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!

Those of Us Who Live for Emotion

Everyone in this world lives with emotion (well, maybe the psychopaths don’t, but most everyone else does). We laugh, we cry, we feel anger and despair, and for the most part, we learn as young adults to handle these emotions, to live with them, and – to one extent or another – integrate them into our lives in a way that doesn’t (usually) override our ability to function as human beings.

But not everyone truly feels emotions the same way. Some of us fall more into the logical spectrum, whilst others are run by their emotions, making decisions based entirely on ‘feel’, ‘gut reactions’ or instincts. And, of course, some of us find ways to defend ourselves from emotion, because we’ve been so deeply affected in the past.

Having worked in the same place for the past ten years, most of the people I know are of course work colleagues. I know many of them well, and most of them well enough to know – to some degree – what kind of an emotional person they are. There are private people and people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but you can usually tell what kind of an emotional person someone is by the way they express themselves, the emotions they choose to show (or that they can’t control), and the way in which their decision-making process is influenced.

It’s likely you know people like this, too. Think of all the people you daily say “how’s it going” to. Then think about the ones that, without fail, will always answer “fine” – whether they’re fine or not. Then think about the ones that are actually more truthful – that will tell you when things aren’t fine.

There’s no right or wrong way to be, of course – these are just people at different points on the emotional spectrum. Personally I fall into the former category, but I know plenty of people who will gladly share their whims and woes if asked. An easy mistake to make with this, however, is to assume that those people who don’t easily show their emotions simply don’t feel them as strongly – or at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Using myself as an example, it’s been a really long time since I could say I’ve truly felt any deep emotion of any kind – joy or despair, laughing or crying, these things kind of just don’t happen to me. I tend to live life day in and day out by just sort of moving from task to task and place to place, making decisions in the moment based on whatever seems right at the time. If you were to ask me how I felt and I were to answer truthfully, the answer would probably actually just be, “I don’t really know.”

Of course, a large part of this is probably my bipolar medication, which is, well, literally supposed to diminish the extremes of emotion I feel day to day. Prior to being medicated, I do remember times of uncontainable rage, pits of black despair, mountains of eagerness to work, and bouts of inexplicable tears. But even then, these were the rarer instances, and most of the time I wouldn’t allow myself to truly feel anything.

And I think this is a telling perspective, in some ways. I think there are some of us who actually feel so deeply that we deliberately protect ourselves from such emotion, by either avoiding things that make us feel deeply, or simply not letting it in at all. This can be a positive thing, to some arguable extent (I’ve never cried at a funeral), but it can also be detrimental: when discussing the recent Black Lives Matter protests with others, I can see how worked up they get about it, how deeply, deeply hurt they are by the injustices suffered by black communities across the country. And whilst I can inarguably see just how terrible things really are, it doesn’t make me as sad or angry inside because I just can’t allow myself to be hurt so deeply. I sort of wish it did, but I don’t know how.

Sometimes I envy people who can simply allow themselves to feel. When presented with those things in life that absolutely should trigger deep emotions (deaths, births, successes and failures, tragedies and triumphs), I kind of just … don’t feel anything. I can look at the event and think that it’s good, or bad, or whatever, but I don’t really deeply feel it, and … it makes me sad, but (of course) not really enough.

There is one thing that this lack of deep emotion does for me, though, and it’s that it allows me to understand conflicting perspectives in a way that I often see others to struggle with. Take something very simple but very relevant: Trump supporters. Most of the people I know are pretty liberal, and many of them simply cannot fathom how anyone could still support someone like Donald Trump after the toxicity, outright lies and falsehoods, and total lack of care that have so far defined his presidency. Yet for me, despite not agreeing with these people, I find myself in a position where I can actually understand some of their rhetoric, their mentality and their decisions. Because I’m not clouded by my own emotions (most of the time), I can see others’, and understand (to some degree) why they feel they way they do.

In the end, although I envy those who feel deeply, I don’t think I’d trade it for how I am already; I like being able to identify with and understand a multiple of perspectives, even if it means that the true depth of others’ feelings fall into more of an intellectual and logical empathy than a true “I feel what you feel” kind of thing. It allows me to get along with more people than I might otherwise be able to, and of course, it means I very rarely feel deeply enough to hate.

Of course, the reverse is that I rarely feel deeply enough to love, either … and that hurts.

How do you approach emotion? Are you a feeler, or a thinker? And do you find you have to feel what someone else does to empathize with them, or can you empathize from a logical perspective?

Thought of the Week: Can’t a Guy Cry?

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 9.58.00 PM“I think I’m an 80s man.”

“How do you figure?”

“Last night I cried in bed. How’s that?”

“Were you with a woman?”

“I was alone – why do you think I cried?”

“Sounds like an 80s man to me.”

Lethal Weapon, 1987

Guys cry, okay? It happens. This comes to mind because I cried last night. Poor me.

Going into this post I started digging into the physiological reasons for crying, and after a brief exploration decided that I’d be crying again if I spent much more time on it. Turns out, there’s no real consensus on why people cry. Or at least, cry emotionally. Crying out of pain is understood well enough, as well as histaminic reactions, but no one’s really sure what the point is of crying when you’re upset. Multiple theories abound, from basic sympathetic pain reflexes to something to do with smoke getting in the eyes of ancient humans when they burned dead bodies. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by any of them, but the fact remains that guys cry. Apparently German guys cry between 6 to 17 times a year (German ladies cry up to 60 times a year – those bastard German men).

And as Jack Thibeau would have us know, it’s perfectly okay for us guys to cry, especially when we’re lonely. We get to cry when a great tragedy occurs, or if our hamster dies, or if the Mets win the…whatever it is the Mets might win if they won it. Ladies, however, are apparently allowed to cry more often, for longer, and more dramatically! Ladies cry when they feel insecure, or can’t solve some big problem, whereas us dudes cry when our relationships fail. And stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 10.31.28 PMMy, all this research seems to make a lot of sense. By deduction, I’m a big girl. I cry often. I cry for great, long periods of time. I cry dramatically, like Gary Oldman. And it drives my wife absolutely insane. I have complete, utter meltdowns. Hours of inconsolable bawling, incapacitated and catatonic, and try as I might, I can’t stop. It’s not stubbed toe or dead hamster crying – it’s full-on end-of-the-world-and-I-never-got-to-watch-the-last-episode-of-Lost psychotic sobbing.

I’m not always like this. It tends to happen when I’m feeling beaten, like everything’s been going wrong and I’m worthless waste of air, and to top it all off I didn’t rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher and now they’re all covered in food crud. That kind of frame of mind. Am I alone in this, or would you cry at that point as well?

In fact, I suppose what I’m really driving at is that, given a scenario that is very stressful and upsetting, is it okay to cry like a baby for a bit? And is it worse for a guy to do so than a lady? Am I a woman trapped in a man’s body, or just an infantile sack of melodrama that just needs to grow a pair?

When’s the last time you properly sat down and wailed until your head exploded?