You're a Jackass, not a Joker: Why Some Topics are Never Comedy Fodder
This week I was having a conversation with a coworker and in the midst of our chat he made a rather sexist joke. Now it wasn't a "women belong in the kitchen" type thing. It was a little more subtle than that but it was a sexist comment nevertheless and I didn't like it. So I didn't laugh. And then I told him why I didn't laugh. After all, I have to work with this guy every day and there's no way I was going to be dealing with that crap more than once. Anyway, we had a calm exchange about it which basically boiled down to me saying I don't find sexism funny, and him declaring it was just a joke and suggesting that perhaps I should be a little less uptight. Ah, of course, the problem is that I'm too high strung, not that you think sexism is funny. Of course!
Well the whole situation got me thinking about jokes and where the line is drawn between funny and rude, appropriate and out of line, offense and sensitivity. I understand that we live in a world of hypersensitivity where you can't say much of anything without offending someone. A lot of the time, people get upset by things that were said in perfect innocence with no intent to offend or hurt feelings. Words are misconstrued, twisted or taken out of context. A person's experiences and/or insecurities might make them particularly sensitive to certain jokes that others might easily brush off. And sometimes the joke is just offensive no matter how innocently it was told.
As far as I'm concerned, jokes rooted in sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist and other hate-based ideologies are never funny. I can't take those things as jokes when there are people who genuinely think that way:
"Haha! Women should shut up and make sandwiches." Except women are still not taken seriously in many professions, are still working to shatter the glass ceiling, still fighting for reproductive rights, still being punished for their own rapes.
"Haha! That's so gay!" Except gays are still dealing with opposition to marriage equality, still being subjected to corrective rape in many countries, still fighting for the right to love who they love.
"Haha! Black people are so ratchet!" Except black people are still being killed by police in disproportionate numbers, still getting rejected for jobs because of their "ghetto" names, still being harassed by the KKK, still underrepresented in so many areas.
Yeah, those jokes just don't cut it for me. I'm sure people will tell me to take a chill pill and stop getting my knickers in a knot and all those cute little phrases people will throw at you to invalidate your feelings. Still doesn't change the fact that jokes that are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. really offend some people, and rightfully so. The simple solution is this: know your audience. Because while we can't tell you what to do with your mouth, you can't tell people how to feel about what you say.
The thing about jokes is that they are a matter of taste. The same way some people dislike certain foods, some people dislike certain jokes. If your friend says they don't like cheesecake, you may look at them a little weird and even laugh at them a bit, but you don't walk around with a forkful of cheesecake trying to force it down their throat. That would be absurd. And that's exactly how you look trying to force a joke on someone who doesn't find it funny.
Just stop it. It doesn’t matter if you have a black/gay/female friend who thinks your racist/homophobic/sexist joke is hilarious. The rest of us don't. And if you tell a joke in innocence and end up hurting or offending someone, don't tell them to "lighten up" or "learn how to take a joke" because that just makes you the asshole who not only offended someone, but knows they offended that person, and chose shutting them up over cutting it out. If you told a joke that hurt someone's feelings, no amount of explaining you do is going to make them find it funny. Now you're both not funny and a jackass. Not a good combo. Just say sorry and move on.