Thursday, January 5, 2017

Shaming "Humor"

          I've been thinking about teasing lately as I heard my kids interacting while on winter break. We were in the car a great deal and that meant that there was a lot of time for them to just be together and time for me to overhear their interactions.  My son has recently taken to what I call "mean" teasing... saying nasty things to people and then saying, "but I was only kidding!" When confronted on this, he pointed out that this is pervasive in our media: sitcoms and even comedians mostly specialize in this kind of nasty joking.  And we do tend to find it funny.  That's why sitcoms are so popular.  That's why our comedians make such big bucks. Some of our best known actors as well as our most popular programs specialize in humor that hurts.  To put it more positively, they speak truth to us in a humorous way that lets us hear and understand it at different, and often deeper, levels when it causes us to laugh. I get it.  I understand it.  And I also see and experience personally how devastating that kind of humor can be.  None of us found it funny when my son was spewing potentially true but definitely hurtful comments at my daughters.  Did it cause them to pause and look at their own behaviors with the possibility of change?  I don't think so.  It was just hurtful, and mostly untrue.

          I'm not saying there isn't a place for this kind of humor.  Again, I think our satire and other public forms of pointing out the hypocrisy in our country, in our behaviors as a people, in our way of life can be very enlightening. When comedy is used that truly brings us to laugh in a full and deep way at ourselves, at the ways in which we are falsely seeing ourselves or painting ourselves, when it is used to point out, again, our hypocrisies, it can really help us to see.

          But when it comes to personally shaming the real, specific, individual people around us with "humor", I find this to be not only hurtful but deeply destructive.  I had a friend for a brief period of time some years ago who used this kind of humor.  We lost touch with each other, but there came a point when the possibility of renewing the friendship arose.  I will tell you honestly, the only things I can remember about the friendship are the shaming, making-others-laugh-by-humiliating-me comments that he made.  That's it.  I remember every single one of those numerous hurtful comments, but I can't remember anything else about the friendship and struggle to remember why we became friends in the first place. Were there grains of truth in his teasing?  Yes.  But they were just that - grains.  They were not pointing out to me some deep and unseen flaw that I needed to work on. He took little errors in my speech patterns and in things I had shared with him in confidence and blew them up into "Look how ridiculous this human being is" taunting and teasing.  I didn't grow from this.  And while those around us enjoyed a good laugh at my expense, I don't think anyone else was made a better, more insightful or more aware human being because of his behavior either.  I don't know what inspired those comments except that he must have felt I (who struggle already with self-esteem issues) somehow needed to be taken down a peg.  Or maybe he needed to boost himself up; after all, it does feel good to have others laugh at our jokes, and putting someone else down can sometimes feel like we are then raised up.  But I also wonder how others remember him in the end. Do they think of him as funny, or as mean?  Do they think of him as clever, or as a bully?  Do they see him as a good and supportive friend or as someone who takes the opportunities of closeness to be cruel to those he supposedly cares for?

       I would challenge all of us to try to find humor less in things that are hurtful towards others and more in the silliness of all life.  Laughing is good for us, it is healthy for us, it is deeply healing.  But, like most beautiful and good things it can be used for evil and harm as well as for building up and making whole.  Being kind is so important.  It becomes more important as kindness becomes more elusive in the general population.  Every opportunity to be nice to one another should be grabbed by the horns.  Every chance we have to build each other up rather than tear each other down should be taken.  Every interaction with others can be a chance to spread love, good will, and grace.  I want my legacy to be one of helping others to be the best and most whole people they can be.  I don't want it to be one of diminishing others.  I would wish the same for you as well.

        And if there is something you want to confront in someone else, try to be more direct and loving about it rather than using your irritation as an opportunity to humiliate them.  If you want to use humor, use yourself as the object rather than someone else. Try not to participate when others are being shamed and humiliated.  I know it can be hard to stand up to bullies, but letting them destroy others should not an option.

          It's not hard to be gentle with those around us.  It doesn't take that much effort to be kind.  Laugh and love, but not at the expense of one another.  For we are all sisters and brothers to each other: family, whose call it is to build up, rather than tear down.