Funny Not Funny
Reader discretion advised. Click here to skip truly tasteless and offensive garbage. Especially if you like puppets.
I’m a believer in the idea of picking one’s battles, which is why you also rarely see posts on here by me about animal welfare, poverty alleviation, vegetarianism, etc, even though those are also things I care about aside from atheism activism.
There is no need to create unnecessary drama in one’s activism. When Dave does tell everybody what he really thinks, he doesn’t make everyone uncomfortable by advocating for those who don’t have their own widespread mainstream platform, like the poor or animals. Instead, he advocates for men- specifically their right to humor. Humor so fucking dirt-common that if us women clutched our pearls every time we heard it, we’d never loosen our grips long enough to even make you a sandwich, let alone make atheist babies with every loud-mouth douche apostate who thinks he’s clever.
A female presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a guy in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”
My question to our readers is, is it wrong to laugh at this?
Hmm. Good question. Let’s explore it in a dull, philosophical tone by first giving lip service to the idea that we should care about how our words make other people feel . . .
If even one person is offended, whether it’s the speaker or not, then we start edging toward unethical behavior.
. . . then contradict ourselves to reassure everyone that this isn’t really a problem, and some women should just lighten up.
Jokes make conferences fun. They make all social interactions fun. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to attend a conference where jokes are prohibited on the basis of the possibility of offense. Even academic conferences (usually!) have some humor. Jokes are all about testing boundaries and sometimes tiptoeing past them.
. . . is it wrong to laugh at this [another joke quoted for rhetorical purposes] on the basis that someone finds it offensive? I would say, no. You have to weigh the good with the bad. If our rule is, “If someone finds it offensive, or might find it offensive, don’t say it,” we are losing out on a lot of good stuff.
Agreed. That is why I say every damn fool thing that pops into my head. I ask the guy who works in the lab next to mine why his imaginary friend makes him wear a diaper on his head, and I ask the blind African-American I see at regional conferences what the weather is like in Tuskegee. And when someone tells me about her miscarriage, thats when I bring out my dead-baby jokes. Those always bring down the house.
Because, hey, how do I know where the line is until I cross it? It would be a shame if the world missed out on even the tiniest bit of my comedic genius because I hesitate over hurting someone’s feelings. And if I do hurt somebody’s feelings, they should be the bigger person and patiently give me a good, rational reason why I should change my behavior to accommodate them:
I think the most anyone can ask is that we do the best we can. We should do our best to be patient and understanding when someone offends us, and explain why we are offended and what a less offensive alternative might be. But keep in mind, if your only reason for disliking some statement is that it offends you, then what you are really saying is you lack good reasons for intending others to change their behavior. In the words of Richard Dawkins:
“You will not say, ‘It’s offensive, it’s offensive.’ You will say, ‘No, you are wrong here, and you are wrong here, and you are wrong here,’ and that’s what you should do.”
Exactly. What Dawkins said. So, when this one dood whined,
No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting. [emphasis added]
I completely stopped listening to anything he said. No need to take that irrational priss seriously until he changes his fucking tampon. I guess that’s why I’ve yet to hear his fucking apology.
As for my personal sensibilities, I’m not one to take offense. Once upon a time, I worked in a factory, part of a crew of under a dozen workers, almost all men. We all scoffed at the cheesy HR video on sexual harassment and gleefully scrapped the bottom of ever-skankier comedy barrels. I nearly broke a rib a few times laughing my ass off. One running gag was the crush/ carnal interest one of the guys allegedly had on me. I went along with it because I was so cool, I could take a joke and navigate with style between being the prude who didn’t think it was funny and the slutty home wrecker who flirted with a pudgy married guy nearly a generation older than me. I managed pretty well, too, until one break when I read this Facebook message:
me: Wanna get together in [secluded place with a bed] after work?
him: What are you talking about?
I panicked and realized that closing the browser last break didn’t automatically log me out of Facebook like it usually did, and some jackass was now ruining my life trying to be funny.
me: I did not write that.
me: (after figuring out that he was the one who hijacked my account) Ha. Ha. You reply to your messages really fast.
In regards to the first question, no.
Given the precedents already set down, I wasn’t about to hold these shenanigans against him, but I was annoyed. I thought a metaphor involving fisting and sock puppets (like I said, bottom of the barrel) left in the comments of a wall post he wrote under my hijacked account would be a creative way to get that message across. But, either the wording was off, or, he was too hurt by my explicit rejection to heed any hints. He either completely missed or completely ignored my sarcasm and upped the ante with Jim Henson and one or two other famous puppeteers.
“Aha!” I thought. “Pointing out that I was ten when Jim Henson died will get the message across, because not even these assholes would think that child molestation is funny.” Once again, though, either the wording was off, or he wasn’t taking hints.
“How old were you when you first got trashed with Oscar the Grouch?” he replied.
God damnit! It’s like quicksand!
I then realized that this cesspool of a job had leaked into the rest of my life, and while I didn’t mind a reputation for being edgy, I didn’t really want a reputation for incredibly bad judgment and taste. I deleted the comment thread before my mother could see.
Later in the shift, I looked up at the boys laughing their asses off at a makeshift puppet trying to get my attention and realized that for all my effort at not being a pansy killjoy liberal, I was no longer being laughed with.
So, what did I do with all my butt-hurt? I
called in the feminazi stormtroopers moved. I left on pretty good terms with my crew, actually. They sent me off with pizza, cake, a card, and even a very touching parting gift. This certainly wasn’t the incident that ran me out of town. My escape from Red Neck Bumpkin, Iowa had by that time been years in the making. My work environment was just the most outrageous manifestation of a climate that seems will never be capable of treating me like the kind of person I aspire to be.
I escaped into graduate school hundreds of miles away. Some of the people I work with now aren’t even out of high school. For that, and many other reasons, sexual innuendo is absolutely out of the question. It is missed about as much as a chronic migraine. With Internet memes, gaming allusions, and the occasional practical joke filling that gaping void, I had no idea our uptight and humorless work environment was so oppressive to men:
I think it’s important that we keep in mind that “feminism” means “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men,” not turning the tables so that it’s the reverse of the 1950s’.
I guess Dave is worried that if we stop shielding men from social repercussions of making lewd jokes, then this will lead down a slippery slope to a grave dystopia in which men are forced to risk their lives and health to carry fetuses to term, then denied equal access to education, careers, and pay needed to care for the resulting children (or offered those things in exchange for sexual favors), herding them by social pressure and economic necessity into marriages with patronizing and occasionally abusive spouses, whom they will not be able to divorce unless they can provide evidence of, depending on the state they live in, some combination of adultery, abandonment, cruel and inhumane treatment, imprisonment, or other such legally sanctioned grounds. To be fair, this is slightly more reasonable than spending your 2008 holiday season stocking your bunker with ammunition and canned food in preparation for the coming era of white slavery.
All the same, for this lack of perspective alone, I would love to cordially invite Dave to eat a dick. Not only would I love to tell Dave to eat a dick, I’d absolutely relish telling him to lighten up when he can’t patiently explain to me why obscenely derailing his nuanced and measured discussion for cheap laughs is so offensive to him.
However, I’m explicitly not telling Dave to eat a dick. It’s not just because Dave is a vegetarian, or because it would be an insult to dick-eaters everywhere (including me) to associate them with such stupidity. I’m refraining from telling Dave to eat a dick because, just like some things are more important than not offending people, some things are more important than showing everybody how clever you are.
Things like helping out those poor schmucks who genuinely want to “get it” but don’t.
Things like gaining allies for women- real allies, not just ones who think they qualify as feminists because they don’t hate women.
Things like an atheist subculture that sees women first for their voices, not their sexual utility.
Things like an atmosphere in which people of all genders think our cause is worth their time and talents.
Things as stupid simple as expressing our concerns and preferences without them being taken as An Affront to All Manliness And Freedom As We Know It that blows up the Internet every single time.
For those things, I’m now going to put my troll back in its cage. So if Dave will forgive me my indulgent heckling of his blog post, then I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and maybe we can have a dialogue in the same calm, methodical tone that he used to justify the continued objectification of women in the secular movement.
Is it wrong to laugh at objectification?
Intuition will fail most people on this question. That is because sexual objectification is ubiquitous in our culture. We get constant cues that sexual objectification of women is normal and that we are supposed to laugh at it.
If this were simply a matter of some women being offended by objectification, those women wouldn’t be able to leave the house, log onto the Internet, turn on the radio or television, or participate in commerce without getting offended quite frequently. By now, pretty much every one of us has learned to ignore or laugh off most encounters with being portrayed or treated as sex objects. We have to. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy life if we didn’t.
But I learned something that day in the factory.
It didn’t matter how much I laughed it off. It didn’t matter how easy going I was, or how well I accepted the fact of life that some people think about sex with me. It didn’t matter how much I was willing to laugh at myself. It didn’t matter how well I timed my wit. It didn’t matter how cosmopolitan my attitudes about sex were. It didn’t matter how creative or debased I got with my come-backs.
When it came to sexually suggestive humor, my capacity to humiliate him would never match his capacity to humiliate me.
I didn’t tell my story about my experience working in a factory to gain sympathy. A joke carried way too far? Please. Hardly the most tragic thing to ever happen. I told my story to illustrate this asymmetry. When a guy (such as Cartman) uses sex figuratively, it is understood as a metaphor for having his line crossed, not an indication of his sexual mores. I learned the hard way that women don’t get the same privilege. People routinely use sex to insult a woman’s human dignity in a way that virtually no heterosexual man will ever experience. He can’t experience it. The culture hasn’t defined him as a sex object.
That is how sexual innuendo can turn on the whim of a man from harmless mutual fun to malicious bullying.
And it’s not just a matter of insults. It’s also the social gauntlet a woman faces when a man jokes about wanting to put his penis in her vagina. Is he just joking, or is he serious? If I say it’s not funny, will people think I’m a prude? Will they stop talking to me because I’m no fun? Is he trying to intimidate me? Do the terrorists win if I act uncomfortable? If I don’t say it’s not funny, will people assume that I must like it? And that therefore I want to have sex with him? Can I joke back without it being interpreted as interest in having his penis in my vagina? Am I safe if I’m alone with this guy? Why do I have to be so concerned about being perceived as wanting to have sex with this guy when he is going out of his way to let everyone know that he wants to have sex with me?
It’s a game I can’t win, so I don’t play. Not anymore. Not with people I don’t know or don’t trust. Any guy who makes my vagina his punchline now gets this script:
I’m not interested in having sex with you.
Did I stutter? I’m not interested in having sex with you.
Oh, were you just joking? I couldn’t tell. I’m not a mind reader. Just so that we are on the same page, I’m not interested in having sex with you.
And then I will be called a bitch, which I suppose is a slightly better alternative to either prude or slut.
While occasionally dealing with this bull once in a while doesn’t leave me curled up in the fetal position, it’s not something I want to put up with for a living. I will certainly not put up with it in my spare time. I don’t think I’m alone on this. (Update: statistics to back me up)
Are we really going to tell women that advocating for atheism means that they will be expected to deal with sexualized teasing as a normal and accepted part of our subculture? If we do, women, especially the brightest and most talented, will find something better to do with their lives. This is how sexism hurts everybody- sexist environments bleed talent.
So, is it ethically wrong to laugh at sexual objectification? Well, technically, this is a free country in which you can laugh at or say anything you want. Is it prudent, though? When is it appropriate to laugh at a joke?
It is appropriate to laugh at a joke when you support the underlying assumption that makes the joke funny, or at least don’t have a strong objection to that assumption being reinforced. The underlying assumption necessary to make sexual objectification funny is this:
Men try to put their penises in any vaginae they deem desirable until resistance to these attempts become insurmountable. This is the natural order of things.
I suppose if you support that idea as much as you support this idea:
Religion asserts some very ridiculous ideas.
then go ahead and laugh. I, for one, will question your judgment and take this into account when considering whether to support you as a voice or leader who speaks for me.
If you don’t support that idea, then don’t laugh. People can learn that these jokes are not acceptable the same way they learn that racist or homophobic jokes not acceptable-
silence that speaks more loudly for solidarity with our members than any joke ever could.