Two “funny” incidents at the end of this school year exposed a serious problem: we, as a culture, have a bad habit of making jokes at the expense of others.
The two public incidents at U-32– an anonymous, vulgar survey sent out to U-32 students and several questionable jokes at Word of Mouth– are just symptoms of a deeper, chronic disease.
Every day– at lunch tables, in classrooms, on the sports fields, online– it’s all about being “savage,” “burning” someone with a “brutal” put down.
This doesn’t just hurt the person who’s the butt of the joke.
It poisons our respect, for others and for ourselves. It lets us make excuses for our stereotypes, even our racism, because we’re “just kidding.”
And often it reveals a failure of imagination. It lowers the standard for humor.
But it’s also complicated.
Often, between friends or family, trash talk is a mark of real affection and love. I come from a family of wise-asses, as “brutal” as possible, and I talk more trash than I should, for certain.
We do it because it’s fun. Mockery can be a game: at its best it’s playful and clever, and hilarious.
And it can be a gentle, indirect way to tell the truth. If we can’t tease each other, little issues can fester along and cause serious problems in a relationship.
More broadly, we rely on humor to cope with the absurdities of life. There are plenty of things that deserve to be laughed at, every day. Sometimes we really do laugh to keep from crying.
So if humor is essential, and teasing is part of friendship, where’s the line?
You have to keep it personal, between people with a strong relationship. Trashing on your friend, riding around in the car together, is much different from doing it in front of a crowd– online, in class, or even at the lunch table. A silly moment in one context can be misunderstood, even humiliating, in another.
That was one big problem with the jokes in the survey and at Word of Mouth. You can’t make an “inside joke” when there’s an audience of hundreds.
So we can be aware of our audience– that’s actually something we should all be able to do.
But there’s a more subtle challenge. We have to be aware of the spirit behind our jokes. Are we being generous? Does the person know that, in fact, we like and respect them?
For me, the teacher superlatives in the alternative graduation speech at Word of Mouth failed the first test, because the audience was too big and lots of people either didn’t get it or were offended. But I don’t believe the jokes were intended to insult or hurt anyone.
The survey clearly failed both tests: not only were the jokes indiscriminately aimed at a large audience, they were obviously mean.
These moments are a reminder for all of us: words are powerful.
All of us, if we’re honest, can remember specific moments, word-for-word, when we were wounded by someone’s “joke.” Most of us have probably hurt someone with a joke, too.
Here’s a challenge: see if you can make a joke, or tell a funny story, without belittling anyone, including yourself.
Celebrate jokes like this when you hear them. They require real creativity.
And try to check yourself next time you set out to be “savage”.