When A Joke Just Isn't Funny

I have been repeatedly accused of having no joy in my life. I have been repeatedly told that I have no sense of humour anymore.  This lament has become standard commentary, that I receive almost daily, and it is tired and old.  Let’s be honest, a lot of comedy today is based upon “othering” someone, or playing on tired stereotypes that are reductive to human dignity.

Daily as I become more aware of my privileges, things that I would have laughed at five years ago seem horrid to me.  I have come to realize that in many cases,  I am only in a position to laugh because said commentary is not a reflection on my life. 

When I wrote about Chris Rocks latest HBO special, I received the usual lighten up, it’s just a joke.  When I listened to his latest screed all I heard was anti woman, patriarchal privilege that left a sour taste in my mouth.  Clearly as a woman I have a vested interest in being treated like a person of value; however that does not excuse Rock or comedians of his elk of routinely resorting to calling women bitches and hos for a cheap laugh.

What many don’t realize as they sit there loudly guffawing at the latest homophobic, anti woman, racist etc., commentary is that they are participating in the very hierarchy that in other situations will create them as an other.  Unless you are a straight, rich, thin, able bodied, white male at some point in your life you are negotiating an area of stigmatization.   Hierarchy continues to exist because we continue to affirm it. 

We must come to realize that nothing exists outside of discourse.  From the moment the body is born it is encoded with social meaning that no one individual can escape.  If there is any hope of dismantling the social constructions that create some as less than so that others may profit, we must all actively engage in not only asserting our individual humanity, but our common humanity.

Rape, child abuse, fat jokes, racist jokes, etc., are not funny. This is someone’s lived experience and may be a point of pain.  When I hear comedians joke about slapping a bitch, I think of the women in the audience who have fretted over the best way to cover bruises and black eyes.  When I hear comedians joke about spankings they received as children, I remember my own painful dance with the belt.

Comedy is meant to uplift the soul in laughter, not take us to the darkest moments in our lives that may trigger horrible memories.  It certainly does not exist to make us feel that we are less than the person sitting next to us. 

I love to laugh and in fact I do it quite often, I simply do not believe that my personal amusement should come at the cost of the dignity of another.  Language means something, it is how we understand and encode our world, therefore there is no such thing as a simple, harmless joke if it creates someone as ‘other’.

I have a long way to go in understanding and accepting the different ways in which my body is privileged and how this affects my view of the world.  When I wrote a post recently about advertising and domestic abuse, as much as I believe in the equality of trans and lesbian women, I did not see the erasure in the advertising.  I admit this openly because it is only in admitting the ways in which we are blind that we can grow.  It had to be pointed out in the comment thread for me to see it.

Even the most vigilant amongst us will make mistakes; however we truly go wrong when we either do not attempt change,  or do not acknowledge our faults when they are presented to us.  As an imperfect being I expect to keep making mistakes and I am quite tolerant of the mistakes of others, my problem is with the select few who purposefully intend to demean another for profit.  When I use the word profit I mean either monetarily, or as an attempt to maintain unearned privilege.

As a species we are not so limited in imagination that we cannot amuse ourselves without resorting to the worst elements of society.  When we stop and laugh, though it is a joyful experience, I believe that we should all take the time to think about whether this joke was really free of constructions that were reductive.  A moment of joy should not be gained through the minimizing of another human being.

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