Monday, May 18, 2015

It's Just a Joke

This week wasn't the first time I talked to my class about the FHRITP phenomenon.  But the fact that one guy lost his job and another was fined $400 has changed the conversation.  A discussion about the sexual aggressive street harassment typically elicits a "but it's just a joke" response in some of my younger classes, like the adult men in the now famous video said to Shauna Hunt.  Some women experienced this once a week, and sometimes even a few times a day, because people found it so hilarious. But now that guys are getting in trouble for it, it's no longer a joke.

Of course it never was.

When I first heard about this "game," it really bothered me.  I could never quite get across the idea that accosting someone in the street with sexually aggressive language is a problem.  People laugh because it's shocking.  It's a childish power play in which the newscasters get "owned."  But anything that knowingly causes direct harm to another person isn't a laughing matter, even if the harm is just a little humiliation.  Unless the victim is in on the gag, or you know her and are certain that she would think it's funny, then it's just not funny.  Any time I've tried to explain this position, people grin at me and shake their heads to themselves because I just don't get the joke.

Now I think I may have found the perfect anecdote to explain why I think it's important to address this for what it is.  In Hedges' new book, he describes Marek Edelman, the last survivor of a command that led the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recounting a pivotal episode in his life before the Ghetto even existed.  Two beautiful, tall German officers had taken a small, bowed Jewish man and sat him on a barrel, then they began to cut off his long beard a bit at a time with huge tailor's shears.  They were laughing the entire time, and the crowd that had gathered were also laughing.  "Nothing really horrible was happening to that Jew."  It wasn't a big deal, really.  He wasn't being hurt.  He didn't get cut.  He was just being laughed at a little while he was getting an unwanted shave.  It's just a joke.

But Edelman understood the important shift that had happened:  "that it was now possible to put him on a barrel with impunity, that people were beginning to realize that such activity wouldn't be punished and that it provoked laughter."

We need to take care that no group of people is allowed to be publicly humiliated with the excuse that it's just a joke.  If someone is being humiliated, and they're clearly not in on the gag, then it's just not funny.  It's cruel.  It's a surreptitious use of power over another, a dominating move that people try from time to time, but they must always fail.  They have to get caught and be punished in some way. Because giving tacit permission to humiliate a group of people could be just the first step in something far worse.

1 comment:

karen said...

This is excellent! Thank you. I am going to use this.