“Can’t a joke just be a joke?” [TW: rape, violence]

Last week, Gawker’s tech-focused gossip blog “Valleywag” posted an article comparing a dating startup to Korean “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during WWII. In response, I wrote Letter to Valleywag and Gawker Compares Startup to Korean Rape Victims, @SaySoju created a Storify called Gawker: Sexual Slavery is Funny, and @EC wrote Nitasha Tiku’s Apology.
Korean comfort woman
The following is an excerpt from the comments section to @EC’s post, featuring a comment from “Greg” and a response to his comment by myself:

Greg said, on March 6, 2014 at 7:46 pm

Can’t a joke just be a joke? So what if the joke is about some horrible event in the past? If something is funny, it’s funny, and even if you don’t personally find it funny, shouldn’t others be allowed to do so? Why must the joke-teller apologize?

Making a joke comparison like the one in the article doesn’t mean anyone telling or laughing at the joke in any way believes the joked-about event itself was funny or justified or good. It’s simply acknowledging that while we can’t un-do the past, it’s okay to laugh about it in the present. Caren, whose family comes from Korea, thought the joke was funny and inoffensive, as did another Korean friend of mine.

Kiriko said, on March 11, 2014 at 4:40 am

Greg, I agree with EC.

The reason I find jokes in this vein (containing rape; racism; other types of abuse) problematic enough to speak out against is because it creates fear in the subject of the jokes while perpetuating a cultural atmosphere that ranges from dismissive to silently tolerant to openly appreciative of rapey, racist, abusive culture. While I can imagine why a mere “joke” could appear innocuous to someone who has the privilege of not being subject to constant threat of rape, racism, and abuse due to their gender, race, political beliefs, etc, those of us who are perceived as “lesser” by dominant (ie male, white, elite, protected, etc) society do not have the same privilege of casually brushing these jokes aside.

In my experience, a carefree/dismissive/jovial/accepting attitude toward abuse (“What’s the big deal? Can’t a joke just be a joke?”) is frequently used either as an anesthetic or a stimulant: either the person considers themselves liberal/progressive and uses humor to numb themselves to the trauma that they are trying to pretend isn’t happening/that they are possibly complicit in, or they are conservative/openly racist/sexist/abusive and use humor to stimulate themselves to aggressive action. A good example is in American Hustle, when the leading men snort coke as preparation for violence. Another good example can be seen in the documentary The Act of Killing, which portrays the men who were responsible for slaughtering thousands of Communists in Indonesia in 1965. In one scene, [TW: rape] a man laughs about how much he enjoyed raping 14 year old girls during massacres. [end TW]. This is a prime demonstration of how humor can be used as a social/psychological lubricant en route to/in the aftermath of overt physical violence.

So while I agree that a joke is *relatively* harmless compared to the physical violence it evokes, please keep in mind that the people who protest the use of such humor tend to be those who either have experienced trauma or can empathize with the trauma of those victimized. “Jokes” are not harmless; they cause blood pressure to rise, they trigger painful, overwhelming memories and emotions, they create very real fear in the “subjects” of the joke as they are reminded of the broader sociopolitical context of violence in which they live. Even if the joke does not cause a negative emotional response in the listener, the very act of “downplaying” a horrifying historical event into an easily-digested (for some) “joke” is violent because it minimizes the suffering of those who were actually affected, effectively erasing their history from broader consciousness – paving the way for such horrors to be re-created again in the future.

Follow the story and join in the conversation on Twitter at #GawkingAtRapeCulture.

3 thoughts on ““Can’t a joke just be a joke?” [TW: rape, violence]

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