There was a very interesting set of tweets yesterday that dissected the social implications of saying, “I was only joking.” To paraphrase:
To say humor is social act is to say it is always in social context; we don’t joke alone. Humor is a way we relate/interact with others. 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. 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.
— Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals) August 9, 2016
I’ve been mulling on the application of this analysis of humor with respect to the infamous “Donglegate” incident. Many men in tech responded with anger and fear over a conference attendee getting fired over a sexist joke. “It was only a joke!” they cried.
However, the justification falls flat if we assume that you’re never “just joking” and that jokes define in groups or out groups. The sexist joke shared between two white males (who were part of the dominant culture of conferences in 2013) defined them as part of the “in-group” and pushed the African American woman who overhead the “joke” into the “out-group”.
When the woman pushed back against the joke in by tweeting about it with a picture of the joker, the people who were part of the in-group who found that joke “funny” were angry. When the joker was fired, it was a sign that they were no longer the favored, dominant group. Fear of loss of social status is a powerful motivator, which is what caused people from the joke’s “in-group” to call for the woman to be fired as well.
Of course, it wasn’t all men who blasted the woman for reacting to a “joke”. There were many women who blasted the reporter for “public shaming”, or who thought the woman was being “too sensitive”, or rushed to reassure men that they had never experienced sexist jokes at conferences. Which brings us to the topic of “chill girls”:
There is a kind of woman, generally one good at things men like to do, who feels the need to distance herself from feminine weakness. If you are a woman who likes masculine things, you fight constantly against men who don’t want to let you into their societies. Over time, it’s easier to just acquiesce to what men want, thus gaining a kind of half-acceptance into their world, than to keep fighting. This is a sad thing, but understandable. We all know the kind of woman this acquiescence produces. She is the Cool Girl, who is low-maintenance and doesn’t mind sexist jokes. Cool Girls like the things boys like in ways that are non-threatening and acceptable. They are Not Like Other Girls. Of course, the acceptance you get as a Cool Girl is illusory. It lasts until you fail to toe the line – and every girl fails eventually. But until that time, Cool Girls cement themselves on the side of the men whose acceptance they need by positioning themselves against women.
— jay, ace trainer (@jaythenerdkid) August 6, 2016
The need for women to fit into a male-dominated tech world means that “chill girls” have to laugh at sexist jokes in order to be part of the “in-group”. To not laugh, or to call out the joker, would be to resign themselves to the “out-group”.
Humans have a fierce need to be socially accepted, and defining in-groups and out-groups is one way to secure that acceptance. This is exemplified in many people’s push back against what they see as too much “political correctness”.
For example, try getting your friends to stop using casually abelist terms like “lame”, “retarded”, “dumb”, or “stupid”. Bonus points if you can get them to remove classist terms like “ghetto” or homophobic statements like “that’s so gay”. What you’ll face are nonsense arguments like, “It’s just a word.” People who call out these terms are berated and no longer “cool”. Unconsciously or consciously, the person will try to preserve the in-groups and out-groups, and their own power from being a part of the in-group.
Stop laughing awkwardly. Your silence is only lending power to oppression. Start calling out people for alienating jokes. Stop preserving the hierarchy of classism, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism.