Everybody talks: It’s never ‘just a joke’

Sian Avery 12 February 2015

If you're the type of person who pays more attention to the laughs that come after a rape joke, or the defending of the 'right to offend', rather than its content (which you trivialise, simultaneously cementing your newfound reputation of Person Nobody Wants To Hear Speak Ever), then guess what? Your humour is as dead as any good feeling anyone ever had toward you.

Here's the thing: offence isn't something you can choose to pay attention to. For oppressed minorities, for women who face the threat of sexual harassment in day-to-day life, for the invisible presence of sexual violence, racism, homophobia, and misogyny, a 'joke' is never simply a joke, and it takes a pretty privileged person to defend the 'right to offend', as opposed to the formulation of safe spaces and personal sanctity. When a 'joke' threatens your personhood and leaves you angrily formulating words in your mouth, well, we think you might want to re-evaluate your sense of humour.

Coming to Cambridge, home of the (supposed) intellectual and a hub of free speech, I tried to prepare for these instances. I came armed with a pencil case, an assortment of cereal boxes, and a shield of words that would, I hoped, make people think twice about what they said – to re-assess their privileged place when subjecting a minority or religion or gender to a punch-line.

Freedom of speech is a worthy cause, but the things we say do not exist in a vacuum. Our interactions are not the movements of some childish playground game; these are not privilege-less places where a laugh is simply a laugh. Instead, the creation of the joke – the laugh itself – is an affirmation, informed by disparate backgrounds and/or the absence of social consciousness and respect. It's dangerous. Belittling. You might choose to laugh at the offensive 'joke' you believe is worth the 'right to offend'; however, I cannot choose to ignore it because it threatens the safety of so many and just isn't worth your misguided attempt at humour.

See, for some of us, 'not being able to take a joke' means standing aside and staying silent, filling myself up with regret over being complicit in my own dehumanisation and the trivialisation of sexual violence, blatant misogyny, racism: the big issues… Or I can ask you to explain why you thought that joke was funny.

(Do  explain that prejudice. Or punch-line. It seems the two merge these days.)

You might find it a little annoying that I called you out when you were having such a wonderful time using puns to threaten peoples' personhood, but nothing is more annoying than the fact that you thought it was okay to go there in the first place. Trust me.