Laughing, Because Otherwise We’d Cry

I’ve always enjoyed working where I do, but I’m particularly proud of my peers and leaders at the moment for pushing for ongoing conversation around race, social injustice and prejudice. In a time where it seems like everyone is jumping on the George Floyd bandwagon, then jumping off as soon as something else comes along, where I work has – so far – maintained a steady grasp on the importance of challenging racial bias both with our teams and with our customers. We have meetings at least once or twice a week around the subject, and have started to provide venues for black voices to be heard across the company – and acknowledging that even so, there’s a lot more work we have to do.

During one of these meetings, the topic of racial humor came up – specifically, the notion of laughing uncomfortably at racist jokes, or looking the other way, or simply ‘letting it slide’. And the overall consensus was – as one might expect – that racist humor is pretty much not okay.

Personally, however, I think humor is actually a much more subtle and complicated topic than simply ’right vs. wrong’. On the whole, I tend to agree that a racist joke for the sake of being racist, for shock value, or because it actually reflects your true ugly beliefs, is definitely not okay. But this begins to toe a delicate line – if something is taken off the table as a subject of humor because it’s offensive to some, then where do we draw the line at what is and isn’t okay to joke about?

I realize this is an old subject, and there are many who’ve debated it far more eloquently than I’m able to, but it’s nonetheless an important one. After all, we humans love to laugh, and there’s not a whole lot of humor that doesn’t come at someone’s expense. Whether it’s an edgy pedophile joke or simply a punny dad joke, somewhere along the line someone is put out. I think the main reason for this is because of the very nature of humor: we laugh when something clashes with our expectations, prejudices or preconceived notions about a particular topic in an unexpected way. Take one of my favorite jokes from when I was a kid:

Q: What do you get when you cross a canary with a fan?
A: Shredded tweet.

I pity you if you didn’t at least roll your eyes at that one. But the implication is in fact rather violent – a canary fed through a fan would be a cruel, bloody and horrific mess. PETA would not approve.

So should that joke be considered unacceptable? I think most people would find it pretty innocuous, but I can’t deny that there are some people in the world who might actually be offended.

Of course, there are subjects that are far more controversial than childish animal cruelty puns; racism, sexism, child molestation … there’s really no end to the extent of vile and horrible things that humans are capable of, and these are of course very serious topics that should be discussed in a serious manner if we are ever to find long-term solutions to the problems they give rise to.

But we aren’t all capable of changing the world; everyone is not a saint, and most of us struggle as it is to get through our daily lives with our minds and emotions intact. In fact, the vast majority of us rely on humor to diffuse situations, to make life more tolerable, and to simply come to terms with some of the worse things in the world.

So what is okay to make fun of, then, and what isn’t? Can I make fun of a friend for being outrageously gay? Can he make fun of himself for being outrageously gay? Can I poke fun at Mohammed? Or the people who violently protest his depiction in media? An incompetent president for drinking covfefe in the morning? Do I have to limit myself to G-rated humor and wordplay? Innuendo can be incredibly sexist; even an offhand remark about self-tan could come off as racist.

In one sense, there is a simple answer, in which I’ll paraphrase one of my favorite satirical shows ever, South Park: either everything is okay to make fun of, or nothing is. The ‘line’, so to speak, is entirely arbitrary, depending on the audience and the perception of the people both telling and hearing the joke. If I make a Catholic priest altar boy joke, there is a very specific demographic that will likely take great offense to it; most other people would probably laugh. If I make a Muslim joke, it’s pretty likely that those demographics will be completely reversed.

But at the same time, the concept of ‘all-or-nothing’ is still something of an oversimplification. Yes – if we start arbitrarily saying certain things are off-limits, then there’s really no stopping the train until humor is gone forever. I mean, even Winnie the Pooh makes fun of freaking mental health, and where would we be if we had to ban children’s media because it might offend someone?

I think that there are several other aspects to humor that need to be taken into consideration before simply saying something is or isn’t okay. Of these, perhaps the most important is intent. And I don’t mean whether you simply meant to offend someone or not; instead, carefully consider who the joke is actually making fun of. To revisit South Park for a moment, consider the episode dealing with the N-word, With Apologies to Jesse Jackson. This is actually one of the most spectacularly insightful points on racism I think has ever been made in mainstream media, and it does it in one of the most vulgar and offensive ways possible.

For context, it starts with the character Randy Marsh on a game show, having to guess a word based on the clue ‘people who annoy you’. The letters provided are, of course, N, blank, G, G, E, R, S: the real answer being naggers.

You can of course guess what Randy shouts out instead. This leads to a hysterical downward slide in which Randy kisses Jesse Jackson’s actual ass as an apology, and ultimately sees him labeled as the ‘N-Word Guy’, leading to prejudice, abuse, and finally a nationwide ban on the phrase ‘N-Word Guy’.

So why is this okay? How is it South Park can get away with hurling the n-word around dozens of times, making white people appear as the victims of racial injustice, and portraying Jesse Jackson as the ‘king of black people’? The answer is in intent. The episode was not intended to offend black people by using the n-word; it was certainly not intended to empower white people by empathizing with a false-victim mentality. Instead, the purpose of this episode was to bring to light the fact that the n-word is, naturally, an incredibly offensive term that has literally no equivalent for any other race or demographic, and to underline the hypocrisy of white supremacists who would happily argue against its ban, even though if a similar term could be applied to them they would outlaw it in a heartbeat.

The brilliance of this episode is that it makes the viewer painfully aware of the social pain the n-word holds for black people, and that fact that white people will literally never be able to understand what it feels like to hear it used as a slur towards themselves. It does it through absurdist humor, and even though we laugh our asses off throughout the episode, we’re also left, incredibly, more educated than before.

This is one of South Park’s strengths, and one of the reasons that I believe humor can’t simply be divvied into ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ categories; its satirical power is in making fun of people who are generally accepted to be socially ‘wrong’ by taking their views and beliefs to their logical, if nonsensical, conclusion.

This is something that I think needs to be considered when discussing humor. Of course, this underlines a significant difference between a truly racist joke and a satirically racist joke (see the subreddit r/darkjokes for examples of unfunny, offensive jokes): a spur-of-the-moment offensive joke is unlikely to have been premeditated to highlight bigotry or bias, whereas a joke in the context of an entire story can often get away with it.

In this sense, the perspective that everything is okay to make fun of becomes more understandable. When South Park made fun of teen suicide by having a girl drop her phone off a bridge (as opposed to jumping herself), I was hardly outraged; despite the fact that mental health is a very important subject for me, I was glad that they were highlighting the fact that depression and bullying can lead to terrible consequences (for a deep insight into the disastrous effects of gaslighting, watch the entirety of seasons 20 and 21; it’s painful but enlightening viewing).

Humor is a deep and important part of human culture, and censoring it is a dangerous game. The moment we say something is off the table, it not only opens the doors for further censorship in a fascist sense, but also means that entire demographics of people are left without acknowledgement. The very ability to make fun of something brings that thing to light, and if done in the right way, can actually pave the way for significant changes that might be sorely needed.

This doesn’t mean that you have a carte blanche to let rip your racist uncle jokes; it doesn’t mean no joke can be considered offensive. What it does mean is that we need to protect our ability to satirize the world, because with the amount of dreadful, traumatic events that take place on a daily basis, if we couldn’t laugh, we’d have no choice but to cry.

In that sense, humor can actually be a powerful coping mechanism. Not only does laughing about things make you feel good from a dopamine-release point of view, but it actually can help to better understand others’ perspectives, and to make sense of the world in general.

Should the n-word be banned? Probably. Should racist jokes be outlawed? Not until racism itself is a thing of the past. Ultimately, there will always be people who are offended by jokes, but their offense can’t be the reason to stop making fun of them. Comedy, satire, and insightful – if offensive – humor is terribly important, and can’t be censored for fear of losing our ability to speak freely in the first place.

What do you think? Is there any humor that actually goes too far? Does the intent of the joke matter more than the delivery? Let me know in the comments!

The Toxicity of Revenge Culture

Every time something tragic happens – particularly when it’s heightened by racial tension, like the murder of George Floyd – it seems the worst of humanity comes out of the woodwork. Alongside news of protests, police brutality and burning buildings are countless streams of people – usually white – caught on camera being aggressively racist, inciting or causing violence, and all-round being essentially despicable pieces of human garbage.

It isn’t clear whether this seems to happen more during times of public outrage because racists are fighting what they see as a threat to their way of life, or if it’s just that the rest of us pay more attention at these times, but from calling cops on non-threatening black men to assualting young girls trying to stand up for Black Lives Matter, there has been no end to the instances of hate directed at the people who are trying desperately to fight for their freedom and equality.

The good news, of course, is that in today’s society of smart phones and everywhere-cameras, it’s become increasingly difficult to act like a bigot in public without being caught. And in the instances where these outrageous performances are recorded and uploaded to the internet, they often go viral – a swift dose of karma to the perpetrators.

And karma feels good. It’s undeniably satisfying to see a racist cut down to size; it feels good to watch as someone unbearably proud of their whiteness is ripped apart on social media.

The problem is that this isn’t an answer to racism. It isn’t an answer to intolerance, or bigotry, because the people who were initially the agressors become victims of hate themselves, and even if it feels like they deserve it, many of these people’s lives are destroyed by their acts of intolerance. What happens then is that these people, who clearly believe in their own superiority, don’t learn not to be a bigot; they learn to hide it. They don’t learn to change; they learn instead that they were right all along, and that the people they hated deserve that hate.

Nearly every one of these stories I’ve seen of people abusing others from a delusional position of authority has ended with them losing their jobs, their homes, and at times even their families. Corporate sponsors cut ties, employers fire them, and they’re left with no means to live – and worse, the stain of being branded forever a racist indelible on their reputation.

Now, I’m not advocating that these people ‘deserve’ better; I don’t believe in judging others without knowing them, and an individual act of racism does not a racist make – just like being wrong once doesn’t make you wrong all the time. But what happens is that the internet allows people, from the relative safety of their online anonymity, to pass judgement nonetheless on people they’ve never met and know nothing about.

But what I do believe is that the answer to racism doesn’t lie in avenging the victims, or in destroying the establishment. By taking everything away from someone who made a racist remark or acted out against another person because of their inherently misplaced beliefs, we’re only reinforcing the notion that the ‘others’ are indeed bad people, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out. It fosters a false victim mentality, and breeds a culture that actually causes racism to fester and grow. Rather than looking to themselves to ask why this happened, these people will simply blame the oppressed for oppressing them.

No – the answer to racism lies in education. I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humanity – the idea that people are good at heart (at least to some degree), and their upbringing and education is what shapes their personalities. As you navigate life, growing older day by day, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing paths that fit in line with your taught beliefs naturally, which only reinforces those notions and ideas that, for many of us, remain subconscious all our lives. It’s easy to teach a four-year-old to play nice with others; it’s much harder to change the outlook of a forty-year-old.

And some people, of course, are taught so poorly in their childhood, and live a life that so strongly reinforces their negative beliefs, that they quickly become irredeemable. This happens in all walks of life, of course, but since we live in a society that has always favored white men over all others, it allows for those immutable personalities to rise to power more easily than those with more open minds, which allows them to make the rules and define the society we live in to their own liking … leaving room to grow for the systemic racism and misogyny that has rotted the heart of this country for centuries.

But these people – these truly ‘bad apples’ – are generally few and far between. Most people, I think, have the capacity to relearn their world-view in the face of new information, so long as it’s presented in a way that doesn’t uproot everything they’ve ever known. People fear change, and will cling desperately to unfamiliarity. By wreaking revenge on people who are outwardly racist, we’re only causing further damage to the idea of peaceful equality. You can’t build yourself up by tearing others down.

So what I suggest is this: next time you see a story on Facebook or Twitter about a racist being put in their place, ask yourself – am I really so different? Have I never laughed at a racist joke, or worried more about passing through a black neighborhood than a white one? Anyone can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and whilst many of the acts making the rounds truly are deplorable, who are we to decide their fate? Getting someone fired for poor behavior when they aren’t even working is akin to vigilante justice, which is a dangerous thing to throw around.

I’ve heard it said that racism isn’t black people’s problem – it’s white people’s. In that context, I think it’s as important to listen to the racists as it is to listen to the oppressed. If we actually give everyone a forum to speak intelligently – rather than forcing people into acts of aggression because they feel their voices are unheard – I think there would be a much better opportunity to help those people with racial biases to actually understand themselves better, gain insight, and perhaps – just perhaps – grow and change.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that we shouldn’t celebrate vengence on those who would oppress others. That doesn’t make anyone a better person. Instead, we should focus on celebrating those people who are willing and able to change. Celebrate those who can learn to love, not those who have only learned to hate.

Who have you seen grow or change in the past few months? Who can you celebrate?

Black History, As Told By White Cinema

I was thirteen when I was taken, with my school class, to see a preview screening of Amistad. I was probably a little too young, and a little too sheltered, to really understand what I was watching, because I mostly remember the murder scenes more than anything. But I’m glad I was given that opportunity, because it opened my eyes to a brutal history that is often glossed over.

Of course, if you’ve seen Amistad, then you know that, like with almost every other film Stephen Spielberg has ever made, it has a feel-good ending that makes you forget about the atrocities you witnessed up until that point. And as satisfying as it is to have a well-rounded, happy conclusion, I think it does a disservice to the reality that Africans were subjected to as they were kidnapped, brutalized, and enslaved.

I think we have a deep propensity to sanitize horror and tragedy in history, whether it be through schoolbook facts or Hollywood entertainment. We glorify the martyrs, shy away from morally gray characters, and conveniently skip over anything that might make us – the majority – feel uncomfortable about our past. Think about what we learn in history about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how the murder of 200 thousand civilians is defended as necessary to have ended World War II. Think about movies like Braveheart, which idolizes a man who was in every way as violent, brutal and vile as the supposedly ‘evil’ English.

History is, of course, written by the victors, and is often less than truthful. It’s hard for me to even come to terms with the fact that idolizing Christopher Columbus – a staple of my elementary school history lessons – is glorifying a man who instigated the systematic extermination of millions of Native Americans. I was taught, from a very young age, that I belonged here more than those whose ancestry stems back to the dawn of humanity. That this country was my country, and I should hold in the highest regard those who made it possible for me to live here. Even Ridley Scott made me believe this with his 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

Film has, since its inception, been predominantly white, written for by white people, directed by white people, and acted in by white people. Even movies that try to tackle racism and historical horrors such as slavery are often thought of by white people (think back to Amistad – directed by Stephen Spielberg, written by David Franzoni, and produced by a host of people – only one of whom was black). This means that, if we rely on film to educate us about the past – especially older films, like Gone with Wind (more in a moment) – we’re relying on a white narrative of black history.

There isn’t, of course, anything inherently wrong with a white writer or director wanting to shed light on the racial horrors of the United States’ exceptionally bloody history – these sorts of stories should be told – but to do so without perspective from the people who still today live in the fallout is at best ignorant, and at worst deliberately misleading.

There are people who are outraged that movies like Gone with the Wind are being taken to task for their portrayal of slavery, particularly when they depict slaves as content with their lot, and their white masters as overall caring and benevolent. This is a nice narrative; it makes us feel better, because we can say hey, look – not all slave owners were bad people!

The problem with this is that the focus is shifted from how those slaves were obtained, and the utter lack of basic freedoms they experienced, to the kindness and benevolence of white people toward those less ‘fortunate’. To paraphrase, we frankly shouldn’t give a damn – it doesn’t matter how nice they seem, or are portrayed – they owned people like … horses, or bicycles. Human beings, capable of thought, reason, emotion and love, living generation after generation in captivity like rats.

Now of course, there’s always the ‘period’ argument – we shouldn’t judge things in the past because things were ‘different’ then. What seems wrong today was considered normal back then.

Well no shit – otherwise we wouldn’t be trying to change things! And whilst it’s certainly true that standards have changed over the years, there were plenty of people going back centuries who never owned slaves – even when they could have.

The difficulty is, of course, to find a line between historical context and censorship. Pulling Gone with the Wind from HBO Max can feel like a slap in the face to artistic history, and a disservice to the original novelist and a film that has been considered one of the best movies ever made. Let’s not forget, it allowed Hattie McDaniel to become the first African American to win an Oscar.

But the idea that it needs historical context is relevant. The movie is over 80 years old – it’s not just a classic, but quite literally a piece of history. And like all history, it should be studied within the context of its time. Without that context – and a deeper understanding of the truths of slave-owner dynamics during the Civil War and beyond – it becomes a dangerous piece of propaganda, in which we’re led to believe that black people are nothing more than servants to their white masters.

A question I’ve started to ask myself, particularly when considering historical dramas, is whether the film would have been different if written, directed or produced by a black person. What nuances would be changed? What story elements would be emphasized, or minimized instead? What characters would be given more depth? If the answer is no, it wouldn’t have been any different, then you probably have yourself a pretty solid piece of unbiased cinema. But I challenge you to find one.

There has been a surge, or so it seems, in black-written and black-produced cinema recently (I think that it’s really just been given more spotlight in the past few years, but I don’t have numbers to back that up), and that’s a good thing. But I think that more can be done to listen – and watch – the stories of those whose ancestors suffered – and who to this day continue to suffer – prejudice, racism and oppression.

There’s good news, though. As difficult as it is to see at times, and as slow as the progress might be, I feel that the world is slowly waking up to the idea that history does not equal truth. We all have our own perspectives on current events, but it’s harder to have perspectives on history, simply because we cling so tightly to what we’re taught as children. But for every Robert E. Lee supporter, there are a few others who are willing to open their minds to a possible alternative.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being an ally vs. a rescuer, and how what the black community seems to be asking for – has perhaps always been asking for – is for allies. When a white person makes a movie about a black person, without consultation, permission or involving their experiences, we’re falling into the realm of rescuer. We’re trying to show the world that racism is a bad thing – without even asking those who suffer from it.

I’m not saying that Spielberg should hang up his hat, or that Kevin Feige should step down from Marvel; there are many, many talented white people in Hollywood who are fantastic storytellers. But there are certain stories that aren’t ours to tell, and I think it’s about time we allowed others to make their voices heard.