A little while ago I got into a silly fight with someone who I used to (before this fight) think was a pretty decent person. Ze had posted a comic that poked fun at people who misrepresent themselves on social media. Because it was the internet, a lot of the panels made fun of fat people. I pointed out that while the overall premise of the joke was funny, it could have made the same point equally as effectively without mocking people for their body size/shape. After all, surely they got enough of that just being out in public?
The discussion quickly devolved (with the help of one of her friends) into accusations of me grandstanding for attention because I was a blogger – a charge that even if it were true would be completely orthogonal to whether or not I was right. One of the recurring themes in the conversation – indeed, in any conversation in which a person is asked to consider the harm their comments make – is that I should somehow forgive the comic because it’s “just a joke”, as though the fact that someone finds it funny somehow makes it not harmful. As though nobody has ever been hurt by being the butt of a cruel joke before.
The very premise itself seems silly, but it’s a depressingly common refrain. And it seems there is no level of depravity in which it will not be pressed into service:
A 65-year-old native man, Adam Yellowhead, was found dead – murdered – in an area frequented by people who drink mouthwash to become drunk. The lead investigator for the Thunder Bay Police Service wrote a fake press release about arresting a suspected killer, intended only for the eyes of his fellow police officers. “Fresh breath killer captured!!!” But then the investigator mistakenly sent out the fake release. Oops.
Police are known for their gallows humour. But then – how did this police force respond to the accidental publication? With what seems to have been apro forma internal inquiry. The officer in question acknowledged he wrote the release. He didn’t mean anything by it. It wasn’t meant as a racial thing. The police chief and then the mayor, who sits on the civilian board overseeing the force, accepted the officer’s word. Case closed. No apology necessary.
And now the police are angry about a human rights complaint about it all from three first nations, represented by the Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer. The police say the natives have broken faith with them. Now that’s funny!
It should not go unnoticed that this story fits a larger trend of anti-aboriginal racism in the Thunder Bay Area, preceding as it does another grotesque crime. It should also not go unnoticed that the assault and rape case quickly went from five investigating officers to a single detective. It should certainly not go unnoticed that these events are tragically not exceptional when it comes to the way in which aboriginal people are treated in Canada, these cases often only coming to light as the result of extraordinary political pressure by activists.
One would imagine, if one were an empathetic and non-sociopathic person, that a man drinking himself to death due to alcoholism would be a sad story. One that would cause us to stop and think what changes we could make to our police services, our mental health services, our addictions and housing services, to ensure that people get the treatment they need for alcoholism. One might think of the loss and sorrow experienced by the community, by the man’s family, by Thunder Bay as a whole, and respond with either gravity or at least an appropriate silence.
But of course, in order to imagine those things, one would have to be functioning in a world in which discrimination against aboriginal people is not normalized, and where victim blaming of colonized and discriminated people does not occur. One would have to envision a world in which the larger Canadian society does not see aboriginal people as objects to be either pitied, dismissed, or assimilated (depending on your political beliefs), but rather as people with agency and value. One would further have to envision a world in which police are not undereducated swaggering cowboys steeped in an insular environment of retrograde hypermasculinity and all the joys that come with that.
I once remarked to Dan Fincke that all jokes are inside jokes. Basically, unless you’re laughing with someone, it isn’t a joke. When you are taking someone’s characteristics – particularly characteristics that a) are beyond their practical control, and b) often put them in a position of being discriminated against – and using those characteristics to set up a punchline, your comments aren’t “just a joke”. You might think of them as a joke, and usually even people who are on the hurtful end of the comment recognize that it was intended to make people laugh (at them), but just a joke? No. It’s not just that.
One thing I hope I am well-known for (at least by people who know me) is my extreme intolerance for any excuses based on “intent”. Kinsey Hope at Genderbitch wrote what I think is the seminal piece on the value of intent – namely that it has no value in excusing the harm caused by unthinking or uncaring behaviours. The reason I feel absolutely no reason for hesitation or moderation in ignoring ‘intent’ as a moderating factor is precisely because of stories like the above. What ‘intent’ could possibly excuse the monstrous indifference and foul racism that created that joke? Do aboriginal people living around Thunder Bay think that the indifference (at best) or outright discrimination (at worse) they face at the hands of the TBPD is funny? Do you think this oh-so-hilarious joke makes them more likely to believe that the TBPD is going to take their problems seriously?
So the next time you find a joke of yours on the receiving end of some unwelcome attention, instead of insisting that everybody recognize that you think it’s funny, maybe you should look around and see who’s laughing.
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