Tasteless jokes are a part of middle school that must be just about as old as the institution itself. We’ve all certainly heard them, and in our less-than-proud moments, we’ve all certainly laughed at them, and even told them. Indeed, these jokes are so prevalent that they have managed to transcend middle school and survive, somehow, in circles that should most certainly be too mature for them: colleges, graduate schools, workplaces. One of the reasons that they survive so capably outside of their natural habitat is undoubtedly that those who are hurt and angered by them so often hear “it’s just a joke” as response. It’s a defense that is leveled at the offended all the time, this argument that we meant nothing by our words.
Here’s the thing though: play is practice. At least, that’s one of the most widely accepted theories of why humans do play, that we are are practicing in childhood the skills we will use fully in adulthood. These jokes, these forms of mental play, whether we know it or not, are forms of mental practice for the behaviors we will practice, the mindset that will seep into us, in our adulthood. That these jokes can hurt so much, that they can cause an anguish just as real as the other forms of prejudice inflicted upon the oppressed, is a sign of this.
And the idea that people shouldn’t get offended by jokes because they’re intended to amuse? That’s just the age-old excuse, recycled. It’s just another version of “I’m not racist (sexist/homophic/transphobic/etc), though!” the pretense that we can only be racist, that the things we do can only be deeply offensive or hurtful, if we are consciously and passionately devoted to the discrimination and violence those jokes. It’s just another way that the privileged deflect to avoid the inevitable feeling of discomfort that comes from knowing the things you say have hurt another person. I should know, because it’s something I’ve done myself. To banish my discomfort I’ve pretended that the problem is not in me for making a tasteless joke, but in someone else for being hurt by it. It’s a selfish choice, one that we cannot make, one that matters so much more than we might think in the moment that we make it.
When we pretend that tasteless, harmful jokes aren’t as harmful and damaging as they are, when we blame those who are offended by them for their offense instead of ourselves for causing it, we heap abuse on top of more abuse. We tell them that not only are they so insignificant that we can make often-disturbing jokes about them and call it humor, they are also deficient somehow for feeling pain at this. We are telling them that they are not only less than us, but weak for being upset by this. When we pretend that jokes are just jokes we commit the heinous act of telling those that are hurt by them that they have no right to the feelings we do. We forget that when it comes to how we treat others, jokes and lies are similar in this: the ones we choose to tell matter so much more than how well we tell them.