Friday, December 9, 2016
PC Police Slam Humor RX
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
"Okay, like, I was feeling really depressed last night. So I got on the phone and called one of those suicide crisis hotlines. And my call was routed to a phone bank in Pakistan, and they got really excited when they heard I was suicidal. They wanted to know if I knew how to drive a cargo truck."
Is that joke funny to you? And yes, it is a joke. Or at least, it's supposed to be.
A friend of mine posted it to Facebook this morning, and I chuckled when I saw it. It's an old joke, actually; he hadn't made it up. He's fond of tacky jokes, humorous anecdotes, and silly puns, and shares this kind of stuff all the time. Actually, I've known him since I was a kid, and he's done it as long as I've known him. Mom used to invite him over for dinner and he'd entertain my brother and me with his deadpan, intentionally unappetizing descriptions of our meal - his way of actually complementing Mom on her cooking!
Maybe that kind of humor isn't for everybody, but it's well-intentioned, warm-hearted, and completely innocent. At least, from our friend.
Yet I was amazed at the number of his Facebook friends this morning who were replying with comments of "not funny" or "way out of line" regarding the Pakistani suicide hotline joke. This afternoon, I noticed he'd taken it down, so I privately messaged him, asking if he did so because of all the politically correct feedback. And yes, it was.
So am I some bigoted hater for chuckling at this joke? Am I an insensitive boor? Let's see, how many people does this joke insult - as if insults are the intent of this joke? Suicidal people, I guess. Maybe folks who work at phone banks, or as truck drivers? Pakistani people. Even terrorists, perhaps?
If he's a bigot, my friend is a most unlikely one. He was born and raised in the jungles of South America, the son of American evangelical missionaries. He and his wife worked for years at an orphanage in Africa founded by his in-laws, caring not for the postcard-perfect children Western adoption agencies advertise, but severely handicapped children and teens who would be a challenge for the most advanced Western therapists. Their orphanage is located on the fringes of territory that has recently been in the news because of black-on-black terrorism being perpetrated by radical Islamists.
Obviously, then, my friend knows a lot about cross-culturalism, terrorism, racism, and hate. So for his friends to respond to his joke with complaints about his bias, insensitivity, and lack of Christian charity seemed ironic at best.
One of his other friends joked about trigger warnings and safe places, but the humor was quickly disappearing from that Facebook string.
So, what is humor? Some people claim God has a sense of humor. Is that true? After all, most humor comes at the expense of something. Something is being mocked, or trivialized, or ridiculed for humor to occur.
Think about it: What was the last thing you laughed at? Was it somebody's hair, or lack of it? Was it somebody else's mistake, or even your own? Was it a faux-pas, or a double-entendre, or an outright slutty remark?
Humor appreciates the oddities, the misfits, the aberrations, as well as the generalizations and the assumptions. Humor reminds us that we're human, and prone to mistakes. Humor also relies heavily on context, including the personality of the person delivering it, the history of its punchline, and the ability of its audience to not take themselves too seriously.
When Abraham's wife, Sarah, laughed to herself in the Old Testament, she was marveling at how absurd it seemed to her that God should say she was going to give birth at her age. So in a sense, Sarah could be accused of making fun of the elderly or the barren, not just herself. And isn't it possible that somebody would be so severe as to fault Sarah for not having more respect for herself?
G.K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, "the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it". But perhaps that's an insensitive comment, too. Is being politically correct the same as lacking humor?
Let's analyze the Pakistani joke for a moment. It mocks radical Islam, true; but is there anything intrinsically wrong in that? Is something that is evil and definitely wrong out of bounds when it comes to humor? I understand that if we'd had another suicide truck bomb yesterday, my friend's posting of this joke would be inappropriate at best. "Too soon?" would have been his appropriate rejoinder.
Besides, isn't it understood that this joke is not a blanket indictment of the whole of Islam, or the Muslim world? Not all Muslims condone suicide truck bombs. So it's inappropriate only because a small fraction of Muslims actually do practice self-destruction through terrorism?
Or are people afraid that jokes like this perpetuate undesirable stereotypes? As if most stereotypes are otherwise desirable. Yet humor is all about pointing out stereotypes, and often mocking them. Now granted, simply being mean and deploying stereotypes in an insulting manner is not humor. But again, is it wrong to use humor while depicting the fallacies of somebody like Adolph Hitler? If so, what makes radical Islam so sacrosanct?
Might humor that mocks stereotypes be acceptable as long as topics protected by the Politically Correct police aren't targeted? It seems like a lot of "humor" mocking evangelicals is widely tolerated - even encouraged - these days.
Might humor that mocks stereotypes be acceptable as long as specific people aren't called out by name?
And speaking of names, and what's acceptable, why do some black entertainers get away with dropping the "N" word in their jokes? White people can't do that, but black jokesters can. How racist is that?
Are suicidal folks being mocked in this joke? Long-time readers of my blog know that I have been suicidal. One of the reasons I ended up leaving New York City was because my psychotherapist had me on a low-level suicide watch, and I was having to call in to her every day to report that I hadn't killed myself... yet. So I have a history with the whole suicide thing, and yet I didn't find this joke offensive.
Quite frankly, having had periods in my life when I was genuinely suicidal, I have to confess that calling a suicide crisis hotline never even occurred to me. I'm not sure truly suicidal people are looking for somebody to talk them out of it. They may be looking for somebody to talk them INTO it, or help them. But when I've been at my lowest, I can categorically confirm that I've never once stopped and reminded myself, "you know, there's somebody you've never met who is working at an anonymous phone bank, wanting to give you pithy advice in a generic context to sweet-talk me into a false assurance that things will look better tomorrow."
Uh-uh. Nope. That's not what suicidal people want to hear. Most of us don't go through with it simply because we don't have the guts, not because of a random counselor on the phone reciting optimistic platitudes. So I doubt the whole suicide crisis hotline is a legitimate safe place that should be on the official list of "do not mock or make humor of" list.
Yes, there are jokes that may be funny but shouldn't be told because they are genuinely offensive, or rude, or even blasphemous. Some humor can seem funny because it is so bizarre even according to non-politically-correct sensibilities. But just because something is funny doesn't make it appropriate.
So does this Pakistani joke fit that category? Something that's funny but nevertheless inappropriate?
This is where context comes in, right? Was my friend being intentionally ugly towards all Pakistanis? All Muslims? All suicidal people?
If he'd told this joke in a compete vacuum, where none of his audience knew who he was, perhaps it could be argued it was intentionally ugly. If he'd been on a morning television show based in Karachi and told that joke live on the air, it would more than likely have been grossly inappropriate.
But can't humorous anecdotes sometimes simply be humorous anecdotes? My friend is a born-again Christian; was he sinning by telling this joke? He's got Facebook friends from across the racial and cultural spectrum; the only people complaining about his joke appeared to me to be Western Caucasians. Or were they simply trying to preserve a safe space for the other people who had a more personal cause to be insulted by the joke?
Maybe by taking the time to think this through myself, I'm the one who's afraid that deep down inside, I'm the ugly, racist, ethnocentric boor that my friend was being portrayed as on Facebook. Maybe I'm ashamed of my initial reaction in finding the joke humorous. Maybe my sense of humor is utterly corrupt.
Maybe, but I don't think so. I think it's open season to make fun of radical Islam and suicide bombings, if for no other reason than to remind terrorists that they are the aberration. And I think that any genuinely suicidal person might actually find some good-natured, goofy cheer in the notion of a crisis hotline being hooked up to a switchboard in such a relatively depressing place as dirty, dangerous Pakistan, where clinical depression is probably far more rampant than in the West. It's called irony. And often, irony can be funny.
So I'm LOL. Ha ha ha. Take that, you evil terrorists and evil negative thoughts. After all, isn't humor supposed to be good medicine?
As long as the PC police don't ask to see your prescription, I guess.