Saturday, March 12, 2011

The One About Insensitivity

If you were in southern Wisconsin in the early 1990s, chances are if you stopped a random man, woman, or child and asked them if they had heard a "Dahmer joke," they would have to answer in the affirmative. Nobody was tweeting them and they were certainly not being broadcast by the mainstream media (which was pretty much the only media that existed in those days), but they spread virally the old-fashioned way. For some reason, there was a huge demand for one-liners about a cannibalistic serial killer who used to work in a chocolate factory. Of course, the phenomenon of the inappropriate or insensitive joke was/is not limited to Wisconsin. Challenger jokes somehow became a national meme before people talked about memes. O.J. jokes were big in the mid-90s. And I would guess that there might have been a few Hiroshima jokes uttered more than 60 years ago.

The Freudian explanation for this phenomenon (that we work out repressed feelings in humor) seems almost too easy to assign as a cause. I don't think that all that many Wisconsinites were truly affected by Dahmer's deviance, to the point where they had unconscious fears that they had bubble up as jokes. More likely people were transgressing just for the sake of transgressing, violating a taboo just for the illicit thrill that is derived from flaunting the folkways of society.

But there would be no thrill if there were no taboo, so it is important to the joke teller or the "joke hearer" that there remains some cultural standard for them to rebel against. So in order for there to be insensitive jokes, there needs to be a standard for sensitivity, and we need to be reminded that the standard exists. And the Internet has enabled that negotiation to be openly displayed time and time again. It is fascinating to see this pageant play out repeatedly on social media, on message boards, and on comments sections. The sports gossip website Deadspin (part of a larger network of gossip blogs called "Gawker Media") is a particularly interesting nexus. The site, famous for breaking the story of Rex Ryan's foot fetish and Brett Favre's text messaging scandal, has a cadre of designated-elite commentators who duel with each other to post the most clever and biting reactions to news stories, and they often resort to humor which many would find offensive. At the same time, the site often promotes their own kind of morality, taking a kind of Holden Caufield aggressiveness toward "phonies," railing against meathead fratboy humor, defending historically underprivileged populations, and targeting for criticism other media outlets that exhibit insensitivity.

Recent examples among the latter: An article highlighting (and condemning) a Philadelphia newspaper column which joked about the potential to throw batteries at a baseball player and an article mocking another sports website for using the Japan earthquake as a basis to discuss natural disasters that had impacted sports events in the past. Deadspin also once declared a newspaper column "the single worst piece of sports journalism ever committed to the page." And as histrionic as this statement is, it is also quite possibly true: the column in question uses a news story about a woman who was kidnapped at age eleven and forced to spend 18 years in captivity as a basis to discuss how the sports world had changed in those years.

Of course, the difference between the insensitivity demonstrated in those instances and the insensitivity demonstrated by Dahmer or Challenger joke tellers is that the latter are aware of their transgression, while the former are oblivious. And for reasons delineated above, this is why the second group is a threat to the first. Those who knowingly violate standards don't want to see them lowered.


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