Guest Post: When a Joke’s Not A Joke – A view of how humor can hurt

Today I’m welcoming in another guest post on a bit of sensitive topic that, like most sensitive topics, comes from the furries. Yesterday a thoughtless joke was made by someone (thank God not me this time) that hurt a number of people. The joke was regarding the pronouns a person prefers to use for themselves. The writer of that joke later made an apology, and I hope they sincerely take this as a lesson and an opportunity to better themselves and be more aware moving forward.

However, it also sparked a whole “it’s just a joke” thing for a lot of people. Given the current political and social climate, I wanted to say something. But I’m not transgender, and I’m not really a member of a marginalized group, so I have no place to speak to their feelings, emotions, or thoughts.

Instead, I asked for submissions about why the joke was hurtful, because believe it or not, if you’re not a member of the groups affected, or you don’t know many who are, it’s easy to never see past the end of your nose. Lord knows I can’t at times, and I’d like to learn my way around that and let these groups have their voices heard. Hopefully we can have a discussion and foster greater understanding of why the thoughtless things we say are hurtful.

But that’s enough from the fat white law guy. Without further ado, I want to welcome the following post from Z. Tanner,  Ms. Tanner  is a student, poet and writer living in the state of Utah. She is a Non-binary Transperson who is often over-caffeinated, under-slept and has a habit of enjoying a good cup of mead now and then. She also pretends to be a snow leopard on the internet. 

While no one person can speak for an entire community, I find her explanation of why a joke is, in some cases, “not just a joke” enlightening.

Hey, my name is Z. Tanner. I am a student of psychology, a poet, white and a non-binary trans-femme and I heard this wonderful joke that I would like to tell you.

What does a lawyer and a sperm cell have in common?

Both have about a one in 3 million chance of becoming a human being.

Funny, right? Now why shouldn’t I have told that joke?

The big reason is that I am not a lawyer, or even remotely interested in being a lawyer. I went out of my way to attack another group of people that I am not a part of with that joke. By telling that joke I admit to thinking most lawyers are less than human. Jokes and humor tell us about who we are and were we exist in society.

Humor does not exist in a vacuum as we people don’t exist in a vacuum either. Jason P. Steed once posted on twitter that “Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always)” back on August 9th 2016. [Jason P. Steed  on humor ] He goes on to clarify that humor is one way we construct identity in and outside of groups. By doing this we use jokes and humor to assimilate or alienate.

This is why context is so key to the jokes we tell. It would be vastly inappropriate for me to tell a joke about Chinese people because I can’t articulate how to assimilate in a culture I have never been in. Building off of Steed’s comments further, my only action in telling a joke about Chinese people is to alienate them because this is how most jokes work.

A friend of mine who has been involved with stage comedy off and on explained when one is writing jokes there generally is always a victim. This victim can be a person, a culture, a situation and so forth. I asked them how they can go up on stage and say these jokes knowing that there is a victim. He smiled and said that he like a lot of comedians will write themselves as the victim. This presents himself as in on the joke and not the target of it. Using Steed’s Theory he then is using humor to assimilate and define where he is in society. This is why it would be better for me to make a joke about transpeople.

For example when asked about his children, my dad responds as thus “Oh, I have three of them, one of each!” And I love following that up with “at least he gets gender isn’t a binary.” This defines where I come from and what culture I am in with a (hopefully) witty response. I want you to compare that to how some other jokes about gender identity are like “I identify as an attack helicopter.” That joke seems to suggest there is a prescribed method on how to identify oneself and goes on to say some people will be completely unreasonable with their demands of their identity. Where as my joke bemoans the situation of having a father who loves and cares but never really quite gets it, something that a lot of queer folk can relate to. That alone speaks volumes about the people who tell the joke. It even clarifies why in context it is better for me to tell the joke that starts this paragraph compared to the one that starts this letter.

A lot of people will say “Well the people who hear the joke can choose not to be offended.” For a moment, I thought that was a good point till I realized something. Jokes can be a veiled condoning of unethical behavior. Mr. Steed continued on his commentary about jokes by saying that racists jokes aren’t bad “just because they alienate certain people but also because they serve to assimilate the idea of racism.”* By saying a racist, sexist, transphobic or just any bigoted joke in general, you are saying to the bigots “hey, I’m one of you, I belong with you, I think like you do and I think these people are lesser.” Now some people will say that it is just a joke. Yet by admitting that they also admit to saying that these bigoted things define them and the people around them. Now of course there is the issue concerning Satire.

One of the biggest defenses to off-color and offensive jokes is satire. But satire is meant to alienate or make absurd the subject of a joke. For instance, Blazing Saddles works as a satire because it pokes holes through the traditional Western Movie narrative fueled by an idealized history where we don’t see how the west was built on racial exploitation (or when we do it’s killing Native Americans). [Blazing Saddles and satire: here and here]. And the movie Mel Brooks made the joke that the racist townsfolk were backwards, ignorant and out right stupid. He continues to thrust with this idea concerning the black sheriff and the townsfolk by having them come to terms with their differences of race. By the end of the movie our black sheriff is accepted (read: assimilated) into the town while the racist army that was raised against them are alienated in their loss. Most people forget that the satire of Blazing Saddles was making fun of the racists and proclaim to either change or lose. This in itself makes the idea of bigotry something to be alienated as well as those who support it.

In the end a joke is never just a joke. It is a tool to help us connect to one another and to define how we are in context of society. When used wisely it can lift spirits from the darkest of despairs, provide relief for the ills of the world, to define who we are. When used poorly it can be a way to attack, demean and make people feel less than human. Whenever we say a joke it tells of who we are and what we accept and what we don’t.

What do your jokes say about you?