Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Humor and Civility

In a previous post on our recurring topic of civility at Family Scholars Blog, I wrote:
"One of the biggest barriers to civil dialogue is, I believe, the failure to understand those with whom we disagree." 
I further cited theologian Karen Armstrong, who said:

“Try to put yourself in the position of the ‘other side’ ~ as the compassionate ethos demands ~ and ask yourself  ‘How much do I really know about their history of pain, achievement, oppression, disappointment, fear, idealism, and aspiration ~ all of which, on both sides, have contributed to this violence?’” 
As a preliminary matter, I would define a "mixed-company conversation" as, say, one between feminist women versus men who are not informed about feminism or gender studies. Or, for instance, heterosexual opponents of equality versus non-heterosexual people. I don't want to get too hung up on definitions here, but my basic gist is that a "mixed-company" conversation is one in which the parties involved often have different lived experiences, due to the fact that many people in society treat them differently based on their identities as, and prevailing stereotypes about, men, women, heterosexuals, and/or non-heterosexuals.

Within conversations where the goal is for civil dialogue to occur, I think we especially need to be mindful of attempts to use humor and facetiousness. Although it can be tempting to use humor to diffuse tensions, if it is not done with an awareness of the experiences of "the other side" it can come off as hostile. It can, and often does, actually escalate tensions with the very people one purports to want to engage in a civil manner.

I have taken issue here before with the "facetious," half-joking use of aggressive, over-the-top rhetoric to describe other people's political actions. And, most recently, I've also taken issue with a little snippet in one of Matthew's recent posts on "benevolent sexism." In order to facilitate the discussion, he linked to the controversial Charles Murray, saying:
"Charles Murray has some thoughts on a new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly that I don’t imagine are going to be popular in some circles.

I’m just going to leave this here and run in the other direction…"
While all of the comments pertaining to Matthew's joke have been deleted by the admin here (not at my request*), I had initially asked Matthew why he wrote that "run in the other direction" bit. My point wasn't to make a big deal about it. I thought he was just trying to make a joke and likely didn't even know that that's a problematic pattern of behavior men often engage in when they try to talk about gender issues with women and feminists.

In my decades of experience as a feminist, I've found that it's pretty common for men in "mixed-company" with female feminists to precede their statements on gender with something along the lines of, "You're going to clobber me for saying this, but," or "I'm going to get killed here, but," or, the Internet version: which is for men to make some, what they deem "politically incorrect," argument and then follow it with a "*ducks*" as though they're dodging a punch that a woman is throwing at them in response.

Given that Matthew noted that the study he was citing wasn't "going to be popular in some circles" and that he's a man venturing into talking about sexism against women, I interpreted his "I'm just going to leave this here and run in the other direction" as a similar precursor to his article.

Now, I don't expect everyone to agree with me on the point that his "joke" wasn't funny. I don't expect everyone to agree with me that the precursor was, no matter how it was intended, rude. And, I don't even expect all women or all feminists to agree with me here.

On the civility front, though, I would find it reasonable for conversation participants to at least try to understand my argument and where I'm coming from, rather than reflexively dismissing or trivializing it. I would also expect people to acknowledge that humor is a subjective experience, and that what's funny to some people isn't funny to all people, and that people might have legitimate reasons for not thinking that something is funny.

When one, for instance, understands that a common stereotype of feminists is that we're hysterical, oversensitive man-haters who can't take a joke, one might better understand why feminists who show up to engage in civil dialogue might not chuckle at a man's "joke" that uh-oh, he better run away after he posts a link, a statement that "half-jokingly" implies that he might be physically or verbally assaulted at some point within the conversation. Simply put, the joke does not assume good faith on the part of other participants that they'll be able to react non-aggressively.
Indeed, in one of the comments that the admin deleted, a different man suggested that Matthew felt "hurt" by my argument and, simultaneously, that other people "felt" they had to "walk on eggshells around" me because I point stuff like this out. But, well, it does become apparent though, especially with respect to humor, part of civility is accepting that maybe all participants in mixed-company conversation need to do a little eggshell-walking-on

I  know some folks take a certain pride in being "un-PC," but in my experience such people are oftentimes quite prickly themselves when their own sensitivities are on the line in some way. For instance, in this forum, I recognize that cursing isn't "PC" and is, in fact, banned, so I respect that rule because to not respect it would impede the goal of having civil conversation here. And, the fact that Matthew included his joke at all in his piece certainly made me wonder, wow, but can I actually disagree with him without him feeling super threatened? How delicately do I have to put any sort of disagreement for him to not feel abused at the hands of Angry Feminists?

I would further suggest that responses to my argument, an argument in which I did not once utter the word "sexist" or say that I thought Matthew was being intentionally rude, that I would see as evidence of authentic openness to engage would be something along the lines of, "Fannie, I'm new to this and am not sure I understand what your complaint is, can you explain it further?"

Less thoughtful responses to jokes that don't go over super well would include exasperated statements along the lines of, "Oh good grief! I was being facetious," other people jumping in to assume the role of "neutral third party" who think that just because they don't see anything offensive then nothing offensive exists, and comments like, "Keep the jokes comin'! Most people like jokes!"

Because, well, most people do like jokes. I certainly do. In fact, I used to write for a popular lesbian humor website, writing all sorts of self-deprecating jokes about queer women for queer women and we'd all laugh at ourselves.

However, by the end of this particular conversation, a conversation in mixed-company about a serious topic, we weren't all laughing together. Which I think speaks to the fact that if a joke in such a context doesn't go over super well, maybe the joke-teller could think about why that is and ask some clarifying questions.

Sure, I get that it's everyone's right to say whatever they want to say and to laugh at whatever they want to laugh at. And if that's folks' prerogative to do that in mixed-company conversations, okay. But then I would argue that we should also not pretend that such approaches constitute civility or attempts at understanding.

I'll end by noting that if men can't handle the little things in a civil manner, like a woman suggesting that it's problematic for a man to "joke" that he better run away from the conversation participants after he posts a controversial article, do they really expect women to trust that they're capable of participating in the bigger conversations- about rape, abortion, and autonomy- in a civil manner?

See also: Feminism 101: Helpful Hints For Dudes, Part 7
Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog

(*I'm not challenging the comment deletions, I'm just letting people know that the referenced conversation was deleted and that I wasn't the person who deleted it.)

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