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Further to yesterday's Twitter joke thing - Tactical Ninja

Feb. 11th, 2011

10:38 am - Further to yesterday's Twitter joke thing

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Yesterday there was a short discussion on Twitter, which sort of tied into what I'd posted about yesterday morning. It was about members of a minority being able to take a joke about themselves and how this relates to equality.

My perspective on this is that if someone is the butt of your joke and they are offended by your joke, then it's a fair indication that your joke is probably offensive. I don't believe that a person is under obligation to laugh at an offensive joke. Another viewpoint was that being offended gives the joke power and that being unaffected by it is the only way to disempower it and thus attain equality.


In the course of discussion this little exchage took place:

A: "I think it's very important to tell someone when a 'joke' is out of line. You shouldn't just laugh and walk away."

B: "If I'd have done that for all the anti-English jokes I endured as a child I would have had no friends at all."

And that reply did kind of hit home. Not in the "OK now I automatically think that minorities should laugh at bigoted jokes" kind of way, but in a "Hey here's a situation I can relate to" kind of way.

Note here: person B is my brother. We moved to New Zealand in 1971 and he and I, being very close in age, went to the same schools in the same parts of history. We both had very strong English (yorkshire, mostly West Riding which is probably a good thing) accents when we started school, and mine continued until I made a deliberate effort to get rid of it as a teenager*.

There are some obvious differences between being an English expat and being the kind of minority that suffers from systemic oppression - for a start, nobody knew I was different from the majority until I opened my mouth, so I was still accepted on face value with my pink skin and blondy-blonde hair, and despite the things that happened when people found out I was English, there were some basic positive assumptions made about me purely on the basis of how I looked, and a great deal of discrimination that I never experienced for the same reason. But being the butt of hurtful jokes based on a stereotype? Hell yes.

Bear in mind here that we were kids. We knew nothing of systemic oppression, nothing of history, nothing of the current political environment. We didn't even remember England - as far as we knew, we'd always lived in New Zealand and hadn't yet got our brain around the idea that there were different cultures or that folks from one might not like folks from another for reasons we couldn't yet fathom. And we didn't know we talked funny because we couldn't hear ourselves as being different.

So when we went to school and the English jibes started, it hurt. Of course it did. WTF did they mean I was automatically a whinger because of where I came from? I didn't understand! And of course that particular jibe is one that's almost impossible to argue against because if you tell people it hurts and you don't like it, you're.. WHINGING! YAY!

Other things assumed about us because of our accents: snobbery, ponciness, homosexuality (english poof was one of the favourites - this from kids who didn't really even grasp what sexuality was but knew that poof was an insult). We heard Pommy Go Home, we heard imitation of our accents as a taunt. We were always picked last at sports because it was assumed we were somehow weak and not rugged like kiwis. I remember one incident on the school bus where all the kids banded together and took my brother's bag and wouldn't give it back, passing it around among themselves until he cried in frustration, and then taunting him about being a Pommy Wuss. I lost my cool on that occasion in his defence and we both got kicked off the bus. ;-/

I think my favourite was being told we were colonial oppressors. This was a time when activism for Maori rights was very prevalent, just before the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, and NZ had also ended its love affair with England. Meanwhile the government was subsidising immigrants to increase the population so there was a certain amount of mistrust of foreigners, and our unique position as both outsiders and members of a nationality that had first oppressed Maori and then been thrown off by the whole country as a distant and domineering leader meant that we were fair game from all sides**.

But none of us really understood that stuff. We were five, and all we knew was that the brown kids disliked us and the white kids disliked us, and that it had something to do with us being English. Fun times.

Later, the whole 'cannon-fodder'*** thing was included in the jibes. That was awesome too, and I've still heard it the odd time as an adult.

So what does that have to do with yesterday's conversation? Well, it means that both my brother and I have experience of dealing with being the butt of bigoted jokes (as, probably, do most people if they think about it. kids are cruel). I find it interesting that our views have developed so differently. I can definitely see his point - objecting to someone's hurtful joke about you doesn't generally make you any friends. My brother learned to respond with jokes of his own, often ones that got the better of the original joker, and developed a reputation as laidback funny guy. Generally, people liked him. I could never do this. Maybe I'm a bit slow, maybe I'm more sensitive, I don't know. But I know it was always me who got in trouble at school for speaking up about things I didn't like and refusing to back down. I had less friends than him and got in more scrapes, and the kids and teachers liked him more than they liked me. This continued into high school.

My brother says that to object to a bigoted joke is to give it power and to imply that you feel there's a grain of truth in it, and that the best response is to laugh and show that it doesn't bother you because it's so ridiculous. And I can definitely see his point - evidence from our school suggests that this approach gained him equal treatment and acceptance that I did not get.

But for me, when someone says a bigoted joke that I'm the butt of, it hurts. It feels to me as if this person is ok with blatantly saying things to humiliate me in front of others, and doing that is a demonstration of a power imbalance - they can say mean things to me and expect everyone to laugh. If I laugh too, I'm giving them more power by acknowledging that their right to say mean things to me for entertainment is more important than my right to not have mean things said to me, thus making things more unequal between us. It's also invalidating my own feelings in a similar way to what I described yesterday. Evidence from our school suggests that my response of anger did not work to increase acceptance and equal treatment but instead othered me further by reinforcing the view that I was not a nice person.

I have no idea who's right. In the ideal world, people wouldn't make bigoted jokes but the reality is that people do and every day, millions of people have to figure out how to deal with them. There might be more options but I don't know what they are.

* I practiced over and over - "wun, parst, larst, wun, wun, wun, charnce.." I did this because I was sick of being rejected out of hand and wanted to be the same as everyone else so I could get past the 'we don't like you because you're English' thing and start on the same footing with my peers.
** England is still not highly respected as a country here, and there are still assumptions made about the English in mainstream culture. Don't believe me? Talk to any rugby head about the Lions.
*** The British apparently used the ANZAC soldiers as cannon-fodder at Gallipoli, and so every Anzac Day we were subjected to repetitions of the "YOUR PEOPLE (and by association you)" accusations as folks got all carried away with patriotic fervour. Wonder why I'm not a huge fan of Anzac Day?


tl;dr LET ME TELL YOU INTERNETS, IT'S SO TOUGH BEING FIVE!

Comments:

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From:tyellas
Date:February 10th, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC)
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Why do bigoted/negative jokes hurt so much? Where does their power come from? Why do they really actually matter? Because of this foundation below all humor:

"It's funny because it's true!"

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From:anna_en_route
Date:February 10th, 2011 10:09 pm (UTC)
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I think sometimes the people who have the most power when it comes to offensive stuff are the "audience" the ones who aren't directly affected but are expected to laugh on queue (or at least stay uncomfortably silent).
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:February 10th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
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One doesn't have to go as far as New Zealand! I moved from West Yorkshire to Hertfordshire aged nine and two years later won a scholarship to the local prep/public school. Some serious language relearning went on That said, I still have a vaguely northern tinge to my accent.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:February 11th, 2011 12:40 am (UTC)
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I think reacting definitely has something to do with it. If you don't react, kids get bored, but if you do, they know they can wind you up and they find it perversely fun.

I always wondered why, after an initial bout of being called "surfer" for having long blond hair, people stopped hassling me after a few months in 4th form (after moving to a new school). Despite being the smart kid. But then, I never really reacted, I just smiled or made some sarcastic comment. This absence of hassling continued even though I'd hang out with "unpopular" kids and when they'd get hassled for stuff.

But then, I did help people with their physics and maths problems. ;-)
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From:tatjna
Date:February 11th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
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That helping with maths thing is something you have in common with my brother also.

Is calling someone a surfer an insult? Where I come from it was considered cool.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:February 11th, 2011 12:50 am (UTC)
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I guess maybe it was just teasing. But it was still annoying: "where's your surfboard dude", "catch any waves?", etc. etc.

Kid's can turn the most inane thing into to something to tease somebody over. All it requires is that everyone else buys into it so it becomes a meme.

I'm sure cats are horribly offended at their dignity being spoiled by lolcats and the implication they can't spell ;-)
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From:tatjna
Date:February 11th, 2011 12:52 am (UTC)
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I believe there's a ICHC about that! ;-)

What amazes me is that the most well-known British media at the time was Coronation Street, yet the kids all had the perception that the Engish were hoity-toity plum-in-the-mouth up themselves snobs instead of white trash who yell at each other all the time.
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From:caycos
Date:February 11th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC)
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I think there's a difference between kids and adults telling jokes. Kids often are doing what the other kids around them are doing, and their brains don't really grasp why it's bad (as you said).

Adults, however, making fun of people in unfunny ways is not something that should just be laughed off and, as per my original comment on Twitter, ideally it would be brought up as unacceptable. It's not always possible to do that of course, particularly when there are issues of safety - but in an ideal world..
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From:pythia
Date:February 11th, 2011 04:25 am (UTC)
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I agree.
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From:pythia
Date:February 11th, 2011 04:24 am (UTC)
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I also think that reactions differ between kids and adults. I wouldn't expect kids to stand up and say that they find something offensive nearly as much as I would adults.
And I think a lot of the time, people are genuinely unaware that the jokes they're telling are actually hurtful and offensive. It's like, everyone knows that racist jokes are 'offensive', but it's kind of in an abstract way. I think a lot of people don't think about the jokes they tell actually hurting someone, and being 'real world' offensive rather than just kind of abstract offensive. If that makes any sense.
Which is why I'm standing up more and more when I come across thing sthat ARE offensive.
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From:wildilocks
Date:February 12th, 2011 06:50 am (UTC)
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I'm very much in your boat - take personal jibes very personally, and can't laugh them off easily. I was always the new kid at school as we moved about 10 times when I was in primary school, and it sucked. I didn't have anything specific to be teased for other than being "the new kid" - but that was enough! I think it really was instrumental in my developing rather minimal social skills and always being a bit of an outsider... it sure is tough being five, or 7, or 10. :P
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