Written by Chad Echakowitz
We’ve all heard it before. Someone – let’s call him Zeek – says something insensitive, or racist, or sexist, or bigoted, and then as soon as someone else starts to raise an objection, Zeek retorts, “It was just a joke. Relax, broski! Do you have to take everything so seriously?” Zeek walks away with a smile on his face, feeling like a winner, and the objectioner looks like the bad guy. They may even be branded with the most derogatory and flippant of monikers: a Snowflake. There are so many reasons why the Zeeks of the world are wrong for doing this. There are so many more reasons why the phrase, “It’s just a joke” needs to be retired. But just to help get Zeek on board with why he needs to change, here’s just four.
1) Freedom of Speech is not just a right, it’s a responsibility
Freedom of speech is extremely important as a medium of seeking the truth, as it encourages honesty without any threat of ramifications. It is so important, it is written into most constitutions and Bills of Rights as an almost unchallengeable right. But, as is the case with every right, it comes with responsibilities too. Though you have the right to speak freely, you also have the responsibility to speak in such a way that does not harm those around you, mentally or physically.
Most countries limit the right to Freedom of Speech by making it unlawful to use words to encourage violence against others, or use words which would be understood as hateful to a certain group or class of people. There are also legal actions one can take if someone publicly spreads unflattering rumours about you. It is therefore clear that while this right is important, it doesn’t give you a free pass to say whatever you want, to whoever you want, whenever you want. For the safety, security and wellbeing of society, it is important to understand this.
It is your responsibility to think about what you’re saying, think how those around you will react, and act accordingly. You have this wonderful gift of speech. You also have this wonderful gift of forethought and the two should be used together to create a better environment for those around you.
So let’s go back to Zeek. Before saying something that he may not think is racist, sexist or bigoted, he should ask himself, “Are these people around me going to think what I am about to say is hurtful or upsetting?” If the answer is even in the slightest chance of being “yes” Zeek shouldn’t say it. There is nothing to gain for Zeek if he says what he wants to say. In fact, it would cost Zeek more in terms of respect and friendship if he does say it. But, if he doesn’t voice his awful remark, he will benefit from the continued assumption that he is not a bigot. How does the saying go? “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
2) Prejudice isn’t funny
Comedy is subjective. Not everyone finds the same things funny and different comedy can appeal to different people at different times. This is why you will often hear the phrases, “Read the room” or “Comedy doesn’t age well”. But it can be argued that in our modern society, where we are learning more about how our actions can affect others (it feels like I’m teaching pre-school here) prejudice is never funny.
If a comedian tells a bigoted joke now, that comedian is relying more on the shock factor than the actual joke being funny. They want the joke to be so offensive or upsetting, that one’s automatic and involuntary reaction is to laugh. The joke is not actually funny, the reaction to the joke is just involuntary. Alternatively, people will just laugh out of awkwardness to try and get the comedian to move on.
I’m not innocent. I’ve told some shock-factor-reliant jokes in my time and I know it feels good to get such a resounding laugh in response. But the joke isn’t funny. The joke was never funny.
If you look at the joke for what it is, which is just hurtful, there can be absolutely nothing funny about it. Here’s an example of a joke:
What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?
This is a fairly innocuous joke and doesn’t hurt anyone. It relies on humour that is at the expense of no one and remains funny because of its simplicity – a classic example of setting up expectations then going a different direction. Now here’s an example of a “joke” that relies on shock factor:
What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?
Nothing, they both go in the oven.
I use this joke because, having been born Jewish, I’ve heard it a lot.
This isn’t funny. It relies on how shocking and offensive it is to get someone to laugh. There is nothing funny about the Holocaust or about how many Jewish people (amongst a whole host of other marginalized groups) lost their lives because they were born into a religion they didn’t choose.
At this point, Zeek, you may be saying, “people are just too sensitive”. Well I’m sorry to tell you this but, as a human being, with equal standing to all other human beings around you, you have no right, power, or credibility for determining whether a person is “too sensitive”.
A final word on this section: if your jokes rely on making fun of someone else because of something they could not control, like their race or sex, you’re not funny, you’re just ignorant.
3) Like the Tango, it takes two to joke
With every joke, there is someone who tells it, and someone who hears it (or multiple someones). And, as with every joke, not everyone is going to find it funny. This is where comedians will adapt their routines after assessing what jokes are landing well with their audience.
And this is where Zeek gets it wrong. By raising the defense that, “It was just a joke” he is unwilling to recognise that his “joke” isn’t landing and is unwilling to change it accordingly. I am not saying that Zeek is trying to be a professional comedian, but if he wants to tell a joke, Zeek can’t double down on one that didn’t land well by informing the receiver of the joke that it was, indeed, a joke.
A joke is like a gift. You are giving it to someone else for them to enjoy. And very much like a gift, the person receiving it can accept it or reject it. Also, like a gift, there is (usually) some forethought by the giver as to whether the receiver would like it or not. If the giver gave the gift, and the receiver didn’t like it, it would be totally inappropriate for the giver to go, “Woah, chill out, it was just a gift.” Usually, the giver would apologise, and if they were really nice, return it and get the receiver something else that they did want.
You are telling the joke to someone else, Zeek, so it is ridiculous for you to get defensive, upset or offended, if someone else doesn’t find your joke funny, or even finds it distasteful or offensive. Rather, learn from the experience and find some other people to tell, or just stop telling that “joke”.
4) Trivialising things is how we got in to this mess in the first place
It all starts with a joke. It’s harmless fun. Then it becomes widely circulated. Then it becomes an idea stuck in the minds of the general public, and then it becomes something akin to fact. This may seem like a snowball fallacy but it is steeped in truth.
Rape is an incredibly serious crime, an intrusive, violent, and evil act that can destroy people’s lives. And yet, for many years, rape has been trivialized by making it a joke. Such phrasing as, “that exam raped me.” Or “he was so shocked, he looked like a raped owl.” show how commonplace a violent crime has become.
By doing so, we allow rape to be seen as something laughable, something not important. A knock on effect of this Rape Culture is the attitude most people have towards criminal cases concerning rape. Most of the focus is placed on the victim: was she drunk? Did he ask for it? What was she wearing? Have they slept together in the past? One wouldn’t ask these questions to a child who has been molested by a pedophile, nor a person who has been murdered (if you could ask them).
Of course, there are other factors which influence such social behaviour and it would be irresponsible to say that jokes are the sole reason why we live in a culture of victim-blaming. But they do contribute to the problem.
If Zeek were to stop telling these kinds of jokes, or stop defending his opinions under the guise that they were just jokes, it would go a long way to help alleviate this problem. Stop hiding behind jokes and trivializing important issues, just because you don’t have the courage to stand up and openly say how you really feel.
We all need to give issues the appropriate weight. That is not to say that I or anyone else can decide how much weight to give any particular issue. But in the same vein, no one can trivialize an issue just because it isn’t important to them. We can no longer stand by and watch as people excuse their prejudicial behaviour by trivializing it as a joke. It is not a joke. We’re not going to laugh any more. Read the room.
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