This post is going to hit you over the head. It’s personal and genuine. Weirdly enough, it’s about humor. If you read it to the end, the turn it takes will probably bother you, much like a Twilight Zone episode using electric shocks as language.
More than ever, I find myself in awe with people who appoint themselves as gatekeepers for humor and appropriateness. Personally, I can’t get my foot out of my mouth long enough to start gatekeeping other people’s humor.
Eventually, everyone’s sense of humor will land them in hot water with friends, in-laws, pastors, politicians, the Girl Scouts, and strangers. You can’t control another person’s reaction. My sense of humor is darker than average. It’s a claim I make from truth rather than an idle part of my story. If someone is not addressing me or a person specifically, I interpret it differently than I do other humor.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a new rule named “Hanlon’s Disposable Razor.” It preaches that we all stop assuming we know the intent of humor, especially if from someone who generally isn’t guilty of malicious behavior – and no actual harm results from it. The term ‘actual harm’ is subject to context, as is every single human experience, so don’t start quibbling over semantics or issues unaddressed by this post.
Since then, my social media filled with examples of people failing to realize that they can’t read the minds or hearts of others. “Well, that’s not funny!” seems to be taken as a blanket justification for anger in response to something that someone finds a bit uncomfortable. Adam Sandler’s last ten movies weren’t funny, either, but plenty of people disagree. “You can’t joke about some things,” is another typical gatekeeping statement. It’s rare that the person making such a statement has a smile on his or her face when they say it. Or matching socks, now that I think about it.
I’m not advocating that we run willy-nilly over people’s feelings under the guise of humor. Quite the opposite. Likewise, 7-8 billion people surround you, all with differing takes on life. It’s impossible to avoid all possible topics of contention. Elevating all humor to the level of spiteful is a fool’s errand. As you know, nincompoops are always employed.
Mother’s Day, April Fools’ Day pranks, Avengers spoilers (as if the movie wasn’t terrible enough), euthanasia, illness, falling and breaking one’s arm: all of these can be funny in the right context. They are not amusing to the people currently embroiled in any pain associated with the topics, however. Humor is universally told from the point of view of an imaginary third person. We don’t laugh or joke with the intent of hurting anyone. Not if we’re reasonable, I mean. If we accidentally say or do something without realizing that it’s causing specific pain, it’s not a reason to lash out in righteous anger. Mistakes are going to happen. Compounding the innocent error with anger serves no one.
On two occasions since I posted my new rule, people attacked me for not showing the required gravitas to an issue or for the sin of laughing at a horrible post even as I cringed that someone had posted it. I did what any reasonable person would do: I printed a picture of that person’s face, laminated it, and taped it to a urinal at the bus station. (That last comment was humorous. FYI.)
Now, I’m going to get personal and provide an example that will erase any doubt that all of us sometimes pull back from humor that we find to be misplaced. The difference is that I avoid objections to ‘third person’ humor, generalized humor, or humor that references shared experiences. I have to be personal because it’s not only the only way I know how to write but because it strikes directly to the point I’m making.
The humor we allow ourselves and in others is a direct measure of our depth and appreciation for our error-prone lives.
It is not the content per se that brings problems; instead, it is the motivation of the person creating the humor. Most people don’t require much study. We’re stupid more than we are malignant.
There’s a popular meme of a white cat near a woman lying dead on the floor. It’s comprised of three panels, each with the cat approaching the deceased woman, meowing for attention at her side, and finally, sitting on her hip. “Your cat’s reaction to finding you dead on the floor,” or something similar usually serves as title or footnote to the pictures.
There’s a problem with the meme if you look at it from the vantage point of unintended humor. What many people don’t know is that cats tend to stay near the body of their deceased owner, exactly as pictured in the meme. Many people have their own stories relating to this tendency.
As thick-skinned as I am, if you don’t know this about me, I was in the exact situation pictured. My wife died late one Sunday night, the night before Labor Day, years ago. She lay in another room for hours before I woke up for work. Our white cat, Quito, stayed with her for most of the night. I found him with her the next morning when I went into the kitchen.
Now, imagine the pain that came from that situation.
It’s such a specific scenario that it seems unlikely that it would ever be the subject of one particular meme.
However, it is.
It’s not a general observation or bit of humor: it describes precisely one of the most significant traumas I’ve experienced in my entire life.
The meme or ones similar to it come up on my social media and the internet with a higher frequency than you’d imagine. It’s not ever going to be likely that anyone posts such content with the intent of trying to barb me.
I could, of course, lash out at people, as if they are responsible for my biography. I could casually mention my past, which would needlessly traumatize the person sharing the meme as a joke.
Alternatively, I could get a sharp jab and then move along.
In general, take the short jab and then move along. Not always, of course, because sometimes people do misbehave and troll their fellow human beings with ill intent.
But not most of the time. Move along.
If I can overlook a cat meme accidentally mocking this substantial trauma in my life, you can overlook jokes about pregnancy on April Fools’ Day, funny anecdotes about cancer, or insensitive humor scattered throughout your social media.
It is not an invalidation of your perspective or feelings for others to joke at the heart or fringes of subjects which overlap with your life’s discomforts, losses, or challenges unless it’s done with malice aforethought or callousness. I hope you don’t have many people in your life that would subject you to such behavior.
I’d rather live in a world in which I sometimes cringe at humor than to reside in one devoid of the richness of human creativity and whimsy.
I ask that you strive to assume that my humor isn’t personalized or weaponized to offend, which is a favor I’ll reciprocate. If there’s doubt, we owe it to one another to further give the benefit of goodwill unless the preponderance of evidence tells us that someone is speaking or acting out of spite.
When someone lashes out at me for a badly-timed or placed joke, I’ll repay their impatience and impoliteness with a reminder that I probably have the upper hand in this argument.
Do unto others – and I certainly do. I welcome all humor, from tripping down the stairs to jokes that would cause many to burst out in tears.
P.S. If you heard 1/50th the nonsense that goes through my head or that I say in private, your head would explode indignantly. The truth is, though, that we both know that you undoubtedly have at least a portion of my dark bent in your own head. That overlap is what gives us hope.
Also, I’m in the picture on this post three different times.