Saturday, February 20, 2010

T'ain't funny, McGee!

I used to love listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio.  Fibber sometimes make bad jokes and Molly would tell him, "T'ain't funny, McGee."   I loved Molly. 

I got a joke from a friend yesterday which involved racism, gay-bashing, violence and race baiting.  This came from a man I suspect has not a racist nor a homophobic bone in him, yet he was passing this really repugnant thing along as a good joke he had really enjoyed.  It was really stunning to realize that he had no clue whatsoever that there was anything wrong with it.

After all, he said, we laugh at Road Runner cartoons, and they are as violent as it gets.  He also argued that he could have substituted any ethnicity for what was described as a "huge black man" in the joke.  "If it had been a big lazy white hillbilly would it have been OK?" he asked. 

Stunning.  He was missing the point on so many levels. 

Gay jokes are always popping up, and people don't seem to realize that it hurts when you tell them to gay people.  A comedian I saw on Logo expressed how it feels really well -- he said something like "Oh, right! I forgot -- I'm a joke. Thanks for reminding me."  They don't seem to realize that reducing someone to joke status seriously diminishes their personhood, not to mention self-esteem and general confidence.

It hurts when you tell gay jokes to straight people, too --it reinforces stereotypes in people's minds, and promotes the marginalization of those who are different.  It helps people justify prejudice, which in turn further alienates gay people.  It may even feed into gay-bashing in a more violent way.  The joke my friend sent could really do that, as the gay man in it is beaten to a pulp in a bar parking lot as part of the joke.  Imagine that my friend didn't realize there was anything wrong with that!  What part of Matthew Shepherd's death was funny? 

When you make fun of someone for who they born or who they are at the core of their being, it isn't funny, it's just wrong. 

I'm Jewish, and there are a lot of good Jewish jokes that emphasize the strong points of Jewishness.  They are ethnic, but not negative, like this one:
A Jew drove at 100 mph so a policeman stopped him. The officer asked him "Excuse me but where's the fire?"

So the Jew answered "I'm hurrying to smuggle drugs and kalachnikovs."

The policeman ordered backup quickly. When more squad cars arrived the vehicle was inspected and they found neither drugs nor kalachnikovs.

The comander was furious at the officer for such a false alarm, went to the Jewish driver and apologized. The Jew replied "Yeah, and I suppose he also said I was going 100 mph."
Jokes like this don't belittle or objectify.  The Jew in the joke is clever.  It's when we start portraying Jews as cheap or Polish people (or blondes!) as dumb and Irishmen as drunks that we are in trouble.  The phrase "huge black man" in my friend's joke was meant to conjure up a lazy drunk.  I missed that completely, since I don't even vaguely have a stereotype in my mind that would match that. 

Before you pass a joke along, think about what it really says and what kind of message it carries.  You could even save a life. 

photo credit: mousetracksonline

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