Good change in the world

Can’t you take a joke?

I grew up with comedy, listening to and reciting Rowan Atkinson and Monty Python while doing the dishes with my brother in our suburban Palmerston North kitchen.  We would invent and record or perform sketches, and put on shows for anyone who would watch – costumes, recorded music and all.  At university, we wrote and performed in Capping Revue, and wrote humourous pieces for the student newspaper. I admit I was never the instigator of the funny – that was my big brother’s particular strength – but I was a fast follower, and loved it all.  I love to laugh.

So why is it that, as a young woman in the workforce, I was so often asked why I had no sense of humour, and accused of not being able to take a joke?

On reflection, I understand that this accusation came from some men I was working with, and it would come when I expressed discomfort with a discussion or behaviour that I was witnessing, or was part of, or when I called out what I saw as sexism.  “Come on, Tracey, it’s just a bit of fun.  Can’t you take a joke?”

I heard it when I tried to stop jokes that objectified women in quite graphic or violent ways; I heard it when the man who assaulted me at work was asked by a senior colleague to apologise for his behaviour; I heard it when I tried to stop colleagues from talking about AIDS as a cure for being gay.

I heard this so often, that I started to believe it, and started to amend my own behaviour.  Maybe I washumourless; maybe I didn’thave a sense of humour.  Maybe I shouldbe better at “taking the joke”.  Maybe I should just relax and not be such a drag.

Accusing someone you’ve offended of not having a sense of humour is a classic embodiment of the adage “the best form of defence is attack”.  Rather that reflect on whether they’ve been offensive, the offender instead attacks their accuser.

Sir Robert Jones used this attack-defence earlier this year, when he argued that his column about Maori ingratitude, published briefly in the NBR before being withdrawn, was “satire”.  The implication was clear: Come on New Zealand, where’s your sense of humour? Can’t you take a joke?

It’s a favourite put down of conservatives, against anything that challenges the mainstream’s entitlement to offend at will.  It’s a tool that people with power use to suppress ideas that might threaten the orthodoxy.

Naomi Klein discusses this idea in her book The Beauty Myth, noting that women are often chided to smile, or laugh, or “cheer up”.  This act of smiling reassures men that the correct hierarchy is in order, and – for now at least – is not in danger.  Failure to smile – or laugh along with jokes – is quickly met with mild criticism, workplace censure or even insult.

Perhaps we all do it, in some way, defending our place, wherever that is, in the hierarchy.  When did blonde jokes stop being funny to me (a brown-haired person)?  Belatedly, and only when I realised that if I were blonde, I might not find them funny.  And if anyone had a right to tell them, that would be the blonde people.

The thing is, their higher you are in the hierarchy, the greater your responsibility to lift others up, not push them down.

Having privilege doesn’t mean you get to own or define humour. Laughter is a matter of consent, just as surely as sex is.  It is given to you willingly and sincerely, or else it has no value at all.  You cetainly cannot command it.

As Georgia O’Keefe said – we can decide to accept as true our own thinking. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve figured out that there was never anything wrong with my sense of humour.  Just sometimes, stuff’s not funny.



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