Stop the insensitive Japanese “jokes”

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake. A devastating tsunami. A potential nuclear disaster. Thousands dead or missing.

So what’s supposed to be so “funny” about the growing crisis in Japan?

That’s a question that Gilbert Gottfried, Dan Turner, Alec Sulkin, and Larry Kudlow ought to reflect on after spewing insensitive remarks that trivialized the human tragedy in Japan.

Aerial of tsunami damage near Sendai, Japan. PHOTO CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord

Gilbert Gottfried, the man known for his obnoxious voice-overs as the Aflac duck, tweeted several derisive jokes about the Japanese tsunami, including: “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them.” and “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.” His jokes were grotesque at best. After all, what can be funny about bodies being washed up ashore following a tsunami? After news broke that Aflac has severed ties with Gottfried, the comedian tweeted two apologies today: “I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my attempt at humor regarding the tragedy in Japan.” and “I meant no disrespect, and my thoughts are with the victims and their families.”

Dan Turner, the press secretary for Mississippi governor and potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate Haley Barbour, wrote in an email obtained by Politico.com that “on that day in 1968: Otis Redding posthumously received a gold record for his single, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. (Not a big hit in Japan right now.)” Perhaps Turner needed to be reminded of the expeditious generosity shown by the Japanese government and its citizens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. Given that recovery is still underway in his home state five years later, Turner probably shouldn’t be so quick to laugh at others’ misfortunes. (Turner resigned on Monday as Gov. Barbour’s press secretary. He has yet to issue an apology.)

Alec Sulkin, a TV scriptwriter for Family Guy, tweeted this scornful comment: “If you wanna feel better about this earthquake in Japan, google ‘Pearl Harbor death toll.” First of all, Pearl Harbor’s death toll had nothing to do with natural disasters like earthquake and tsunami; Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military base. Secondly, Sulkin should be reminded that the U.S. exacted its “revenge” many times over when it dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed between 150,000 to 246,000 Japanese (mostly civilians). He should keep in mind that nearly 37,000 American military personnel are currently stationed in Japan, including 2,000 Army soldiers, 16,000 Marines, 13,000 Air Force military and civilian personnel, and 6,000 Naval personnel. Whether he realizes or not, Sulkin’s mocking attitude and offensive remark could reflect poorly on the Americans living in Japan. (Sulkin tweeted this flippant attempt at an apology on Saturday: “Yesterday death toll = 200. Today = 10 thousand. I am sorry for my insensitive tweet. It’s gone.”)

Larry Kudlow, a CNBC commentator, made this dehumanizing remark on live TV: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.” Does he really think it’s better that thousands of people have been killed by the earthquake and tsunami than the disaster’s impact on the stock markets? Kudlow later tweeted this apology: “I did not mean to say human toll in Japan less important than economic toll.Talking about markets.I flubbed the line. Sincere apology.”

Some may think these attempts at humor or careless remarks are harmless or that critics should “lighten up” and take a joke. In this particular context, the issue isn’t about being blind to humor. It’s about their blindness to humanity. Sensitivities aside, their comments basically dehumanized others who don’t look or speak the way they do; their comments showcased a lack of compassion and empathy towards the suffering of their fellow human beings; and their comments devalued the lives lost in this tragedy. For that, they should be ashamed.

Stop the insensitive Japanese “jokes.” They’re not funny.

 

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3 Comments on “Stop the insensitive Japanese “jokes”

  1. This post has generated some thoughtful discussions! Here are a few responses from WhatTheFolly.com to our readers’ questions and comments:

    Our response to a reader who pointed out that humor – although sometimes offensive – is often used as an outlet for people to cope with tragedy:

    “While humor could be a helpful way for people to cope with tragedy, how that humor is applied and the context in which that humor is exercised is worth examining. One wonders whether Gilbert Gottfried, Alec Sulkin, and Dan Turner would have publicly made those type of jokes just days after the massive earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010, or the 8.8 earthquake in southern Chile, or the recent devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand?

    Humor is not easy to reconcile. After all, where does one draw the line on what is appropriate or not? Is there a line? Should there be a line? Who draws those lines? The audience? The comics? (The victims?) Both? Neither? These are good questions to ponder and discuss!”

    Our response to a reader who thinks we should to take a joke and not focus on staying “sad” about the Japan earthquake and tsunami:

    “The point of the post isn’t about staying sad. It’s about having some empathy for others, not dehumanizing them, especially so soon after a traumatic event. Gottfried’s joke about breaking up with his “Japanese girlfriend” and how they’ll be another one “floating by” was dehumanizing; it crosses that line between finding humor about bad a situation versus devaluing the people who perished in the tsunami. In this particular context, it’s the dehumanizing tone and the timing of the jokes that makes them “not funny” (in our opinion).”

    Our response to a reader who suggested that Gottfried’s comments were made in his private Twitter account:

    “Gottfried’s Twitter account had over 75K followers, and his tweets are public. That’s a sizable audience (maybe not by Kardashian’s standards). That’s a bigger audience than he would have at a stand-up club or theater.”

    Our response to a reader who pointed out that comedians shouldn’t be restrained from making offensive jokes or remarks:

    “Good comedians tell jokes to get a certain reaction (i.e. laugh) to get people to think. They don’t crack jokes for the sake of jokes; that’s easy – a “chicken that cross road” or “knock knock” type joke would have sufficed. There’s a line between offensive and dehumanizing and hurtful. Gilbert Gottfried’s remarks fall on the latter. Makes you wonder about his intent in cracking those jokes. The goal of our post was to explain why Gottfried, Turner and Sulkin’s were not appropriate because of their dehumanizing tone and how quick they were to joke about the Japanese. While comedians should not be restrained, but that freedom does not exempt them from responsibility or negative feedback from audiences (like WhatTheFolly.com). If they’re gonna dish it out, they’re gonna have to take the hits too!”

  2. While humor could be a helpful way for people to cope with tragedy, how that humor is applied and the context in which that humor is exercised are worth examining. One wonders whether Gilbert Gottfried, Alec Sulkin, and Dan Turner would have publicly made those type of jokes only days after the massive earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010, or the 8.8 earthquake in southern Chile, or the recent devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand? Why do they think it’s all right to make those jokes within days of the Japan earthquake and tsunami?

  3. We would like to share this insightful comment from one of our readers on Reddit.com:

    Josh1910 wrote:

    “I agree, but the Larry Kudlow example doesn’t belong with the rest. He wasn’t making a joke and, considering it was live, his error was understandable. Basically, he was saying the economic consequence could be worse and we can be thankful that it isn’t.”

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