Social Netwrongning, Male Feminists and the Dangers of ‘-ist’ Humor

This month’s first guest post is by Erik Nook. Erik was born in the tiny town of Schaller, Iowa, but was raised by adventuresome parents in Durban, South Africa and Perth, Western Australia. Currently studying psychology and philosophy at Columbia University, where he also coordinates Columbia Stressbusters and volunteers for Men’s Peer Education, Erik hopes to eventually practice as a clinical psychologist.

Things I’ve seen on Facebook. (These were posted by a man, fyi):

“Man 1: On a scale from 1 to 10 how much am I annoying you right now?
Man 2: You’re as annoying as a girlfriend right now.”

“Any man can be really romantic and appreciative of his woman one day out of the year, but I think a real man can do it zero days out of the year haha.”

“A new reality show is coming soon. Its 18 women living in a house, dressed appropriately, keeping their mouths shut. Its called The Way Things Should Be.”

“You shouldn’t have just went to [college 1]. It seems like the girls here at [college 2] just keep getting hotter, younger, dumber, and sluttier. It’s awesome, haha.”

That was verbatim. Where to begin?

Let’s start with the obvious. These “jokes” are intolerably sexist. They’re too severe to just be called microaggressions, but the term still fits because they cause tangible harm through seemingly “innocuous” actions that actually perpetuate power imbalances, male chauvinism and female subordination/sexualization. But regardless they’re intentions, their content lays waste to basic dignities women deserve as human beings, namely freedom from presumption and freedom of independent action.

Less verbosely, they’re despicable, and I’m appalled that they were shared in such a public space. (With remarkably minimal backlash, at that.)

But it goes deeper than that. Consider the impact of reading this as a man. Not only am I repulsed by the fact that some of these men seem trapped in the stone age, I also shudder at the posts’ implicit definition of a “real man” as a heterosexual, sex crazed, power hungry, self-obsessed and unintelligent narcissist. It’s important for me to be very clear that I am not that kind of man, and that I know many other men who are nothing like that, either. This characterization of “real men” upsets me for both the hetero-normative statements and because it eclipses the fact that there are men who are genuinely interested in advancing (and finally realizing) the global equality of women by challenging these stereotypes. There are men who work within themselves and the world around them to end the microaggressions, to rebuild systems and to reform behaviors that ultimately help to destroy patriarchy, and I’m honored to know such men. When I think of “real men,” I think of them.

The struggle is getting men like this to be the norm. But let me tell you, we’re doing the best we can. Whether it’s one conversation, one program or one blog post at a time, we’re doing the best we can.

So now that we know my position on male feminists and how we can be allies in ending gender-based power imbalances, let’s return to the topic at hand. At its core, this post is about humor. It’s about the way humor functions and the responsibility we have to be aware of the implications of our language, even when used in jest. On the flip side of this perspective, one could read this blog and easily say I’m overreacting. To use the very words of the man who published these posts: “Jeez, they’re just jokes. Jokes aren’t to be taken seriously.” So, what’s the big deal?  It’s not like he’s actually hurting anyone. Is nowhere safe nowadays? Will there always be people getting their knickers in a bunch when someone just for kicks and giggles posts a joke about women on their own social media page?

Ummmm… yes!  And that person just might be me.  **readjusts knickers**

While facilitating Columbia’s mandatory diversity workshop Under1Roof earlier this year, I had students raise this exact question.  Communally, they wondered: “what’s so wrong with ‘–ist’ humor?” (By ‘-ist humor’ I mean jokes that are in some way racist, classist, sexist, ageist, etc – jokes that use stereotyped markers of a group to make fun of them.) Unfortunately, they left the classroom with the answer: “Well there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you say them among people you trust, don’t overtly cause harm to the people you’re mocking and/or are a member of the group you’re ostracizing.” My efforts to dissuade this line of thought were sadly futile.

But let’s think about it for a second. When we laugh at a joke that reinforces a group’s negative stereotypes, we on some level assent to these stereotypes; the reinforcement perpetuates them. If we didn’t believe them at all, we’d react in puzzlement. Laughing validates the joker’s and the audience’s now explicit beliefs of imbalance and to them, justifies their ridicule of a population. Saying an ‘-ist’ joke even about the group you identify with doesn’t abnegate this negative consequence – instead, it’s an even stronger sign to ourselves and others that it’s OK to feel that one group is better than another; it’s a symptom of internalized submission.

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Harm from ‘–ist’ humor is real. Whether it’s because a member of the targeted group “accidentally” overhears the joke and experiences unjust shame or if it’s because *people are not robots* and the quiet validation of a stereotype through a joke will inevitably bleed into other forms of prejudice and oppression, humor that perpetuates the marginalization of identities – regardless of what they are – should not be tolerated. If we were fundamentally devoted to freeing people from the indignities of marginalization and prejudice, we’d react to these jokes in anger, not in passive complicity or awkward complacency. Bystander intervention, people.

I hope this view isn’t too extreme or academic. The foundation of my post is calling for a little bit of self inspection and critical thinking. I’m asking you to take seriously your own desire for equality, freedom and respect and see how this desire implies that you be fastidious about managing your thoughts and actions. Just like the jokes at the beginning of the post, as harmless as they may seem when first put, jokes can hurt, enslave and oppress. Humor is great. Let’s admit it, it’s where it’s at. You’re tired, upset, sad, whatever – let’s laugh about it! Just be careful that your laughter isn’t based on something that’s somehow offensive and detracts from our overall goal of social justice.

Happily, the new insurgence of programs all over the country (including Men Can Stop Rape, Men’s Peer Education and 1 in 4) demonstrates that people are finally realizing that anyone can be a feminist, that feminism benefits everyone, and that in order for real progress to be made, everyone needs to be on the same page. We all have to have a similar vision of what equality and inequality look like for us to make that vision real.

Happy microprogressions, everyone.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Social Netwrongning, Male Feminists and the Dangers of ‘-ist’ Humor

  1. jessica

    ERIK I LOVE YOUUUUU

  2. Very nice post. Appreciate your point of view. As it happens, there’s been a lot of discussion lately (at least among the people I follow on Twitter) about the use of ‘gallows’ humor by medical professionals when referring to patients. See http://bit.ly/pxoe0E (Hastings Bioethics Forum, need to register (for free) to read).

    And please let Larkin know I’ve included a plug for this blog – which I very much enjoy – in a recent post. See http://bit.ly/o3B3MW

  3. This is definitely not about humor, but it’s somewhat related to the issues you raise. Have you been following the story about male undergrads at Yale using the freedom of speech defense to make ugly, sexist remarks in public? (‘What can we say?’ at http://bit.ly/qDUcHe) The online version of the story does not include the photo in the print edition: fraternity brothers standing in front of the Yale Women’s Center holding a sign that reads “We Love Yale Sluts.” The photo was posted online in 2008. The most recent incident, involving a different fraternity, included the chanting of “hideous remarks making light of rape, indeed condoning it.” There’s a history of this issue at Yale that includes a male sophomore who distributed a parody of Gay & Lesbian Awareness Day in 1986 and was ultimately exonerated on the grounds of freedom of speech.

    On the subject of speech and feminism in particular, I recommend a chapter in the recent book “The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation” (http://amzn.to/piuJLe). The chapter is by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and it’s called “Objectification and Internet Misogyny.” She has a theory about why (some, only some) men do this.

  4. Erik's Biggest Fan

    Erik, this is amazing. And perfect.

  5. Thanks very much for the incredibly thoughtful replies! Your extrapolations are all very interesting.

    I was not aware of the discourse on gallows humor. I’ll definitely keep my eye out for more on this topic. As for the horrendous acts at Yale… I was certainly aware of some but not all of the incidents you mention. Thanks so much for spreading the news.

    All this once again reminds me that I just can’t understand the fact that we often allow (and sometimes justify or even defend) speech that is damaging to the well being of others. Though I acknowledge that this is a personal ethical standard (meaning that I have no right to impose it on others) and that laws against obscene forms of hate speech do exist, there is still such a need for a greater push back against speech that causes harm. Besides being an issue of psychology, health and human rights, the problem is also a logical one. Somehow we will readily accept that individuals don’t have the freedom to kill, but we are unwilling to limit our speech, even when what we utter can cause tangible and sometimes lethal harm.

    Ah… Now I’m wondering how many Tyler Clementis there are whose deaths went unjustified because those that caused their suicides only *said* offensive things, rather than posting them online, an action that is somehow understood as being of an entirely different type.

    All I can hope is that individuals, institutions, governments and academics (including Nussbaum) continue to spread consciousness of the power of language and the responsibility we have to wield it for good. Thanks again for doing just this, and I wish you all the best in your work. It looks like you’re doing great things.

  6. amcunningham

    Thank you Erik for a great post. Here is a link to some of the recent discussion that Jan is referring to
    http://laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/medical-black-humor-that-is-neither-funny-nor-appropriate/

    AM

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