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?

Selfishness Is Killing the World

Those of you who’ve been with me for years know that I’m not usually one to get overly political, but with the way current events are unfolding, I can’t stay silent. I see so much hurt and pain in the world, and particularly in the United States where I live, and the longer I think about it, the more I can only come to the conclusion that this is the result of jealousy, greed, and selfishness.

Let me explain why.

COVID-19

Let’s start with what the world started 2020 with: COVID-19. As news about a novel, highly infectious and deadly virus spread, so did a lot of fear about exactly how to deal with this new disease. Later, rather than sooner, the United States chose to shut down to try and limit the spread of the virus, and millions of people found themselves without work, income, insurance, and possibly even without homes.

This isn’t an easy decision to make, of course. Being laid off by something invisible, something intangible, that you can’t see or feel, might well feel like a personal attack, and I can understand the resistance, the frustration, and the anger that would likely arise in these scenarios.

But those with the loudest voices against the shutdown have not been those who are suffering. It hasn’t been those who are without a job. It hasn’t even been those who are critically ill and dying of this new disease. It’s those who think that no one should be allowed to tell them what to do, how to work, and how to interact with their fellow human beings.

What infuriates me about this is that the mandate to wear masks, to stay home, to not go out to enjoy yourself, is about protecting other people. The biggest argument I hear against these precautions is that ‘it won’t affect me’, or ‘I need to get a haircut’, or ‘I lost my job’. How freaking selfish can a human being be? It was never about you! It was about keeping people you don’t know, people you’ve never met, from dying.

People have chosen to ignore these restrictions, have protested, have taken up arms and defended businesses from law enforcement to show that they aren’t going to be pushed around. For fuck’s sake – no one was trying to! We were trying to stop millions of human beings from dying, you selfish pricks!

Sorry for ranting there. But the point is that the spread of COVID-19 has been largely propagated by pure, utter selfishness, a complete absence of basic sense and care for our fellow humans. In countries where it is endemic to care for each other, where people actually look out for one another even if they don’t know them, the spread of COVID-19 was reduced significantly sooner, and significantly faster. Nowhere is perfect, but in the United States, it is simply appalling to consider that we have such disregard for other people’s lives.

Moving on.

Karens and the Age of Self-Entitlement

A recent meme that has been popularized across the internet is the concept of a ‘Karen’ – a middle-aged, self-entitled white woman who believes that the world should revolve around her. I think this is a grossly unfair assessment of this demographic, but the concept – that of someone who truly just doesn’t understand that there are other points of view in the world – is becoming increasingly pervasive across the country.

I also don’t believe this to be a generational device; I’ve seen Millennials, Gen Xs, Baby Boomers, all equally guilty of this sort of behavior. It’s at the root of everything I wrote about COVID-19, frankly – the idea that your personal wishes, desires and needs are somehow more important than those of anyone else. It’s easy to mock and make fun of the genders, the haircuts, the look and feel of a ‘Karen’, but the truth is that this sickening attitude is visible at all levels.

Perhaps one of the reasons that it’s become focused on the middle-aged white woman is because of the stereotypes involved; when a man pushes forward his own agenda without regard for others, he’s usually considered ‘strong’, or a ‘leader’ (look at our leader today). When a woman does it, she’s a ‘bitch’.

Regardless, the belief that is at the root of this behavior seems to be that if you want something, no one is allowed to stop you from getting it. I want that double-mocha frappucino; I want that haircut; I want that man to leave me alone.

I think this stems from a deep misrepresentation of what it means to live in a ‘free’ country. Freedom does not mean freedom to act like a selfish toddler; it does not mean ‘me first’; it does not mean I’m more important than others. In fact, I think a great deal of this behavior stems from a bizarre jealousy of the attention given to those who, ironically, don’t enjoy those same freedoms.

Think of it this way: when a parent favors one sibling over another, the other will often act out – not maliciously, but out of a desire for equal attention. This happens when the siblings are on equal footing, of course, but if one genuinely requires additional attention – perhaps they are ill, injured, or have special needs – the remaining sibling can begin to actually blame the other for their own deficit in attention. If allowed to continue, that sibling can eventually come to believe that they are the marginalized party – even though they have literally every option open to them, when their brother or sister may not.

This is one thing to expect this in children; however, to see this in grown-ass adults is, frankly, sickening. When a man complains that women are taking all the good jobs because of ‘egalitarianism’, he’s ignoring the thousands of years of marginalization and inequality that women have only begun to crawl out of – often with little to no help from men at all. When a white person argues that ‘nobody cares about the whites’, and that ‘all lives matter’ (god how I hate that phrase), they are willfully dismissing the centuries of slavery, persecution and cultural destruction that black people have suffered – and, clearly, have not yet escaped.

George Floyd and Black Lives Matter

This is where things get truly, devastatingly enraging for me – and should for you too. This sense of jealousy, this cultural selfishness and retaliation that is at the heart of phrases such as ‘blue lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter’ is like poison injected straight to the heart of society. Let me break it down for you:

All lives do not matter equally in the eyes of society.

If they did, Black Lives Matter would not be a thing. If all lives were truly held equal, from the streets to the highest level of government, no one would have to argue that their own lives matter. This problem would not exist.

When I see someone reply on Facebook to a Black Lives Matter comment with ‘all lives matter’, what I see is someone who is willfully or ignorantly blind to their own racism. You just don’t get it, do you? Claiming ‘all lives matter’ in response to Black Lives Matter is literally minimizing the horrific injustices that black people suffer every single day.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the most recent egregious act of police brutality that killed George Floyd. An unarmed, unresistant black suspect was pinned by the neck for over eight minutes by a white cop until he passed out and died. Anyone who can wholeheartedly argue this didn’t happen because of race is at best an utter fucking ignoramus, and at worst a cruel, evil-hearted outright racist. If George Floyd was white, he would still be alive.

What makes this worse is the fallout from the act itself. Rightly so, black people the country – and world – over took to the streets, in some cases with fully-justified rage in their hearts – to protest. To say ‘enough is enough’ (isn’t is sad how often we hear these words – racism, school shootings, police brutality – it never ends), to make their voices heard, to demand justice, not just for George Floyd, but for black people everywhere.

And then, just as these people step forward with their earned right to rage and anger, white people appropriate the protests. White people begin riots. White people step in and say hey – you’re not allowed to protest without us. ‘What about the whites?

Jesus Christ – shut the fuck up! This isn’t your day. This isn’t your time in the spotlight, it’s not your fifteen minutes of fame. The president of the country calls the original protestors – the black ones, mind you – thugs. I’ve heard no equal condemnation from anyone over the white rioters, the ones who are arguably causing the most damage – both physically and societally.

For fuck’s sake, white people – can’t anybody else have something without us coming in and sabotaging it? Can’t black people have a moment – just one fucking moment – to have their voices heard uninterrupted?

This is the time for white people the world over to shut their mouths, silence their complaining, and just listen. Listen to what we’re being told. Listen to black people about the injustices they suffer. Listen to the fear they live with daily – to how when they’re pulled over by a cop, they fear they won’t see their family for dinner. Just. Fucking. Listen.

And yet, I just know we won’t. When Trump called Floyd’s brother, he spoke. He spoke, and spoke – and didn’t give the man even a moment to speak in return. The highest power in the country isn’t listening – how can we expect anyone else to?

This really isn’t hard, people. Please – for the sake of George Floyd, for the sake of black people, for the sake of gay people and women and minorities the world over – just shut the fuck up and listen. I know it’s going to be hard to hear – no one wants to learn they’re an intrinsic part of a cultural system that abuses power and privilege, where being born white gives you a real, tangible advantage.

But if we don’t take even just a moment to hear others out – and take to heart what they say – this world can never heal from the damage that has been wrought to it over decades, centuries, and millennia. This isn’t about apologizing; it isn’t about making things right. There is no making things right. The past will never be changed, and nothing could ever be done to atone for the centuries of persecution and violence done to so many.

This is about moving forward in peace. And that peace can only come through an acknowledgement of what we have done – every one of us. Don’t sit there and think your exempt because you’ve ‘never had a racist thought’, or because you ‘have black friends’; this starts with you. It starts by every single one of us privileged whites, us privileged men – we who run the world – taking a knee, a step back, a seat, and saying: speak, and I will listen. I will not judge you, but myself. I will answer for the sins of my forebears, and I will give you the spotlight, because you deserve it.

So please, I implore you – shut up. Just … shut up. For once in your life, listen to what’s being said, to what’s being asked for. I think you’ll find that, once you get past the fear and the violence and the hate, you’ll find that actually giving black people an equal voice isn’t so hard.