This Modern Age ~ M. Blaha

I ‘unthinkingly’ made an offensive quip about homosexuality the other day. I did not consider the content of the joke, the people in my presence, or the impact the joke would have. I just didn’t think. I suppose I thought the joke was harmless. I only realized the seriousness, the disgusting homophobic undertone inscribed in my words, after they were uttered. I am still mortified about my carelessness. For that brief moment, I allowed myself to mimic the widespread hateful attitude our society seems to have toward homosexuals, and I am almost ashamed to admit this shortcoming, but how can I think about the tragic event that recently transpired at Rutgers University without acknowledging my own prejudice? I am not afraid of being labeled homophobic because of my joke; I know that we all have made offensive jokes and remarks at one time or another. To a certain extent I probably do harbor a prejudice toward the homosexual community because I do sometimes accept stereotypes about the community; because I would not want to be mistaken for being a homosexual because I am afraid of being classified as a member of this stigmatized group.

Homophobia exists because the gay and lesbian community is stigmatized; it is mocked and joked about in the media. Our society has a sense of humor. Sometimes I think we try to gage the amount of time that has to pass before we can start incorporating tragic, heated, and controversial events in our “comedy routines.” It’s good to have a sense of humor. It can be good to laugh at ourselves and each other. The fact that we can make jokes about the way we stereotype our differences can be taken as a sign of acceptance, as an acknowledgment of our common humanity, but we always have to consider that it is very easy to take a ‘joke’ too far. We cannot make jokes at the expense of others; there needs to be a level of comfort for the subject of a joke. What needs to be acknowledged is that there is a fine line between what is funny and what is offensive, just as, in this age of technology, there is a fine line between public and private life.

Tyler Clementi’s roommate violated his personal space by, allegedly, leaving his laptop turned on, allowing Clementi’s private life to be streamed onto the internet for the world to comment on. I don’t think that the roommate thought about his actions. He probably found Clementi’s personal encounter funny, and did not think that invading his privacy was anything more than a joke. Obviously, he should be held accountable for his actions, but this incident should also instigate an examination of our society. The roommate did not see anything wrong with streaming a live video of Tyler Clementi for a wide audience to comment on. I wonder how many people viewed this video and laughed. I wonder how many of those people who watched and laughed were members of the Rutgers community. Why does our society find homosexuality funny? We seem to consider it to be a joke in itself. Can anyone explain the punch line?

Perhaps the issue is that homosexuality is not taken seriously. The portrayal of gay men and lesbian women in the media either hyper-feminizes or hyper-masculinizes these communities, situating them as outsiders that exist on the fringes of male and female categories. In other words, there is a notion, I think, that lesbian women are incomplete women, and that gay men are not men at all. Straight women seem to be more accepting of lesbian women than straight men are of gay men. Lesbian women may not be welcomed with open arms, but they don’t seem to be completely ostracized from the category of woman.” Women still bear a minority status next to men, so women tend to be more accepting of other minority statuses. However, gay men seem to be excluded entirely from the category of man. The media often turns them into a spectacle, something to mock and laugh at, but that is not meant to be taken seriously. Television shows like On the Road with Austin and Santino or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, present us with the preconceived notions society has of gay men, like being hyper-feminized and flamboyant. The fact that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a show about gay men helping straight men become more cultured and better dressers only helps to reinforce the distinction that is made between gay men and straight men.

Gay men are considered something other than ‘men.’ I wrote a paper for a Women’s Studies class freshman year on Johnny Cash’s A Boy named Sue, which addresses the humiliation a man feels going through his life with a feminine name. ‘Sue’ stands in for ‘gay.’ A straight man is terrified of being labeled ‘gay’ not only because he will then be a member of a stigmatized group, but also because it is de-masculating. In Cash’s song, the boy goes through his life being criticized for having a girl’s name. At the end of the song we learn that the boy’s father named him Sue because he wanted to assure that his son would grow up tough and able to fight even though he was not around to raise him. His father realized that with a name like Sue the boy would “have to get tough or die.” Sure, the old man could have stuck around and raised the boy himself, but he was a drunkard, after all. This song is an example of the gender constrictions men face. The privileged category requires men to reject an emotional, feeling self that is often deemed to be feminine. Only those who can conform to the strict gender constrictions of this category can be considered ‘real men.’ This is a serious and frightening reality, but Johnny cash presents it in a humorous manner.

I question whether technology and the media have the power to erase the seriousness of everything. Can we take anything seriously? Is life just one big joke? People post their entire lives on the internet without even thinking. Some people look to gain fame from a scandalous sex video they post on the internet, but some people’s lives and careers have been ruined simply because they were tagged in a slightly distasteful picture on Facebook. No one seems to think about privacy in the cyber world because it is a public domain, but after the recent tragedies I think we should all become more responsible with the technology we use on a daily basis. The internet is a shared, public space, meaning we should be careful and considerate about what we choose to share with the other billions of people who are active within this ‘community.’ We should be careful not to offend another person, as it would deface their share in this public space. It’s true that everyone is entitled to free speech and their own opinions, but common decency should trump even the First Amendment. Common decency is the law of man and should dictate our interactions with each other, either face to face or via the World Wide Web.

20 thoughts on “This Modern Age ~ M. Blaha

  1. I think much of the “loss of privacy” that many bemoan has to deal with the fact that the internet is a new technology that we have not fully adapted to. Sure, we have learned to buy and sell goods over the web, but we still have not seemed to figure out that if you put something on the internet it can be seen by everyone in the entire world.
    I disagree with some of the implications of the argument regarding comfort and first amendment rights. Nobody has the right to not be offended. It may be polite and decent to not say jokes that will offend members of the audience, but it should not be prohibited in any way. The definition of the internet as a public domain should allow it to be more offensive and vulgar rather than less. It is in the public domain where ideas and beliefs clash; we should not attempt to sanitize it as that would have rather chilling effects on free speech and debate.
    It would seem wrong to me to prohibit telling homophobic jokes but to accept telling jokes about straight men. What this implies is that one class of individuals is fundamentally different from the rest; this seems to be at odds with the idea that all groups should be treated equally. If it is acceptable to insult one group, it should be acceptable to insult all groups. If it is unacceptable to tell a homophobic joke, then it should be unacceptable to tell any joke that comes at the expense of a particular group (no matter how narrow or broad the group). While we should always seek ways to avoid such ugly language, we should not seek to ban or regulate it.
    I do appreciate your candor and honesty in describing your state of mind when you told the joke. It is a rare quality.
    P.S. I am sure this will draw negative comments, but I still do not see any evidence that suggests that Mr. Clementi’s roommate would not have streamed the video had he been heterosexual. It is for this reason that I am hesitant to describe what he did as an act of hate; it was incredibly stupid and illegal (in an invasion of privacy sense), but I do not believe it was a hate crime. It seems to me that this would have occurred had he been straight, and people would have watched and commented and laughed regardless.

  2. I am in complete agreement with Alexander. No offense is so great that First Amendment rights should be restricted. The problem is that if you bend the rules for one group of people, like gays today–or Jews and Nazi-haters in Skokie–you’ll soon have to whitewash the whole culture so no one feels unduly offended. What would Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann do, incidentally, if they couldn’t tell bigoted jokes about Republicans?
    Besides, I’m also of the opinion that the word “faggot” (along with a few other words you’re not supposed to say” is just a funny-sounding word. I think that might be the root of the whole gay-joke problem.

  3. Some of the most celebrated writers and entertainers throughout history were famous for their bigoted jokes. Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, and Baudelaire are a few that come readily to mind. Modern entertainers are not above it either, think South Park and Family Guy.
    When you offend someone, what you’re really doing is isolating some of that person’s most deeply seeded beliefs and directly challenging them. This can have a positive effect if that person later thinks about why he was offended and reevaluates his life goals. It’s almost impossible to get the average person to reevaluate his or her life goals without on some level offending them. And we can all agree, Obamaniacs, that change is good right?
    Additionally, the level to which someone takes offense to something is not particularly correlated to what was said or done to them. The stimulus causes the reaction, but reactions vary. Some people get offended literally all day–they are called personal injury lawyers. Others, rarely get offended and when they do they don’t make a big deal about it. Obviously, the second type of person is better than the first. All day, every day. I don’t want to hear you whine or cry. Shut up. That’s the last word, because everything I say is just the hilarious truth.

  4. There’s a difference between a joke that throws into question a belief and a joke that simply plays on stereotypes. The latter, as exemplified by Jeff Dunham, makes use of classic joke structure to elicit laughs, with the terms employed being secondary to elements of surprise, juxtaposition, repetition, etc. Dunham’s jokes, then, could just as easily be about pants and lions as about the stereotypes he employs. Polish jokes, to make use of another example, can as easily be about anyone other than the Polish, which is why they appear in different cultures while maintaining the same structure.

  5. So you want to outlaw a grammatical structure in order to preserve some left-leaning utopian sense of harmony? Tell me all the Polish jokes you want. I probably won’t laugh at them, but that’s because I know all the best ones that amateurs don’t bother to learn. Seriously though, who cares? You’re a dumb Russian Peasant; I build submarines with screen doors to save money.
    Watch Gran Torino. Eastwood nails this topic spot on.
    As for the main point of our argument, I still think that gay jokes, poop jokes, and nigger jokes are socially important. I’m not saying that they are shining examples of the literary culture or entertainment. But they do give us a window into ourselves through which we can examine social biases and prejudices. I don’t think that forcing people to stop using a certain word will change their minds. In fact, if they stop talking about it, they will certainly have no reason to think critically about it.
    Look at the writer of this article. He told a gay joke, perhaps in front of people who did not appreciate it. This made him think about how he lives his life. He reevaluated his previously held beliefs, and good for him.

  6. No, not at all. What I’m asking is why use the stereotypes if they are the contingent elements of the joke. The humor then only perpetuates the stereotype as opposed to challenging it. And you have to be more specific about, for example, “nigger jokes”. Are they jokes about, say, our relationship with the word “nigger”? Like Louis CK’s great bit on the N-word as an excuse for white people to say “nigger”. Or do you just mean jokes that are at the expense of homosexuals and black people?
    Forcing people to stop using a particular word would accomplish nothing, I agree, but that’s not the answer to the question of why make the sort of jokes that do nothing beyond perpetuate stereotypes?
    Also, not fair to lump poo jokes in with jokes at the expense of gays!

  7. Law school has obviously taught you to make a good argument but good luck succeeding in business with that attitude. Your clients wouldn’t appreciate your opinions, if they ever come to know you.
    Making jokes based on stereotypes MAY cause someone to reflect on their life and the prejudice held against their identity but that does not allot one a legitimate reason to speak derogatorily against a group. Using the “n” and “f” word is wrong. Period. Try using that in court and with your client just so that you get them to “think” and “reflect” and see how it goes.

  8. I don’t think that Mike is suggesting that he’s going to use either of those words as a courtroom shocker. Court is always over specific issues related to the resolution of ‘damage’ In cases of damage remediation, throwing the personal causes of the damage in the offender or victim’s face is not useful.
    However, comedic settings are more laid back and far more general. Most of the time, there is not a tragedy in need of rectification. In these cases, underlying general beliefs can be challenged in ways that are both funny and profound. Chris Rock’s work, especially Never Scared is a perfect example of this.
    Also, to agree with Alexander, it is a hopelessly slippery slope to start limiting speech for fear of damage. While lots of speech certainly DOES cause damage, by no means can all of the harm caused by speech exceed the harm caused by SILENCE.

  9. Also, the ‘speech’ that the author made in his ‘moment of inappropriateness’ only would have been damaging if he had chosen to ignore its consequences and sacrifice discourse to the idol of his public image.
    By doing the opposite, I actually would argue that his telling that joke was HELPFUL when the article he wrote along with the subsequent discussion it prompted is included as part of the process he started. Since he did indeed start the aforementioned, it seems elementary that those should be included as part of his ‘telling of the joke’
    As someone very wise used to tell me, “It’s not what you do, it’s what you do with it that counts”
    M. Blaha understands this.

  10. Believe it or not, judges in Alabama and other southern states routinely use the word “nigger” in court, sometimes referring to the defendant. Also, to SS, I have found that my criminal clients are more willing to open up to me if I speak in a colloquial way. This includes using some course language. I haven’t had to say “nigger” yet, but believe me, if it came up in court, I would not say “the n-word.” We have seen opening statements in a murder case in which the defense attorney’s first sentence was “COME ON MOTHERFUCKER!” That was because it was a self defense trial, and that was allegedly what the dead person in the case had said, while brandishing a knife, before he was shot and killed by the defendant. Criminal trials are not nice, agreeable proceedings, and neither are the facts that give rise to them. To downplay the grittiness of the events in order to appear PC is to do more of a disservice to a client than anything else.
    In closing, it pisses me off more than anything for someone like SS to make quips about my professional future without even having the dignity to post under their name. I stand by everything I say. So should you. More on this after lunch.

  11. Getting back to the point of the original article. The author asks why homosexuality is considered a “joke,” and wonders how many people from the Rutgers community actively saw and laughed at the streamed video feed of Tyler Clementi’s encounter. Probably quite a few, unfortunately, but I don’t know whether I feel comfortable making analogies between telling a gay joke, and 1) looking at a private sexual encounter and laughing or even worse 2) being the individual to stream that sexual encounter. These two/three things are not similar in the least. You can tell a gay joke without being a complete dick. Sorry, that’s just how it is. On the other hand, I think there is a greater level of moral culpability for someone who actively invades the privacy of another–for any reason–and uses the information gained from this to humiliate them. That’s less of a PC issue, and more of a common decency issue. The victim does not have to be gay. In Mr. Clementi’s case, he was. However, it would not have been any more acceptable had the victim been filmed during an awkward heterosexual encounter. It’s still an invasion of privacy–an act of cowardice really.

  12. I will be brief. This article is about civility, about how I feel that civility is almost something that belongs to an old world. I use Homophobia/homosexuality as an example, but it applies to more than that. I do mention that having a sense of humor is a good thing, but that it is important to understand when a joke goes too far. This intrduces the concept of self-governing, using your own good judgment. I don’t propose prohibiting or censoring anything; I am firmly against both of these concepts, which is why realizing that using good judgment is a part of our moral responsibility. Can we deny that we have a moral responsibility to each other?

  13. I like that response. But I also think the idea that civility has somehow been lost is dubious. I doubt there was a moral golden age where people were all civil to one another. If anything, we’re becoming more civil with time.

  14. While I agree that it doesn’t seem there was a moral golden age, I do think we have a lot of improvement to make when it comes to our collective morals. I’m not sure if we even have a collective morality.

  15. I will briefly concur with Michael’s most recent statement. It seems to me that we are moving towards a more civil society as time passes. I am immediately skeptical of people who claim/feign nostalgia for a past that often did not exist. Much of the civility that we attribute to earlier phases in our history were just people making the same types of comments more eloquently. Perhaps we should mourn the loss of grammar and writing, but not civility.
    I also do not feel that there is a moral responsibility or obligation to others (at least in the sense of choosing one’s words so as to not offend them). It may be better to be polite and civil towards someone so as to be able to forge a working relationship with that person, but that is far from a responsibility. I think the level of responsibility and obligation only extends so far as to respecting the rights of others. And as I have stated before, I do not believe we have a right to not be offended.

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