Think before you crack a joke

After the coronavirus began to spread, Twitter users headed online to make insensitive jokes. COCO ROMANO GIORDANO/FOGHORN

Holden Fatheree is a freshman history major

It feels like the moment 2020 started, the world began to fall apart. The new decade began with a military assassination, hysteria about the coronavirus, and some other stuff, probably. In the face of uncertainty and terror, it’s natural to turn to humor. I’m most certainly guilty of this myself. In high school, I edited a satirical newspaper; think The Onion but for a preppy private school. Not to flex, but it was definitely better than the real school newspaper. Anyways, now that I’m done patting myself on the back for telling jokes, let me make my argument.

Humor is great. Laughter allows us to cope with stresses and anxieties and, you know… life. One joke, even a stupid one, can get a lot of mileage. That said, we should be smarter about what we joke about. I’m not saying that we should walk on eggshells all the time (though that would be impressive if it wasn’t a metaphor) — what I am saying is that we should know what we are joking about. 

I believe it’s possible to joke about anything, but the difference between a good joke and a bad joke is how it is told. There’s a concept in comedy that speaks to this: punching down versus punching up. A joke that punches down is at the expense of a person or group that already lacks power. A joke that punches up is at the expense of a person or group that already has power. Good jokes highlight absurdities and idiosyncrasies that are a part of being human. Jokes that aren’t funny perpetuate absurdity. 

In the aftermath of the U.S. assassinating Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general, the hottest craze amongst kids on their facetubes and snapstagrams was joking about a potential World War III. On its own, the idea of getting drafted to fight in World War III isn’t actually funny. It’s safe to say I do not vibe with that. More importantly, though, these jokes obscured the real situation and spread more fear, rather than reducing it. The media likes to make stories as dramatic as possible — it gets attention. Particular narratives also push particular agendas. Every World War III joke just reinforced the notion that Iran is to be feared, but in reality, the U.S. is the nation that disproportionately escalated tensions. It’s one thing to mock the absurd way countries interact on the world stage; it’s another to uncritically buy into a narrative. 

I am guilty of making bad jokes too. I’ve made cracks about coronavirus, but I am realizing now that it isn’t funny. This fear of coronavirus is largely rooted in xenophobia. It seems every few years a story has to emerge about a new virus that will kill us all, and yet I’m still here. If you’re reading this, presumably you are too. 

We can be better. We can avoid perpetuating misinformation and hurting people if we think of our goals for a joke before telling it. I’m not trying to dictate what jokes anyone tells, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t laugh at the bad ones.

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