In my world, you do not poke fun at other people's pain. Ever. It doesn't matter who they are. It doesn't matter when it happened. It doesn't matter whether it is something that they did or something that is beyond their control. If it hurts, you leave it alone.
And if you do accidentally hurt someone's feelings (because in my world it is always an accident), you apologize for it. You do not equivocate. You do not get defensive. You do not give lectures on the subject of humor. You simply say, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
And if you have to explain your jokes, then they're probably not very good in the first place.
In anticipation of the upcoming Golden Globes, the current issue of Entertainment Weekly has a guest article by Ricky Gervais explaining his jokes from last year. In fairness to Gervais, this was quite clearly the magazine's idea, not a sadistic maneuver by Gervais to twist the knife even deeper. I told myself not to read it, as it would only annoy me at best and offend me at worst, but for some reason I did not listen to myself and read it anyway.
The entire article has not been published online, presumably so that people will buy the magazine, so I cannot link to it to demonstrate the offensive part, but basically he says that fat people deserve to be picked on because one's weight is due to one's lifestyle choices and not something beyond one's control. I was not aware that Mr. Gervais had advanced degrees in bariatrics and endocrinology.
I said before that his jokes at the Golden Globes did not offend so much as confuse me, but that I would be offended if he were to make fun of my most painful and embarassing experiences, and certainly one of my most painful experiences was being picked on for being fat throughout most of elementary and middle school.
Obviously my opinion is neither calm nor objective, but to me, this attitude is akin to blaming the rape victim. I hate to say that because it is in danger of becoming a cliché, but really, how is saying, "If you didn't dress provocatively, this wouldn't have happened," rhetorically any different from saying, "If you would just eat right and exercise, this wouldn't have happened"?
And what other potentially sensitive subjects fall within the domain of lifestyle choices and are therefore fair game for ridicule? What about socioeconomic status? Is it one's own fault if one is poor? Shouldn't one just work harder or get another job? What about a paralyzing injury such as that suffered by the late Christopher Reeve? It's not as though the horse attacked him, after all; he made a choice to ride the horse. What about suicide or attempted suicide? It's certainly not something that is beyond a person's control; does that make it fair game for comedy?
I just think it's ironic that we live in a society in which children are literally being bullied to death, in which celebrities are (admirably) making videos trying to convince these kids that there will come a time when people won't pick on them anymore, and then along comes Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes and undermines all those messages: "Sorry kids; turns out it doesn't get better after all! Someone will always be there to mock your pain!"
You're wise not to drink the milk, Elmo. He probably spat in it.