The Tyranny of Comedy

There is nothing worse, people often seem to believe, than ruining someone’s joke. The pervasive attitude is that if other people find something funny, everyone is expected to go along with it, regardless of the content—and if anyone doesn’t, that person will be treated as if they have wronged the others.

You know what this suddenly reminds me of? It’s going to seem random, but bear with me. When my sisters and I were teenagers, we were often subjected to lectures on the “morality” of songs we were listening to. I have a particular memory of my dad turning off the radio after “Goodbye Earl,” by the Dixie Chicks, because he needed to be sure we understood that murder was wrong no matter what.

At the time, I found it humiliating that he thought we needed to be told such a thing. Now, I’m annoyed at such a simplistic view of morality. Because in that song, a woman is being beaten nearly to death by her husband, and neither divorce nor a restraining order protects her from him. So she went the legal route, she went the law enforcement route, and neither worked. But according to my dad twenty years ago, this woman is morally obligated to continue being beaten. I’m not going to make a blanket statement that in such situations, murder is okay—but I am going to require that we discuss it, because it very well might be. As a society we’ve already fully accepted that killing is okay under certain circumstances. Generally our concept of self defense assumes that the attack is currently-ongoing, but what if you (1) cannot physically defend yourself from the person attacking you, and (2) know that the next attack is coming?

This is where I think my dad’s kind of morality is based on faulty assumptions. There seems to be an underlying belief that might deserves to win—that because she’s not capable of fighting him “man to man,” in which the classic self-defense defense would work, she simply has to accept being at his mercy. She doesn’t decide to kill him for any reason other than that it’s the only way to stop him killing her when he feels like it. And if your system of morality can’t account for a situation like that, then the system doesn’t work.

But back to comedy. The connection to my “Goodbye Earl” story is that comedy is another social institution in which we expect people to sacrifice themselves. If you don’t go along with being the butt of a joke, people will blame you for making the situation uncomfortable, not the person who made a joke at your expense. Obviously the murder scenario is a more dramatic one, and I’m not saying that the severity of the injustice is comparable; just that there’s a shared underlying principle. In the “Goodbye Earl” scenario, we expect a woman to sacrifice herself to uphold the system that failed her. With comedy, we expect people to sacrifice their own feelings to avoid disrupting the group’s entertainment.

I’ve been on dating apps recently and one thing I see a lot is the phrase, “you have to be able to laugh at yourself.” I have to admit, this usually makes me swipe left. Because, while my social anxiety does in fact make it torturous to laugh at myself in front of other people, I mostly worry that that person expects me to be fine with being laughed at. And that’s not really something I’m looking for. I’m usually the person who will “ruin” someone’s joke, because I don’t appreciate humor at another person’s expense. And I like to think that this might be something that’s changing, as we (agonizingly) move toward a society that stops blaming the victim.

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