It’s a Joke!

Someone I know on Facebook wrote something in their status a couple of weeks ago that I took great exception to. It was a little story. I’m going to include a redacted version here because it was too vile for me to feel comfortable reproducing completely.

A study has revealed that the kind of face a woman finds attractive on a man can differ depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle.

For example: if she is ovulating, she is attracted to men with rugged and masculine features. However, if she is menstruating or menopausal, she tends to be more attracted to a man with [redacted because of extreme violence some of it of a sexual nature]

No further studies are expected on this subject.

When I read this the first time my response was WTF?

One commenter, a man, responded first:

This is very disturbing.

Then I made several comments. [of course] A summary, for they were long ones:

Why do you want to perpetuate this ridiculous stereotype? Do you hate men? Do you hate women?

On Twitter a couple of weeks ago there was a meme going around which was #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend (Reasons to beat your girlfriend) A lot of guys put some really nasty shit there. Much of it related to women and their hormones. A lot more people objected to not only the hashtag itself but the vile content. Some guys said "It’s just a joke"…

Violence is not a fucking joke. Portraying women as hysterical out of control maniacs is not a joke. Men and women have enough problems trying to understand each other without people reinforcing the problems and exaggerating things… this is just vile. If you have some issues deal with them…don’t make it worse for women and men who are trying to overcome that with this kind of joke.  If this is what passes for humor among your Mafia Wars crowd or other friends then maybe you ought to examine the company you are keeping.

The original poster had written BTW, in response to the first comments that objected to the content:


Screamed at the reader in big bold ALL CAPS!!! Which got the response:

Would it be a joke if a woman was being described as being violated in that fashion? It’s a joke doesn’t cut it an an excuse.

That resulted in an unpleasant personal message to the effect that I should have kept my comments to myself and if I couldn’t then at least sent them privately even though the item was posted publicly. Then I was unfriended. And blocked. And this person, who happens to be a close relative, has not communicated with me since.

Interestingly though, the posting was removed and an apology to everyone still in the loop was posted instead. OK.

This kind of thing is a fairly common occurrence. Places like Facebook have rape joke groups/pages and Twitter hash tags often have this kind of material. On the Facebook issue, Violet Blue has written a post Facebook Finally Removes Its Pro-Rape Pages.

Sexual violence can be directed at women or men, although a far larger amount is directed at women. It’s just distasteful at it’s mildest and offensive and incitement to criminal activity in the more extreme cases.

A lot of it has to do with gender stereotyping. Here’s another example from the beloved [I’m going to color all snark a puky green] online publication Elephant Journal Are Women Mentally Ill? [link is to the Google cache version because of the paywall-you can find all their stuff in that cache BTW without having to let your browser touch their actual website] The article is an attempt at humor, I am supposing, since I can’t find any other reason why anyone would want to write something like that. I’m not going to get into specific critiques of EJ articles much any more as that could potentially become a full time job and the pushback tends to be a irrational mess of irrelevant ad hominems and other non sequiturs. Mindful insults I suppose.

There was another piece there about “Yoga for Black People”, ostensibly a joke or attempt at humor of some sort as well. That particular piece came along with public humiliation for those that questioned, no matter how politely, the wisdom of such postings.  Nathan at Dangerous Harvests summed the situation up nicely in the post Elephant Journal’s Got Issues and the comments are equally interesting. But I don’t want to dwell on these specific situations when this trend is becoming ever more common.

The trend I mean is one of diminishment of others [and sometimes one’s self] for the sake of humor followed by a dismissal of their hurt.

The It’s a Joke Rationalization

Humor has a lot of uses in society. Humor is useful for illuminating many of the uncomfortable aspects of our society without seeming to be critical or dour and to avoid directly offending an audience. Professionals like George Carlin and Chris Rock do this very well. But since it is mainly described as entertainment, contrasted with “serious” work, there is also the tendency to attempt to justify pretty much anything as humor in order to give it a pass rather than serious examination.

From another perspective humor is an effective means to normalize and continue social stratification, exclusionary behavior and oppression. It very much depends upon who is making the joke and who is the target of the joke. Power relations play into that.

This also has a long history wherein those labeled “Other” become the butt of jokes involving stereotypes. The powerful, in whatever capacity are often deemed more acceptable targets since they often have means to silence/ignore their critics in some form or another. The humor at their expense does not endanger their positions or security or well-being. The marginalized however have a different and somewhat diminished degree of protection in this regard. They do not often either have the power to silence nor do they often even have the power to respond with a similar level of social impact. Yet with the label of “just a joke” we are conditioned to laugh and dismiss commentary of this nature. It is generally meant in the latter case to disguise hostility and enforce existing power relations. Those who do not go along become similarly marginalized. This is the same sort of social mechanism as the average bully uses to bolster their position and security. A thin disguise indeed.

Shame and guilt are very strong motivators for social behavior. Humor when directed at the more powerful is about shame and guilt for behaviors that diminish others who are less powerful. It is a form of social address that has been invoked for centuries. That’s why the political comic genius of a George Carlin still contains strong messages. The court jester was tolerated and the member’s of the king’s court laughed at his mockery of royal power for exactly the same reasons. It is a social leveling mechanism in these kinds of instances.

Now I have personally used this sort of shaming humor, generally in the form of snark, in a response to organizations/publications/individuals in positions of power. Deliberately. And I will no doubt use it again in a situation where I am speaking from a position of a)defense b)against a relatively powerful corporate entity c)marginalization d) injustice or wherever there is a justifiable power differential in play that diminishes the less powerful.

In other instances, where the target is one of lesser social power there is no social leveling going on but a reinforcement of hierarchy and status quo power positioning. I won’t personally go there (no matter how tempting) and will, if I have the energy, challenge that which does. In that instance, humor and accusations of lack of appreciation for a particular form of humor are used as a way to shame, silence or misdirect people so that they don’t question or challenge what the joke actually means or what effect it has in a larger context.

In that case those who seek to induce a sense of shame or guilt in others by using such humor and attacking those who don’t go along, are attempting to control the behavior. When one questions or objects to an offensive joke some people are quick to remark that you are being overly sensitive, weak, negative, ruining the community, too serious or lacking a sense of fun or a sense of humor in general. 

Most people don’t want to be written off as the overly serious, stuck up person who can’t take a joke. Why are you getting so upset? It’s just a joke! This is the threat of social ostracism and marginalization. It means “If you don’t go along you’re out of the club.” According to the psychologist Maslow (hierarchy of needs) a sense of belonging is a significant human need in order to have a fulfilled life. To have this sense threatened is a powerful psychological motivator.

In another psychological way there is something satisfying about transgressing boundaries. It reinforces a sense of autonomy. The edge, which is where boundaries are transgressed, has an excitement to it that is hard to resist. There is something that feels a little like courage or bravery to go against the grain. Whether it actually is courage or something else depends a great deal on the variables of the situation.

The biggest variable relates to the issue of power relations. It does not take courage to  mock others who are at the same or lesser social level than one’s self. That’s pretty easy since the weight of an institution, a crowd or other forms of heavy social capital are not even needed and may even be on one’s side in those instances. In that case it is something else, most likely fake bravado disguising insecurity or actual lack of courage to look at the more powerful rather than the less powerful. Any oaf can squash ants but not many want to look within for the resources to challenge that which is larger. Lots of reasons why that happens. Then again there are a few who don’t see a difference as long they are not on the receiving end. Perpetual perpetrators who cry victim if they are called on it. Or in it for the lulz, as popular parlance would have it. Either way the type of empathetic insensitivity, often accompanied by grossly exaggerated and distorted personal sensitivity that comes with that kind of terrain is too mind boggling to get into. [AKA Troll motivation 101]

Moving on.

Here’s an interesting piece that appeared recently on Scientific American blogs, The Joke Isn’t Funny—It’s Harmful. The author is voicing criticism of another blog piece that appeared on the site Nature, in which a lot of stereotypical gender behavior is used in an attempt at humor. That happens every day but it doesn’t generally happen on internationally known science based websites. So there was controversy.

The author does a good job of outlining the concept of stereotype threat and how it affects individuals and groups in terms of social advantage and disadvantage. You can read that for yourself at the link but one point that is brought up in the comments is the idea that these sorts of “jokes” are somehow validated by science, that is women are by way of evolution less rational, particularly regarding certain social behaviors.

A stereotype is a social instrument to validate those in positions of power and privilege. People become conditioned by social means which appears to validate stereotypes but this does not provide factual or provable means of demonstrable proof. Some women may themselves say they become “insane” due to hormonal changes. This does not mean it’s a scientific fact, only that upon encountering the stereotype long enough it becomes inculcated as a behavioral pseudo-explanation. Sort of like religion and its “The devil made me do it.” Pure bullshit based on pop cultural reinforcements.

It’s the same kind of “argument” (though it’s not even worthy of that term) as “men are “natural” providers/athletes/fathers/leaders/lovers/mathematicians etc or white people are more “naturally” rational/accountable/responsible/etc.

These are all culturally defined/conditioned/sanctioned/emphasized/learned behaviors. There is no universal human gene for “leadership” just as there is none for “shopping ability” despite what some “evolutionary psychologists” might postulate-and that is all they can do is postulate because they haven’t proven a damn thing with their status quo reinforcing theories. (tempting to go into the tangent of so-called “alpha” behavior, as in “alpha-male” or “alpha-bitch”[notice the dehumanization when the colloquial “alpha” term is applied to the female?] as that’s equally as culture-bound, learned and fully bogus, but I’ll save that for later)

There’s the difference between a truism/stereotype and a demonstrable factual explanation. This gets into all kinds of things like logical fallacies and rationalizations used as fact. The Colbert truthiness factor abounds.