Update: A conversation with a friend has made me realize that there are ways to get the concept across right at that moment. She could have said “it would be funny if Lorena Bobbitt had 4 sisters, too.” That might have gotten the concept across, it might have turned uglier, who knows. The point is that getting across a complicated concept and the context behind it when the other person is focusing on emotions is a tricky business.
Update II: Something I have been worried about but that hasn’t been said to me yet is that someone might think I’m trying to gaslight those who would try to get across how rape jokes make them feel, and why that’s a serious thing. I’d like to emphasize that if you are going to do consciousness-raising (which is essentially what this post is about), then you have no choice but to start with where the person already is. Their mind and experiences are not yours and vice-versa, so first you’re going to have to work upward from points of common understanding. While we all have wished it at one time or another, there isn’t any reliable way to get around this limitation in human communication.
Ongoing edits for clarity
So people are up in arms over telling a rape joke at the expense of an audience member (it was not in either of the accounts him wishing for her to be raped). Either way, what he said was not good and he needed to apologize for it, but (and I am going to get lots of shit for this) I find it amazing and infuriating that people attack humor and laughter, when what it is is a sign that someone does not have clearly formed associations regarding the combination of concepts that made them laugh, or that they thought would be funny (not just the concept in isolation), and that makes it an opportunity for education. How you feel about the quality of the apology is up to you, but do you really know exactly, beyond the surface words “rape joke,” what you’re demanding he apologize for?
Shaming someone or attacking them for not having the same focus (or even the same point of focus) as you do quite rightly opens us up to charges of groupthink and acting like thought police. Now if you’re going to start ranting at me without seeing the evidence I have to present, go ahead – but I would like to also explain the reasoning and the psychological basis behind contention I just made. If what you want is effective activism, then knowing why people tell rape jokes and the understanding the opportunity and peril it presents is something you want to know. If what you want to do is vent your outrage at an easy target, then this knowledge will not help you and you should go back to your rage (in fact, my comments section is open).
If you’ve kept reading, then you’ve emotionally dealt with the fact that despite the conflicting accounts, the initial Tumblr post was a second-hand account (read the first line – it’s not first-hand as many people claims) it happened. How it happened is far more important when facing the core question it brings us: what do we do about it? Even more importantly, what exactly is the “it” we’re talking about, is it one or several things, and how does it relate to the culture we live in, that almost literally operates by fetishizing and then despoiling sexual objects?
First, let’s talk about humor. When I laugh at something I’m probably not approving or disapproving of it; I’m experiencing one of the odd sensations that can happen when my brain can’t find a balance point or a resolution between several conflicting concepts, perceptions, or images; in short, it’s one of the many ways we deal with cognitive dissonance. Think of Barney the dinosaur walking in to a proctologist’s office. That arched-eyebrow moment you probably had as you first let the concept sink in is the precursor to your brain deciding how to handle a situation you don’t have a stable or solid response to, and laughter is one of the ways (along with confusion, bemusement, embarassment, and awkwardness, among others) that you emotionally throw up your hands and effectively say “I don’t know how to deal with this yet.” The important thing to remember about laughter is that it is one of the few ways of leaving an internal conflict unresolved without creating an aversion to whatever brought about the reaction in the first place. Hold on to that thought, we’re going to come back to it later. It strongly affects how you can deal with rape jokes, and how doing so badly can blow up in your face.
There is a much darker kind of laughter that most of you will recognize, and that is from relief that someone or something that challenges the way you think the world is is defused or disarmed. It’s not dark for the person doing the laughing; in fact, it can be almost overwhelmimgly positive as the stress of the challenge is ameliorated. What’s dangerous about it is that it can become a quick, acceptable solution for a society (do the jokes about “Don’t Tase me, bro” ring a bell?) precisely because laughter is not an aversion reaction (it’s actually fun), and it depends strongly on the person not having a solid concept of what they’re laughing about. In other cases, such as in a comedy club, it can be a quick way for the comedian to get the show back on track, but still is not fun for the target.
Speaking of comedians, let’s talk about that for a second. When you’re on stage, you’re not thinking your way through each and every sentence. You’re usually working a routine, and dealing with the unexpected by firing back with the first cognitive-dissonance-producing-thing that comes to mind. This is not a process that reveals what the comedian is necessarily thinking about (unless it’s a line they regularly use); it’s a way of showing what they haven’t internally reconciled themselves, and are hoping that the audience hasn’t either. In short, it’s a very useful way to tell how both the person on the stage and everyone in the audience handles that dissonance.
This can be applied to some really horrible concepts. Seriously, ask someone who has ever been hit by a Taser (even a police officer) how funny it is. They may not think it’s torture (even though that’s precisely what it is: extreme pain compliance), but they probably just won’t find anything funny about it. Familiarity leaches away our ability to find humor in something, until we catch sight of it in a context we’ve never seen it in before. When that happens, we have the capability to be amused (or offended) by it again. The point is, that it relies on you not having a strong preconception about it in order to work. If you do have a set of strong associations with that concept, then there will be no cognitive dissonance and your reaction will definitely not be laughter.
So what’s the point? The point is to overcome the “HULK SMASH” association YOU have with hearing rape jokes (if you can), and realize that at a later time, when the relief of the humor isn’t at the front of everyone’s mind, then take the opportunity to carefully educate them. If you can’t control the reaction, and if you just don’t want to be there any more, then get out. Do what you have to do to protect yourself. But (assuming we’re not talking about an actual stone-throwing crowd here) if you do attack them, you are striking at them when they are most emotionally open (in the case of the audience) or most focused on just getting through the next hour without being booed off the stage (in the case of the comedian), and your message will be lost. They literally are not in a position where their frame of reference can encompass what you are trying to say.
This isn’t a matter of being gentle to people who are insensitive about rape, it’s a matter of realizing that someone experiencing cognitive dissonance, even to the point where they think rape can be humorous with the right combination of concepts, is at a tipping point. If you approach them correctly and respectfully, you can convince them of how horrible it is. If you attack them, all you will convince them of is that you feel you deserve to control how they feel – and that goes over with a shockingly low percentage of the population (despite the number of people who still think that torture is acceptable in certain scenarios).
Yes, I’m giving Tosh credit for being a human being who isn’t a horrible rapist who is completely comfortable with the concept. Why? Because sometimes he laughs at his own jokes, and that means he hasn’t got a strong concept of rape in his own mind either.