This is the week when the news is filled with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Paula Deen's cluelessness, and the end of DOMA, and so I've had a few things on my mind about setting and crossing lines in a pluralistic society. Where is it that we come together, where we feel a sense of shared identity; where is it that we respect, even celebrate the differences? Let me also say that I am as allergic to pc prescriptions from the left as I am traditionalist prescriptions from the right. The challenge is to be guided by a sense of human decency and awareness that we're all in this together, no matter what our differences.
I teach a class tp undergraduates about communications, and one of the exercises I require of my students is that they tell a story joke. The idea is to give them an opportunity to learn to manage their nerves, to work on a playful delivery style, and to make the point that a joke's set up is to its punchline, as in other messages, exposition is to insight. Telling a joke without a punchline is like presenting information without connecting the dots. A story joke is one of the most common experiences we have of experiencing an "insight" when we "get it".
So at the beginning of the quarter I provide some tips and guidelines, and one of them is not to be (too) offensive. I'm ok with off-color jokes and street vernacular as long as they don't get too graphic in the description of body parts and functions. I mean, we're talking undergraduates here. Over the years, almost all students have toed that line pretty well. There have been a few jokes that crossed it, but it happens very rarely, and I let it go. I'd be more concerned if it were the rule rather than the exception. No one has complained, but my listening to my students jokes, most of which are excellent and well told, has caused me to reflect about what that line is. Is there is any way of objectively defining it?
For me there are a few subjective indicators about where that line is located. One is a sense of irritated boredom, as when someone indulges in a cliche and somehow thinks it's brave or clever. The incessantly banal dropping of F-bombs has this effect on me. Another is a "cringe" effect when someone says something that is socially inept, like arriving at a party in a tuxedo when every one else is in shorts and t-shirts. But the worst indicator is when I feel exposed to an ugliness that makes me feel the need of a shower after it.
I've tried, for instance, to go with friends to local comedy clubs, and each time I have felt that need of a shower. I won't go anymore. I honestly don't understand why anybody would after one or two tries. But then lots of people like Quentin Tarantino movies. Does the attraction come from the gratuitousness, the pointless, witless, stimulation for the sake of stimulation? I found the battle scenes and the endless violence in the Lord of Rings banal in this way. but not particularly offensive. Game of Thrones is a mixed bag. It is not often banal, but I found the Theon torture scenes gratuitous and offensive. I wasn't, however, offended by the 'red wedding' scene. It was shocking, but it wasn't gratuitous. Gratuitous means that it is presented as an end in itself--to shock or titillate for no other reason than to shock or titillate.
Anyway, that gives you some sense about my sensibility, but let me get back to my students and their jokes. Several weeks ago I had an international student, a sweet Chinese woman, tell a joke that fit into the 'cringe' category. I don't remember it well enough to repeat it here, but it involved her mimicking with a thick Chinese accent an African-American hip-hoppy dialect. It had a mildly racially offensive subtext, but it was clear to me she hadn't a clue what she was saying. It was offensive, but you know, in the way that Michael in The Office is when he blunders in his well-meaning but clueless way. It wasn't ugly.
I didn't think much of it until I got an email from one of the students in the class who told me he found the joke offensive. He was not African American, but openly gay. So I went back and forth with him on it. My argument was basically this: Come on, let's not be so pc. Clearly there was no malice intended. At worst it was just a socially awkward moment. What matters most is the intent, not the actual content. There was not an ounce of mean spiritedness in this young woman. Lighten up.
But he was persistent, and we met to talk about it. This student is a very nice kid. Thoughtful, kind, and one of the brightest kids in the class, and I admired his persistence. He was not coming from a place I would call pc. So I sparred a little with him. I told him I'd rather err on the side of people speaking freely with a loosely defined line rather than getting too restrictive. How was what the girl said any different from Jon Stewart mimicking Italian gangsters or African Americans' hip-hop idiom? And then I said in reference to the slightly off-color joke that he had told, "Who's to say that your joke wasn't offensive to someone in the class with conservative religious sensibility? Where do you draw the line?"
His counterargument was that racial and sexual minorities were in a different category because of the history. Even when there is no malice intended, the nerves are raw, and so for these groups there are some things that are out of bounds that might be acceptable for others. His goal was to get me to rule jokes out of bounds if they are about racial and sexual minorities.
He was right. It's one thing to make a joke about Irish drunkenness or Italian mafiosi because those groups have cultural capital that insulates them from the barb, and they can shrug it off. Groups that don't have that capital cannot shrug it off. It stings deeply and will continue to sting deeply until they have acquired the same level of capital. But what about Christian Fundamentalists? Should jokes about them be out of bounds, too? He thought that was different, perhaps because he saw them as his oppressor. Interesting. It struck me that it's the difference between a minority that is slowly losing cultural capital versus minorities that are slowly gaining it. All feel the sting, and if it's cruel for one, it's cruel for the other.
I come from a world where I expect to get teased, where friends and family are not shy about reminding me about embarrassing things I've done and mistakes I've made. But they do it in a genuinely goodnatured way; I take it and I give back. Its value lies in keeping us grounded and remembering where we come from. I enjoy being part of a culture in which that kind of banter is how you show affection. If I were not the butt of such teasing, it would be insulting.I would feel left out. It would be as if they didn't respect me enough to trust I could take it in the right way, that I hadn't enough confidence and capital to play on their level.
I also come from a world where I hear over and over that the Irish were once a despised minority, and the Irish got over it, why can't other minorities? Why do these other minorities need special treatment? Well, I never experienced being a hated minority, and I don't know what it's like to feel socially "unequal", even if my ancestors did. But I don't have to have had that experience to understand that basic decency requires stopping when someone asks you to stop, even if what you are doing is well intended.
I look forward to the day when people in the African-American and LGBT communities will have enough cultural capital that we who are not from those communities can tease and tell jokes about them and expect to be teased and joked about in return. I hope we don't give up on our ability to do that as a way of showing our respect and affection for one another. But we are not there now. We won't be until there is a level of trust and natural affection that can exist only between people who take for granted that they are social equals.
It's one thing to live in a society in which one possesses legal equality; it's another to live in a world where equality is an experience you take for granted in ordinary, everyday social transactions. That's what Paula Deen doesn't understand yet, and why her cliche claim that southern Whites have more affection for Blacks better than than northerners do. The affection that Southern Whites have traditionally claimed they have for Blacks is like the affection they have for their dogs and horses. It has not been an affection for their social equals.
I had a student Thursday ask me if telling a joke about transvestites would be ok. A few months ago I would have told him to go for it. This time I told him to come up with something else.