Fat jokes, racist jokes, sexist jokes, lesbian jokes, when they are offensive to some people – even if it includes or excludes you – they actually do more than just make some laugh.
It isn’t a generational problem when mine, the millenials, are known as the snowflake generation. It isn’t a mere difference in an age gap that we choose to call out something “minorly” offensive when we see it. It’s that we’ve now come to understand semantics better – that is, one’s choice of words – and truly understanding its impact on a larger level.
This means that when a minor joke is being said at our expense, perhaps offending one of many identities we feel we belong to, we probably haven’t just heard it once, we’ve all heard it on countless occasions. Understanding the motivation behind these jokes and the harm of them is important in seeing why offensive jokes should be called out when they’re being told and stopped.
Being told a joke (or really anything offensive in any way) one time is very different when you think about them as statements, as assertions, and every time they’re dismissed as ‘just a joke’.
- What do these jokes really do?
The answer: A blueberry.
Derogatory jokes work because they’re based on some sort of a myth, a stereotype, a prejudice. These jokes reinforce an idea in our heads, and it asserts a kind of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on our behaviour, whether you’re the one telling or hearing the joke.
Everything that we know in life are learned from a series of conditioning where we shape our actions, behaviours and even thought from being told what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. However, this is rarely accomplished by someone saying “Don’t be fat, it’s wrong.” It’s more commonly done through rhetorical comments, quips, and yes, jokes and memes, where we let someone else know that we feel something is more ‘right’ than others.
So what do these fat jokes do, for example? We are shaming people who are overweight, and it reminds people that fat people gets shamed. (And some even shame them for being offended.) The underlying message is really telling people it’s wrong to be fat. It works in the same way for just about every derogatory joke. Sexist jokes demeans women in a way that often reminds them of their place in life.
“Why haven’t any women ever gone to the moon? It doesn’t need cleaning yet.”
(example from Psychology Today, read more about the harm of sexist jokes here)
This joke reminds women not to aspire to be astronauts and that their worth is only good for housekeeping. Additionally, it blames the lack of women working in the sciences on their gender. Is that truly a message we should be sending to young girls?
- It’s probably funnier when you’re privileged.
From a lifetime of conditioning, we establish certain positions as more privileged than others.
We have established (in our current world) that it’s better to be White, male and man, straight, able-bodied, rich.
Think of all the jokes there are when you’re not these things. There’s some very demeaning jokes about people of colour, about women, about effeminate men, about gay men, about transgender individuals, about disabled individuals, and about the poor. The real problem here is not actually the joke, but that these individuals already face suffering in life, every single day – especially the transgender and the strong stigma they face – but on top of all that, they get mocked and laughed at just for being who they are.
If you didn’t find a big problem with a joke which people find to be offensive, you should check to see if you have some sort of a privileged position where you can freely laugh at the joke without feeling hurt. (And do this before you lecture someone else about being ‘butthurt’ – that’s somewhat homophobic, if you think about it.)
- But gay guys make gay jokes all the time! I can’t tell jokes without offending anyone!
Generally, the reason why gay people can say gay jokes to each other is not because it’s okay to say offensive things among themselves. Truly, I think if they did say something horribly derogatory about their identity, they’d be called out and shunned for having internalised homophobia (meaning that they don’t truly accept themselves for being gay). But for the most part, if you listen to the type of gay jokes they’re actually saying you might find that there isn’t a hint of malice and there isn’t a derogatory message in it because they accept their identity.
If you held these worldviews where lesbian, sexist, transgender, ableist jokes are all alright to say, then perhaps you’d have to examine yourself to see if you’re more of an offensive person or if you’re genuinely a funny person.
It could never truly be offensive if it came from a place that wasn’t derogatory and mean and if you truly accepted people for who they were. This applies to your everyday speech and behaviour, on top of these jokes that you crack.
- Love and accept everyone for who they are.
Listen to someone you have laughed at before, hear them out to see if being laughed at this way is hurting them or not.
It is really the only remedy there is – to use love, care and understanding to fight bigotry, stigma, and to undo countless lifetimes of conditioning.
Image credit: Fruit Jokes on Buzzfeed