This post is not about racists, homophobes, ableists, sexists and other recognized deplorables telling deplorable jokes that we can all agree are damaging and not funny.
Sorry. It’s been done. Here are some links (on people who get mad that women don’t fake laugh at sexist jokes anymore. and how bigoted jokes change who it is socially acceptable to hate), if you need a post about that. It is also a real issue.
This is the “dig a little deeper” post.
We—and here I mean progressive, kind, good-hearted people who don’t want to hurt anyone—need to think about what happens when we accidentally or carelessly tell a joke that hurts someone.
There’s a Facebook meme that says, “If I ever confuse ‘their’ versus ‘there’ and ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ in the same post, you should take it as a sign that I have been kidnapped and I’m signaling for help.”
I’m a linguist, a grammar buff and an ESL teacher. I get why this is funny.
Those who know and care about the differences in words and who feel that the integrity of language matters get frustrated with the apparent lackadaisical attitude of many on social media toward the written word.
To many of us, sloppy spelling and grammar is the equivalent of going out in public with your fly down, food on your chin, morning breath, body odor and your hair not brushed for three days. It reflects poorly on the person posting a message and discredits what they have to say.
Meanwhile, to many people on social media, typing is simply a different way of talking and the faster it’s done the better.
The joke is funny because:
1. The person who posts the joke is poking some fun at her/himself for being a bit of a grammar nerd,
2. We all know a lot of people online who just don’t care whether they make those mistakes and there is a light rivalry between them and the grammar nerds.
3. Some people’s grammar and spelling is really hilarious.
Um… What? Wait just a minute there.
Number three is a problem. If poor grammar on social media is the equivalent of going out in public disheveled, then laughing at people who present poor grammar is the equivalent of ridiculing a person in public who looks disheveled.
And that person might just be homeless.
Or in the online version, they might be dyslexic, blind, an ESL learner, uneducated due to generational poverty or so stressed by difficult life circumstances that they can’t check over their posts.
Imagine if you will a similar Facebook meme stating, “If I ever start stuffing my face and turn into a fatty, you should take it to mean that I’m trapped in an abusive relationship under threat of violence and that’s how I’m signaling for help.” Imagine a really slim friend posting this.
Okay, it is no longer funny at all. We can probably all agree that this would be insensitive and cruel.
The analogy is closer to home than you may think. Obesity is often considered a product of lazy, lackadaisical habits, just as poor spelling is. But both are often actually caused by or exacerbated by factors beyond a person’s control. Both are also the focus of a lot of overt harassment and ridicule.
I cannot count the number of times someone has called me out online for mixing up a homonym, for a dropped comma or for not catching a bad autocorrect. My specific reasons for these mistakes are being 90 percent blind, using voice recognition to type and being a stressed-out parent on modest means. I’m geographically isolated enough to need social media for both work and social interaction. So I try anyway, but my online escapades are far from perfect.
I’m a professional writer and I graduated suma cum laude in linguistics, so I shouldn’t be sensitive about this
But... ridicule is hard to take, and growing up with a disability I’ve received my full measure. When I see other people ridiculed for it online, even when they are my political opponents, I feel threatened.
Okay, I’ll agree that a president really should check over his tweets. If I were president, I wouldn’t be sending out anything I hadn’t had checked by someone else. There’s having a text disability and there’s being smart about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Presidents can afford line editors and so there isn’t much excuse beyond arrogance and lack of care.
But I still don’t engage in those particular jabs at 45.
I think I did once find that grammar meme funny, years ago, when I first got on social media. I had the same problems I have now with text, but I had not yet encountered the online ridicule over it. A person’s experience of having been ridiculed about the point of the joke does matter.
I recently overreacted to such a joke and called out a friend over it. I felt bad later. I don’t want to be harsh or mean, especially when I’m pretty sure the person who posted it had the first two reasons for humor in mind, not so much the problematic third.
But it is an issue worth thinking about. I have seen my friends who are only intermediate in English be dismissed and laughed off of social media, when it took significant courage for them to speak up in a foreign language. I have been ridiculed for posting in the language of the country where I am an immigrant. It is also a second language for me and I know I make mistakes.
And this is by far not the only joke that many of us may find funny, while it hits someone else like a sucker punch. Some jokes about family relationships may really hurt people who have lost family through adoption or estrangement. Some jokes may reference something sensitive for one group that the individual telling the joke genuinely didn’t realize would be sensitive. Think bananas, jungles and “gypsy” fortune tellers for instance.
I may be experienced enough to personally avoid these, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. There is a joke out there somewhere that I will think is hilarious and either laugh at or share, which will actually hurt someone. And I can pretty much guarantee that the same is true for you.
We don’t know for sure and we’re all likely to make this mistake, no matter what our personal background is. A lot of people will take that as a reason to dismiss the whole thing and say that we should all grow thicker skins and learn to take a joke.
But we know where that leads.
If we say it is all right to tell jokes that hurt people with invisible disabilities or ESL learners, we will be that much closer to social acceptability of overtly racist jokes.
And yet laughter and humor is in desperately short supply. Our hearts cry that the solution cannot be that we walk on eggshells around sharing anything funny.
The best I have for you is this:
1. When I am hurt by such a joke or comment in the future, I will say simply, “That hurts. Here’s why.” I will go back to psychology 101 and use statements starting with “I” rather than accusing the other person of something. I invite you to join me in this resolution.
2. When that unhappy but inevitable day comes when I am told that my humor hurt someone else, I will listen and truly think it through. I will delete jokes that hurt people if it’s online. And I’ll apologize for hurting that person, even if I had no intention of doing so, even if I don’t quite think they are justified.
The experience of hurt is a fact. If it comes from me then I did the hurting. Intention is not irrelevant but it is also not everything. Neither is reasonableness. Saying, “I’m sorry my joke hurt you. Thanks for letting me know. I will try not to hurt you in the future,” costs little.
This isn’t going to solve all the problems of social media or dinner party discourse, let alone the broader world. But it can make our personal circle of social interaction more aware and safer for those who have already had their full measure of hurt.