Jokes, Both Sides, and the Devil’s Advocate

fight backYesterday I posted about an ad that uses fat jokes and age jokes to sell blinds.  Whenever someone points out that something is offensive they are subject to a number of responses that, intentionally or unintentionally, undermine the activism of speaking up.  I wanted to talk about some of them today:

Can’t you take a joke?

Anytime someone points out that an attempt at comedy may be hurtful, it’s almost immediately suggested that we lack a sense of humor, have a stick where normally there is none, that we need to learn to take a joke, etc.

I’m a fan of comedy, and I’m a fan of comedy that pushes boundaries and edges as a way to make social commentary, discuss things that are difficult to talk about, make people think etc.  I’m not a fan of people using stereotypes and stigma for cheap laughs and I’m not a fan of people using the institutionalized prejudices that are used to make fat people’s lives difficult to sell blinds. Nobody is obligated to celebrate humor made at their expense.

You need to choose your battles

Agreed, and the way you know which battle someone has chosen is that they have chosen it.  What the person saying this almost always means is that they don’t agree with the battle I’ve chosen, which is within their rights, but makes no difference to me.  Once someone has obviously “chosen a battle” the only reason to give them this advice is to suggest that they shouldn’t have chosen this one, which I think is crappy, and heading toward being a violation of the underpants rule.

You need to look at both sides of the issue

Nope, nope, nope.  I don’t think that there are two sides to bullying, stigma, or oppression. There’s inappropriate behavior, followed by justification of that behavior masquerading as “the other side.”  The fact that someone can justify something doesn’t make that thing ok, terrible things are justified all the time. While it may be interesting for some purposes to look at why someone who bullies, stigmatizes, or oppresses behaves that way, insisting that they stop inappropriate behavior does not require an analysis of the roots of that behavior.

I/my fat friends weren’t offended

No community is a monolith, including fat people.  We can each only speak for ourselves and those who choose to have us speak for them, none of of speaks for all of fatkind (or any other group.)  However as an activist who creates activist spaces,  I suggest that people who aren’t offended by something consider whether or not speaking up is helpful. If someone says that they are offended by something that I don’t find offensive, I will probably choose not to engage in activism around it, but I’m very unlikely to voice my opinion since I’m not really adding anything to the conversation and may actually be discouraging people from speaking up.

Let me just play devil’s advocate

Let me just stop you right there, the devil (whether used a metaphor or an actual belief) doesn’t need an advocate.  Maybe ask yourself why, in the face of stigma, bullying, or oppression, do you want to take the devil’s side? Either way, I’m not interested in what the devil might think.

There are any number of reasons that people question or attack someone who has spoken out about mistreatment – from genuine concern to a blatant attempt to derail activism or to keep us from speaking up in the future.  We each get to decide how to deal with that, but for me speaking up is worth it.

Update: Remember when I told you that a screenwriter had created a script about my life as a fat dancer?  Well that movie is now in development!   You can go to the Facebook page and like it if you are so inclined which will get you info as it breaks and help us build momentum!

Looking for more skills to fight stigma and bullying? Check out the Fat Activism Conference.  Three days, 40 speakers, 30 workshops, teleconference style so that you can listen on the phone or computer from wherever you are, recorded so you can listen live or on your own time, only $39 with a pay-what-you-can option to make it accessible to as many people as possible.  Check it out!

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21 thoughts on “Jokes, Both Sides, and the Devil’s Advocate

  1. This! And at exactly the right time! Thank you! I plan to write a piece on sexism in an online community and the reason I haven’t done it yet is because I didn’t feel ready for the comments that are sure to come up. Now I feel quite well prepared 🙂 I think all of these points are true for other topics (or “-isms”) also
    Sadly I had to face all of these when Germany, where I happen to be born, won this f**ing soccer world cup, and even some people I actually thought were quite nice, participated in mocking and insulting other countries, especially Argentina, by using demeaning and rascist slurs. And when I spoke up, everyone told me I was overreacting, can’t take a joke, it is “just FUUUUUN!” or that it is “tradition” to mock the other teams. WTF?

  2. This is one of the best pieces you’ve written, Ragen. It has usage in SO many contexts!!

    One of my favorite quotes that addresses stigma in humor comes from Ellen Degeneres. To paraphrase, she said something like this: “If that’s humor, then you’re doing it wrong, because we should BOTH be laughing.”

  3. The only time I have received the “choose your battles” comment where it didn’t pass me off was when I was much younger and had a tendency to try to fight EVERY battle. A friend pointed out that I was clearly exhausted and suggested that I leave a few battles for others to fight, so that I would have the energy to fight the ones I cared most about.

    I tend to use that phrase when others are giving me crap because I’m not fighting the same battles that they deem most important.

  4. Another phrase used by folks defending their bigoted jokes is “Just get over yourself.” This is so wrong on so many levels: it diminishes me, it dismisses my expression of my feelings, it tries to deflect the blame for the wrongness from the bigot to me, it clearly indicates that the speaker has no interest in actually hearing what I’m saying. It is 100% opposite of an apology.

    Someone I thought was a friend said that to me after I expressed shock and hurt that she posted a fat joke to FB. We are, of course, no longer friends, on FB or in life.

    1. I got the same from a “friend” on FB (or, at least, someone I thought was a friend) when I called him on his Subway “joke”. He posted that he had gone to Subway for lunch, and how is he supposed to trust their health benefits because they had “2 fat chicks” working there. (Har har har so funny, am I right?) With his friends carrying on about OhMyGawdDeathFat peeples and basically how they shouldn’t be out in the publics.

      When I called him out for the comment, I was told “its just a joke” and to “get over myself”. Needless to say, blocked and removed. I don’t need negativity like him or his friends. Noone does.

  5. Fatkind!! I love it!

    In any case, if someone, then some folks, then more folks say they are offended by the same joke (whether in an ad, or a book, or a blog), it means that the bloggers or advertisers need to listen to what they are saying and consider that – wait for it- these people might actually be offended (and have a completely legitimate reason for being so). And then it is important that the advertisers understand that even if their establishment was not previously aware of the reason for offense, they need to add it quickly to their list of possible offenses and a) back off b) apologize c) design a new campaign which does not offend. One. Two. Three.

    Anything else is a copout and another offense to the offended group/people.

  6. Thank you, Ragen!
    Strictly speaking, the only time anyone ever needs to play Devil’s Advocate is when a potential saint is being evaluated by the Catholic Church. The Vatican will most certainly let you know if you are chosen for the role of the person who looks for evidence against the person’s worthiness and holiness. If you haven’t gotten that call from the Pope et al, you can assume your Devil’s Advocacy is not needed.
    (And a Devil’s Advocate argues that a candidate for sainthood has feet of clay or wasn’t divinely inspired– not that oppressive structures, [strangely enough!], don’t cause discomfort to those they benefit, and so we activists really should just try to understaaaaand instead of drawing attention to the oppression… )

  7. I wonder about people who say “can’t you take a joke?”, is there anything that they consider inappropriate to joke about? Is there something that they consider important and meaningful enough to think that jokes at that thing’s expense are off-limits? Because if they do, then they should understand that other people do, too, and we each get to decide what is important to us, and that treating people with dignity is important to you. And if they don’t, how sad is that? They stand for nothing, they have no center, and I would rather not follow their nihilistic soulless path, thanks anyway. Also, there is a logical fallacy at the heart of “can’t you take a joke?” –it assumes that everyone is somehow obligated to find anything that was intended as a joke to be humorous. OK, someone said something mean and intended it as a joke. I don’t find meanness funny. Just because someone else “meant it as a joke” doesn’t mean that I HAVE to find it amusing, does it? And that does not even get into the part where people use “joke” as a cover for the meanness.

    1. There are times I wish blogs had a “like” button like Facebook does. But since it doesn’t I’ll just say, “heck yeah!” and send you a virtual high five.

    2. A lot of people I know who consider themselves comedians feel that nothing is off limits. I don’t understand this rationale. I know someone who is an aspiring comedian. He wants to be a professional one day. He feels that it should be permission to make any joke about anything. No one should ever have to apologize for their jokes. Be it fat jokes, racist jokes, jokes about tragic disasters with high death tolls, rape jokes, etc. All are acceptable and need no apologies. He goes on quoting other famous comedians who have stated the same stance as though “famous people agree” means he’s right about this. (Appeal to authority fallacy.)

      So I said, “If some bully in a playground is picking on some kid making jokes about them being fat, ugly, stupid, whatever. And other kids are standing around laughing, this is ok?”

      He said, “No, that’s bullying.”

      “But it’s jokes. Everybody but one kid thinks it’s funny.”

      “But it’s just kids being mean. That’s not comedy if it’s just to be mean.”

      “Other kids find it funny.”

      “It’s just different! No comedian would do that!”

  8. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I really enjoy your unapologetic viewpoint on bullying and oppression. I’m commenting for the first time because a line that you wrote really resonated with me: “Nobody is obligated to celebrate humor made at their expense.”

    I’ve often felt that in order to “get along”, I had to laugh at the things that made everyone else laugh. That applied even if the joke was made at my expense. This one phrase is enough, I think, to make me start standing up for myself in those kinds of situations. I will most likely use it word for word. thanks for sharing.

    1. I can tell you that you WILL get flak for taking that line, but instead of fighting with anyone who says, “I wasn’t talking about you,” I find that a raised eyebrow, and a sarcastic, “Oh, really? Good to know, then,” followed by turning and walking away is the best answer.

      Good for you!!

  9. Exactly! I feel like an extension of the “other side” is the “well, I’m not taking about you, I’m talking about someone else (who is considered to be “more severe” or “worse off”) argument. Autistic self advocates get that often, because once we can talk, apparently we no longer have any idea what it means to “really have it”. It’s easier to degrade and make fun of someone when they can’t fight back (or they’re separated into a monolithic “other”), and it seems like people use that to justify their bigotry while trying to avoid being called out on their crap.

    There are funny jokes that push the envelope. Then there are jokes that aren’t funny because they are nothing more than thinly veiled prejudice.
    Context and the other person’s comfort make a difference. I could ask my then-boss if they put snow tires on their wheelchair…and when a fire drill was scheduled before I came in (after I had to stand outside to avoid anxiety due to super Asperger senses) they could jokingly offer to call back the testing company when I feigned disappointment at missing it. We had some common ground and respected each other.
    Another excellent and thought provoking post!

  10. YES. That devil’s advocate stance is BS. My experiences are not fodder for entertainment or intellectual masturbation.

  11. I’ve had this post up amongst my browser’s tabs for three months now, and each time i read the post, I gain newfound appreciation of the clarity and utility of the thinking found within.

    Thanks again for all you do, Regan.

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