Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The "But" of Trump's "Joke"

All I have to say about Donald Trump's encouragement of stochastic terrorism by "Second Amendment people" is summarized in this tweetstorm by an English-professor -turned-appellate-lawyer named Jason Steed (@5thCircAppeals):

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor (in literature and film) and here's the thing about "just joking." You're never "just joking." Nobody is ever "just joking." Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

To say humor is a social act is to say it is always in a social context; we don't joke alone. Humor is a way we relate/interact with others. Which is to say, humor is a way we construct identity—who we are in relation to others. We use humor to form groups and to find our individual place in or out of those groups. In short, joking/humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate. In other words, we use humor to bring people into—or keep them out of—our social groups. This is what humor *does.* What it's for.

Consequently, how we use humor is tied up with ethics—who do we embrace, who do we shun, and how/why? And the assimilating/alienating function of humor works not only on people but also on *ideas.* This is important.

This is why, for example, racist "jokes" are bad. Not just because they serve to alienate certain people, but also because they serve to assimilate the idea of racism (the idea of alienating people based on their race).
And so we come to Trump.

A racist joke sends a message to the in-group that racism is acceptable. (If you don't find it acceptable, you're in the out-group.) The racist joke teller might say "just joking"—but this is a *defense* to the out-group. He doesn't have to say this to the in-group. This is why we're never "just joking." To the in-group, no defense of the joke is needed; the idea conveyed is accepted/acceptable.

So, when Trump jokes about assassination or armed revolt, he's asking the in-group to assimilate/accept that idea. That's what jokes do. And when he says "just joking," that's a defense offered to the out-group who was never meant to assimilate the idea in the first place.

Indeed, circling back to the start, the joke *itself* is a way to define in-group and out-group, through assimilation and alienation. If you're willing to accept "just joking" as defense, you're willing to enter the in-group where the idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

In other words, if "just joking" excuses racist jokes, then the in-group has accepted the idea of racism as part of being in-group. The same goes for "jokes" about armed revolt or assassinating Hillary Clinton. They cannot be accepted as "just joking."

Now, a big caveat: humor (like all language) is complicated and always a matter of interpretation. For example, we might have racist humor that is, in fact, designed to alienate (rather than assimilate) the idea of racism. (Think satire or parody.) But I think it's pretty clear Trump was not engaging in some complex satirical form of humor. He was "just joking." In the worst sense.

Bottom line: don't accept "just joking" as excuse for what Trump said today. The in-group for that joke should be tiny. Like his hands.
All of this relates directly to my discomfort with the parts of Cards Against Humanity that try to use race for humor, or the too-many-straight-guy-comedians who make rape jokes. But I couldn't it into words until Jason helped me out.

John Scalzi just posted his thoughts on Trump's "joke." "A person saying 'it’s just a joke' isn’t always an asshole. But assholes are almost always happy to say 'it’s just a joke' to make it look like the problem here is you."


Michael Leddy said...

What strikes me about Trump's comment: the number of people who would consider voting for him must be larger than the number of people who would think it appropriate to assassinate a president or judge. Any sane campaign would seek to expand its voting base, not reduce it. How can his comment yesterday do anything but reduce his numbers? Is this the Dunning-Kruger effect at work?

Gina said...

"Just joking" is the favorite response of the abuser to his victim's confrontation about his speech or behavior. "Just joking" is the favorite response of the bully, the sexual harasser/abuser, the stalker, the guy who thinks it will get him a free pass in our society.

Oddly, I think Trump is actually having a positive effect if people are discussing why his speech is unacceptable. Or am I totally wrong about that?