Student paper’s joke was lost in translation

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

January 23, 2007 Ed Cartoon

Last week, The Daily Princetonian at Princeton University got into hot water by publishing an article attempting to poke fun at a sensitive issue.

Princeton is currently fighting a civil suit with a young man who believes he was discriminated against on the basis of his ethnicity when he applied to the university.

The article in the student newspaper’s annual joke issue was framed as a letter from the young man to the university. It used language such as, “I so good at math and science,” and “I the super-smart Asian.”

This attempt at humour appears racist in nature and, with its exploitation of stereotypes, is potentially offensive to Asians and other minorities.

The Daily Princetonian responded to criticism by arguing the article was intended to generate debate and “lampoon racism,” adding the author and the paper’s staff aren’t racist.

The idea of writing a controversial piece to spark debate through satire is dangerous. The article stirs the pot but may not raise the right issues.

Sacha Baron Cohen used his character Borat and the Borat movie to raise questions about racism and did so while walking a fine line between taste and offence. However, he’s well-educated and before releasing Borat he developed his satirical approach for many years.

Whoever wrote The Daily Princetonian article most likely doesn’t have the advantages Cohen has; the article’s message is unclear. Does it intend to admonish the administration? Or is the message attacking frivolous lawsuits?

The type of humour featured in Borat or The Daily Show and similar programs works best when you can see the nuances of the presenters’ messages. In print, using this type of humour is difficult and potentially impossible.

A sophisticated skill level is necessary to make satirical humour work, and The Daily Princetonian spoof doesn’t display this level of skill.

If the intention is to stir debate by making contentious statements, the message must be crystal-clear. This type of humour must be blunt and obvious; you can’t assume the reader understands your message.

A more effective way to stir debate is considering both sides of a situation and backing your claims with research.

“Lampooning racism” is a noble goal. But Princeton’s student newspaper failed to do so intelligently or tastefully. Its next step should be apologizing for trying something different and messing up.

The Daily Princetonian gives the impression racism is OK if it attempts to send some sort of message. With any humour, there’s a line between good taste and being offensive and racist.

The article crossed a line. Hiding behind the idea of deep, metaphorical humour doesn’t remove responsibility.

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