Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lefty humour

I have a class with an older white male professor who casually uses the word 'retarded' to describe ridiculous situations. I'm not sure why he uses this language, but it seems flippant, and without thought.

Often people on the left - particularly in academia - think that their humour, their irony, and their lack of concern with politically correct language is subversive. Perhaps this is because in academic circles it often is. Language is a powerful tool in both academia and the social realm but its specific uses have very different implications in these two worlds.

Words like genderfuck, land rape, sissy-boy ...etc disrupt dominant discourses in academia by make the reader purposefully uneasy. In a non-academic context, however, they can trigger deep emotional reactions, and can even give people the opposite reaction. This language can reaffirm the status quo.

This is a similar problem to the humour/comedy issue, with which I am sure you're acquainted. We've all been there... we're watching a comedy special on television and the comedian does impressions of people from diverse cultural/ethnic backgrounds. His impressions (because, let's be honest, it is normally a man) usually draw on problematic stereotypes. And here we are, white, middle (ish) class folks, laughing our asses off. We laugh because first, we are uncomfortable, second, we know that these stereotypes are false, and third, because we see the comedian drawing attention not only to the stereotypes, but highlighting how regular people often don't question the implications of these stereotypes. When a comedian says something outrageous about women, I am often laughing along. But now and then, the statements become more nuanced, less outrageous, less discernible from a real statement of the comedian's beliefs, and that is when I, and others like me, get uncomfortable.

The problem is that in every day conversations, most jokes of this nature is more nuanced, and less discernible from the teller's true beliefs. We are not being subversive by telling our wives that they belong in the kitchen, and we are not be subversive by drawing attention to our Jewish friends' noses or spending habits, and we are not being subversive by comparing a Black athlete to a gorilla. We are being sexist, xenophobic, and racist. This does not mean that we believe the things we are saying. It's just that our jokes are indiscernible from our actual beliefs.

On the other hand, if my husband tells me he wants me barefoot, pregnant, and scrubbing the floor on all fours, while breastfeeding and forfeiting my right to vote, I know that he is joking. But it is only in the context of our actual lives, in our own home, between the two of us, that this joke is understood as a joke. Online, where the world can see this 'joke' and does not understand the context in which it was originally spoken.

So, when my professor uses the word retarded to describe a frustrating or difficult concept, because I do not know him personally, this is problematic. When my neighbor calls the gay boy down the street a sissy boy in jest, because I do not know him personalty, I assume that he is saying it not in the subversive, empowering way that some queer folk may use the term, but rather I assume he is being deprecating.

And I hope that others on the left (or near the left) come to understand that just because you  meant it  in a certain way, does not mean that it is perceived in that way.

Here is an anecdote for you:

When VOMD and I were first dating I once told him to get the fuck out of my kitchen. I was clearly saying it jokingly, but it was clear only to me. We ended up having an argument, during which I came to realize that because we did not know each other well, and because of our own emotional baggage, this dismissive, abrasive language was taken as aggression, rather than a joke. I defended myself at first, and I continue to do it in this relationship. When I say something in jest that hurts VOMD's feelings, or makes him angry, I say "sorry, but I was just joking". What I should say is "sorry, that joke was not funny, and I should remember to take your feelings into consideration when I am speaking to you."

The lesson to be learned from my experience, within the intimacy of my marriage, is that when speaking with a complete stranger, "I was just joking" is not an excuse to hurt someone's feelings.

There are ways to fight for social justice without insulting already disenfranchised folks. Why is it that so few comedians do impressions of upper/middle class white folks? Where are all the jokes about WASP men? Why is your Black/Jewish/Woman joke the only way that you feel you can draw attention to racism and gender inequality?

Stop defending your poor use of language against the people that this language hurts.

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