We all need a bit of humour in our lives to make the serious moments more bearable – over the years,I have learned to laugh at my not so proud moments and mistakes after the initial despair . Most importantly, I am learning to quiet the very harsh critic that lives rent free inside my brain and choose wisely what I allow to define me as a person. Someone once asked me if I would allow someone to still be my friend if they critiqued me as harshly as I did myself and the answer was a quick no! Nobody likes to feel disrespected and even critique can be given in a constructive way that encourages growth in the person on the receiving end. In the same way, we should be concious of what we allow others to say to and about us. Thinking on this, I realised that there is a certain type of disrespect dressed in humour that makes you wonder if you should laugh or be angry when received.
When Tucker Carlson decided to mangle Kamala Harris’ name and use humour to mask his disrespect, it struck very close to home and this made me think of the times we use humour to mask our mockery and contempt of other people. I have people in my life who if asked what my last name is would not be able to remember or pronounce it – for years some of these people instead of asking me to tell them how it is pronounced have decided to use jokes to mangle my name instead of doing the decent thing and asking. I remember asking one of such people how come we had been friends for years and they have refused to learn to say my name properly, and they simply used the same tired joke to respond to what was a serious concern of mine. I would later notice that these people knew how to say the names of foreign sports personalities, celebrities and dignitaries without any difficulty and for whatever reason, had refused to attempt to learn to say my name. I felt disrespected and sometimes wondered that should I fall into any trouble in their company and my personal information is needed by authorities – how would they manage knowing they don’t even know my name?
A friend of mine once told me how she found herself single for 8 years after coming out of an abusive relationship. She speaks of the toxic shame and sense of failure that overcame her when the relationship ended. She was in a new town, did not have any family close to where she was and this relationship had taken everything away from her – she somehow found herself being mocked by her friends when all she was trying to do every day was to let go of the past and continue with her healing process. When I asked her how she recognised that she was being mocked – she mentioned that she initially did not notice that she was being laughed at as all the comments were disguised as jokes and she even laughed at some of these jokes until she recognised them for what they were. There would be clever jokes whenever she met these people and it was not long before she realised that these jokes were at her expense. It was clear that when she was not around, these people discussed her lack of a sexual partner and this information somehow found it’s way into a joke or two whenever she was around.
My friend was religious and these friends knew also that she held certain moral beliefs that were important to her. After years of being friends with these people, there were cleverly placed jokes of her ending up alone with cats or being a 40 year old virgin – just imagine all the not so nice jokes that people use for a single woman who is not dating. Some of these comments when she mentioned them seemed harmless on the surface but I asked myself why it would be said in the first place. If someone chooses a life of abstinence from sex, to me that is their choice – their body their choice and this should never be used to mock them. She heared jokes about certain historical figures in her religion and it was made to appear like she was living out the lives of these characters – but I think the one that hurt her the most was when these jokes insinuated that she was lying about her life choices. The issue was, none of these friends had ever asked her why she had made those decisions and even though she felt she did not owe them an explanation, at least an attempt to understand her would have sufficed.
My good friend, Ben, would tell me about a band he used to be part of – he started dating one of the leaders of the band and the relationship eventually got serious. Unluckily for him, the relationship ended suddenly and his ex decided to move from town – she was very instrumental in the band and things fell apart shortly after she left. Ben told me how everyone assumed he did something to drive his ex away when actually, she had moved from town because she had rekindled things with an ex and they had both parted ways amicably. But it was assumed Ben had done something to hurt her and therefore was to be blamed for the band falling apart – so the jokes began. Every time he met with some of the members of the band, there will be jokes about how his sexuality and even his inability to form meaninful connections had caused the death of the band – he was no longer comfortable meeting with these people as most times these jokes were disrespectful.
These jokes can manifest in many forms and I have witnessed some of these in different settings even laughing at some and later realising how disrespectful I was. Growing up we had a friend who wanted to be an electrical engineer – when she handed in her application to her university of choice, one of the lecturers, who also happened to be friend and colleague of her father, advised that she chose another subject. When my friend’s dad questioned the lecturer, he joked “I hope when she is needed to change a light bulb she would not be on maternity” – she recalled her dad laughing at this joke. It was only later that my friend’s father realised what had happened – they were being told that she would not be effective in her role as an electrical engineer because she was a woman and the delivery shrouded in humour had stalled the true meaning of what was being said until later. I have also witnessed people make racist jokes and then turn around and advise everyone that they are not racist but just have a wicked sense of humour- there are several instances where certain jokes may seemingly seem harmless on the surface but malicious on close examination.
Over the years, I have learned to use my voice when I am unhappy about something – to refuse to laugh in situations where humour is at the expense of others. Most importantly, I have set some boundaries when it comes to my relating to others – what I no longer wish to tolerate, I make no excuses for and remove them from my life. If a joke makes you feel disrespected, then it’s time to ask yourself some serious questions about how you respond to these jokes and what you allow. I would love to hear from you – please share your story and let’s effect the change we need.