directly from Simmons and didn't remove anything from that passage.

    I'm now going to pretend that somebody at ESPN reads my blog.

  7. And "So" was changed to "But." DEFINITELY a revision.

    Thanks, anon, for pointing out that discrepency.

  8. Interesting that Simmons gets to revise his columns after they're posted. I'd noticed that before, but I wasn't sure if it was a one-time thing or regular.