Sense of Humor

I read this post from another Holidailies participant yesterday and it got me thinking. As we all know, when I think I write long rambling posts, so get ready for a long rambling post.

Basically, for all of you too lazy to hop over to that post and read it, the author wrote about rape jokes, and why they are not funny. His post was sparked by discussions of the Michael Vick case, in which people make comments about him being a prison bitch and getting what he deserves. But, the author points out: “One, rape is never funny. Two, rape is never permissible.” The author also felt like he was in the minority of popular public opinion for believing these things.

I commented in response to his post, because I thought he brought up some interesting points, but I didn’t want to hijack his comment thread, so I decided to write my own darn post as well.

Basically, my initial response when reading the post was “of course he’s not in the minority! No one thinks rape is funny!” And then I thought about it some more, and I realized that we are actually in the minority. The thing that really brought this home to me was a dinner party I attended at one point with a group of intelligent, sensitive, really nice people with liberal inclinations. At some point, for some unknown reason, someone made a stupid joke about rape, and I called them on it, because I was feeling bold, and cranky, and it bothered me.

And the entire table fell into a shocked silence. The table that had been laughing moments before about the hilarious rape joke was guilted into silence because I spoke up. The silence persisted for quite a long time after my outburst, actually, and then someone tried to steer the conversation on another track and everyone apparently decided that it was just better not to mention it. I also got some glares from people who obviously thought that I had committed some sort of social faux paus by daring to think that a rape joke was not an acceptable topic of conversation for a polite dinner party, or any dinner party.

Because, here’s the thing: rape is not funny. Not. Funny. There is no way, no context, no conceivable fashion in which rape could be funny. In fact, it’s about one of the most un-funny things that I can think of, as one of the commenters said. Rape is a horrific crime. It is violent, it is violating, and it occurs way more often than it should. Between one in three and one in four American women can expect to be raped in her lifetime; statistics on male rape are more difficult to pin down, but around 9% of total rape victims are male*.

Most rapes are committed by someone that the victim knows. 22% of the women who are raped are girls under the age of 12. Many people who are raped tell no one. Tell me, please, how this is funny. I’m really dying to know.

I understand that as a culture, we tend to make things funny when we have difficulty dealing with them. By joking about something, people can abstract it, and make it less scary. I’m not sure that this is a good thing; I’ve been laughed at when challenging idiotic points of view, for example, because people didn’t want to confront their own issues. I’ve also been told that I should lighten up about things like this, that “it’s not that big a deal,” that “everyone knows that no one here would condone an act of rape,” and I look around at a dinner party like that and I think about the fact that according to statistics, 3 of the people sitting at the table have been victims of rape, or can expect to be. And I wonder if someone in that awkward silence was secretly very grateful that I said something.

As Nels pointed out in his post, rape jokes cheapen the impact of rape, just like repeatedly using words like “bitch” and “cunt” cheapens women. He also points out that rape jokes are on a slippery slope; if people think that some rape is funny and some rape isn’t, where is the line drawn? Is the line…flexible? Will there be a time when rape is an acceptable form of punishment? It’s certainly used for torture by many armed forces including the United States military. Maybe that would happen even if we collectively agreed that rape isn’t funny, but it might be more heavily criticized if people dealt with issues like rape, torture, and abuse, rather than belittling them and making jokes of them because they can’t process them.

Processing is hard. I get that. Dealing is hard. But collectively hiding from facts is harder, and it’s wrong.

*Source disclosure: this and following statistics are from a rape education site maintained by UCSB.

5 Replies to “Sense of Humor”

  1. There is a professional writer in my neck of the woods whose LJ username is his first name, followed by “_rapist.” Clearly, he thinks rape is hi-larious if you read his LJ.

    Now, I understand he’s all about the Punk Edgy Humor, from what I’ve seen of the writings he does for his day job, but…every time the guy posts to the local LJ community, even though he mostly isn’t saying offensive things there, I get creeped the hell out. Some people just don’t get it. I bet he thinks it could never happen to him, with his almighty penis and all…

  2. Are you willing to extend this to all things that are absolutely not funny, or does rape hold a special place in your heart?

    War is absolutely not funny. Dead babies are absolutely not funny. Slavery is absolutely not funny. Suffering of any sort on a mass scale, really, is absolutely not funny.

    I’m just curious whether you refuse to laugh at any joke where death, murder, or suffering is the crux of the joke, as well.

  3. To put it a bit more pointedly, I guess, what’s so funny about dead iraqi babies?

    On some level of course this is a joke meant to elicit thought, but on a more profound level it’s simply a joke for a joke’s sake. So why is this acceptable, and jokes about rape aren’t? Why is it okay to poke fun at a people who have suffered four-hundred years of slavery and oppression, but not rape? Why is it okay to be jovial about the plight of homosexuals, who are abused and often tortured for their sexual orientation, but not rape?

    If there’s something less funny than a baby blown to bits over a war to oil, I really haven’t bumped into it in a while. But that doesn’t mean the joke isn’t funny, or valid, or appropriate.

    The stance of those who subscribe to the concept of politically correct is that by using these groups as the butts of jokes, we injure them in very real, very material ways.

    I am patently not politically correct, and I disagree with that assessment. Jokes are never funny to those being targeted (unless, perhaps, they hold sufficient power to not care), but it doesn’t mean they aren’t funny. And it doesn’t mean that laughter isn’t an amazing tonic for the ills of the world.

    For the record, I don’t believe I’ve ever told a rape joke in my life. I can’t even really think of hearing one in recent memory, and couldn’t come up with one if I tried. Rape just isn’t funny to me, so I wouldn’t try to. But that doesn’t mean that jokes about it are wrong. Anymore than the fact that I am able to laugh about the painful issue of dead Iraqi babies means I’m some sort of sociopath.

    Rapists do not rape people because they heard a rape joke somewhere. And I don’t think people use jokes to hide from the truth. I know Iraqi babies die. I feel it almost every damn day. But there are truths we have to laugh at to survive.

    You acknowledge the need for processing, then turn around and call these types of jokes wrong. I’m fine with that, but I need a bit of help understanding why it’s okay to tell, hear, and laugh at jokes about various races, sexual orientations, religions, or dead children – all of which are persecuted, suffer indignities, and have harsh realities we should all be facing – but not rape.

  4. Brendan, you make an excellent point about hypocrisy, which is a common problem for many people who make categorical statements about things that are absolutely not funny. And categorical statements in general.

    You’re right that there is an extreme logical inconsistency in making a somewhat jocose comment which highlights the fact that Americans get their oil by slaughtering innocent people, and then turning around and saying that jokes about another very serious issue are not acceptable to me.

    I’m not going to try to excuse my own hypocrisy, because there’s really no point. But I would say that on the issues of rape, molestation, and animal abuse, I do not tolerate joking. I would agree with you that murdering Iraqi babies is a terrible thing which shouldn’t be happening, and I would put it in the same class with things like rape and animal abuse; so why I think it’s ok to make a passing jocose comment about one, but not the other, I don’t know.

    At least, unlike many hypocrites, I recognize this logical inconsistency, and I do think about it; why, for example, did I make Mexican jokes with my former Mexican roommate, when I think that jokes on the basis of ethnicity are in poor taste?

    My opposition to rape jokes isn’t politically correct; we all know that I am not a politically correct person. It is a visceral response; and maybe I wouldn’t, er “poke fun at a people who have suffered four-hundred years of slavery and oppression” if I had been an Iraqi baby at some point, or if I personally knew Iraqi babies.

    I would agree that humour and joy are very important things in the world; I think it’s very unfortunate that most humour seems to come at someone else’s expense.

    I would also add that obviously I don’t think that jokes in poor taste cause people to engage in tasteless acts, although I think that bland acceptance of them certainly legitimizes these acts, whether they be shooting civilians in a war or thinking that it’s ok to enslave people who have a different skin color.

    What’s that old feminist trope? “The personal is political.” For me, this issue is personal, and that’s why I will have no truck with rape jokes in my presence. Quite simply, I find these jokes personally offensive, but I’m not sure that I categorically said they are “wrong.” Not dealing with things is wrong, and telling a rape joke in my presence will result in a smackdown, but personal opposition to something doesn’t make it wrong, it just means I am personally opposed. Much like some people are personally opposed to abortion, but that doesn’t make it a wrong choice. And maybe you’re right, maybe I shouldn’t tolerate jokes on the basis of gender, sexuality, color, religion, cultural identification, and politics. Or maybe I should be able to pick and choose my personal battles?

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