Dead babies aren’t funny

One day early in our marriage, the topic of dead baby jokes came
up on a mailing list my wife and I were subscribed to, and I was startled
to see her go into bloody-minded rage in reaction. I thought the humor was
in bad taste but I didn’t understand the violence of her reaction. At this
point my wife had children from a previous marriage, but we had yet to have
any children together.

Nowadays, having helped birth two babies, one of which came out with an
umbilical cord around his neck and needing some help in the breathing
department, I understand her reaction perfectly. My first, instinctive
reaction when someone makes jokes involving harm to children is to gut them
with a bowie knife then and there. Then I remember I live in a civil
society and decide that perhaps reporting them to the cops as a psychopath
might be sufficient. Eventually I calm down and settle for regarding the
speaker as a sadly defective human, and hope optimistically that he or she
will eventually grow out of it.

Parenthood changes a person at a very basic level. But that’s not what this
post is about. The point is that everyone has something which is Not
Funny. Even comedians have
their limits.

One of my longtime favorite shows—even though it’s been years since I
watched it regularly—is South Park. What I love about Matt and Trey’s
sense of humor is that it is relentlessly, aggressively, fair. They make
fun of everyone and everything. Liberals. Conservatives. Gays.
Straights. Jews. Athiests. Muslims. Scientologists. Kids. Adults. The magic
of South Park is that one moment you’ll be having a belly laugh and the
next you’ll have an appalled look on your face saying “woah, too far,
man, too far. And you know that somewhere, someone else is watching the
same show and saying the same thing—only about the parts you found
hilarious. And laughing at the parts you found objectionable.

Humor is just one of those things that humans do. I’ve heard that EMT humor
is some of the blackest there is; the kind of humor which would make a
corporate ethics officer’s head explode. Does that make EMTs bad people?
Hardly. Thank goodness for them. If it helps them get through the day, I
don’t care what kind of depraved car-wreck jokes they are telling while
they wheel me into the ER.

Which brings me to the subject of Sensitivity. I worry a fair amount about
being sensitive. I question my own actions and try to get outside
. I
sometimes yell at people for being insensitive and driving away diversity
when we should be embracing it. I rage at my computer screen to see the
casual misogyny of privileged male nerds.

But for all that, I don’t feel like I fit in with the Sensitivity people.
Lately I’ve been reading /r/ShitRedditSays, a sub-reddit
where people highlight the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and general
douchebaggery that shows up reguarly on Reddit (as it does in any open
online forum). And it’s certainly instructive. I’ve learned some things
about subtle bias, about casually throwing around words like “rape”
denatures them and desensitizes readers to the true infamy of actual rape.

But at the same time, I find around 50% of the tasteless comments that are
linked to as exhibits of bad behavior to be laugh-out-loud funny. Even as
I acknowledge that they are insensitive. And I realize that to the other
members of /r/ShitRedditSays, these things are simply Not Funny. They are
beyond the pale.

Now, I suppose this could just mean I’m a bad person. But I think it speaks
to a difference in philosophy. I don’t want a world where we defeat bigotry
by being perfectly polite and sensitive to every possible background. I
want a world where we defeat bigotry the South Park way: by telling filthy
jokes about each other until we all finally realize that human differences
are, fundamentally, hilarious. Not wrong. Not shameful. Just really
fucking funny.

I do think we need to be sensitive to context. That’s why I worry about
subtle misogyny and racism in the land of software engineering. It’s one
thing to have a room full of men and women of all races and backgrounds
laughing about each other’s differences. It’s a very different thing to
have a room full of men—and a lone woman—where the men are all telling
“slut” jokes. It’s not that slut jokes are Wrong. It’s the the context
which makes them threatening.

Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people aren’t able to make this
distinction of context vs. content. One the one side you have people who,
when you tell them that now is not the time and here is not the place,
think that you have no sense of humor and want to censor them in all
contexts and on all topics. And on the other you have the watchdogs of
sensitivity, many of whom seem to think that perfect equality is a world
where nobody ever has cause to blush. And I worry that the twain shall
never meet, and that I’ll be somewhere in the middle, a stick-in-the-mud to
some and a neanderthal to others.

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  1. Kurtis Rainbolt-Greene January 27, 2012 at 20:53

  2. Sam Livingston-Gray January 27, 2012 at 21:08

    I’m with you on South Park (I almost never watch it, but I almost never watch *anything*) and came to really enjoy Beavis and Butt-Head once I figured out how to watch it as “incredibly astute, somewhat devious satire”.With regard to the jokes about anti-harassment training you RT’d earlier today, I really did appreciate the skill that went into them — they’re well-crafted jokes that fit in 140 characters. It’s just that I can’t find the context that makes those jokes — when delivered by a straight[1] white[2] dude[3] — actually funny, given some other contexts that preexist in my head[4].[1] Presumably.[2] See [1].[3] See [2].[4]

  3. Yeah, preexisting mental context definitely makes a difference. For me, I’ve been laughing at Mike Nelson’s jokes in MST3K and RiffTrax for over a decade, and so I’m very familiar with his comic persona. A big part of which is to be a walking parody of a big dumb white guy from Minnesota. I also happen to have gathered that in real life he’s the kind of reserved very conservative midwestern Christian who would regard remarks like that (if serious) to be in very poor taste, disrespectful, and possibly bordering on sinful. So when I see him cracking jokes about corporate sensitivity training, I know exactly what sort of dick-waving corporate douchebag he’s making fun of, and I can easily laugh with him. I can see how without that context it would be hard to find the jokes funny.

  4. Sam Livingston-Gray January 27, 2012 at 21:24

    “A big part of which is to be a walking parody of a big dumb white guy from Minnesota.”Ah, *that’s* the piece I was missing. I should’ve checked his follower count. (=

  5. Charles Calvert January 27, 2012 at 22:36

    Sam’s point of existing mental context is an interesting one, and leads me to a related phenomenon that’s been bothering me for years. I think that some people operate under the assumption that everyone should automatically know what the listener’s existing mental context is and tailor their speech and humor accordingly. This strikes me as being unfair; it requires the speaker to assume the entire responsibility for the context of the conversation, instead of sharing it with the listener, in effect affording the listener the privilege of not having to adjust to or accommodate the speaker in any way. IMO both participants should share responsibility, each for their own context.

  6. Context is definitely the big part of the pie.My wife had a miscarriage but I’m now a father and.. I don’t find jokes about dead babies, miscarriages, or similar particularly unfunny (nor necessarily hilarious) on the surface. What I find offensive, though, is when people drag that sort of thing into a specific context where they KNOW it will cause offense and that’s their entire aim.There’s a big gulf between saying things that are offensive in a context where it’s expected and appreciated, and in a context where people are going to genuinely get hurt.Would I tell a joke involving a dead baby on Twitter or in a forum of mothers? No way! Would I tell it to my buddy in private or on a “sick jokes” Web site? Maybe!

  7. Eleanor McHugh January 28, 2012 at 13:32

  8. Eleanor McHugh January 28, 2012 at 13:43

    My outlook has always been that I want to know people as they are, not as they think they should be. If they happen to be bigots (an my experience is that we’re all bigots in some way or other) I can then decide for myself if I want to associate with them or not, and whether to accept their opinions as valid or not given the context etc.But then again I’m notoriously thick-skinned – which is probably how I’ve survived three decades of geek culture which buying a large axe and running amok…

  9. Matthew Conway February 1, 2012 at 04:23

  10. I dont get what is so funny about dead babies?

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