So, this might be kind of awkward given my past writing and activism, but it’s time for me to come clean: I’ve decided to become a Men’s Rights Activist.
I’ve realized that feminism’s biggest failure–much more important, in fact, than its historical disregard for women of color, poor women, and trans* people–is that it does absolutely nothing to address issues facing men. It starts right with the name “feminism.” If feminists really cared about equality for everyone, men included, they would’ve obviously called it “equalism” or “egalitarianism.” But they didn’t, because at its core feminism is only about helping women, perhaps even at the expense of men.
Of course, some might argue that the reason for the name “feminism” is that the movement started out to correct a perceived imbalance of power between men and women. However, if such an imbalance ever existed, it was unquestionably skewed in women’s favor. How could women really be societally disadvantaged when they were the ones who got to sit around at home while their husbands worked to support them?
The actual supposed “gains” of feminism, too, clearly privilege women at the expense of men. For instance, feminists have now made it possible for women to legally get abortions. That’s great for them, but what about for the fathers of those unborn babies? What if they don’t want them to be aborted? Why doesn’t the father have any say? Conversely, a woman who gets pregnant accidentally can choose to keep the baby even if the father doesn’t want to have a child. Yes, it’s the woman’s body or whatever, but it was the father’s sperm. Doesn’t that count for anything anymore?
Feminists also seem to believe that it is the responsibility of men, not women, to prevent themselves from harassing and assaulting women. They claim that men are not, in fact, controlled by their penises and are perfectly capable of choosing to get consent first or just ignore their sexual urges, just like women. Clearly, feminists are misandrists and think terribly of men. A more empowering ideology–men’s rights–would hold that men are completely powerless over their own sexuality and need women to dress modestly, avoid drinking in their presence, and make sure to say “no” loudly and clearly if they don’t want to have sex, even if they happen to be passed out.
Feminism has also historically ignored the issue of friend zoning, which primarily affects male-identified individuals. It’s ridiculous in this day and age that a man could treat a woman well–be a good friend to her, even–and get nothing in return (that is, no sex). If feminism is all about “fairness” and “equality,” it would’ve addressed this problem by now. Similarly, on dating sites such as OkCupid, women receive many more messages from men than the other way around, and men’s messages to women rarely receive a response. This suggests that female privilege is alive and well in the 21st century. How are men supposed to get laid when everything about modern dating gives women the upper hand?
Frankly, it appalls me that female feminists aren’t spending more time addressing issues that primarily concern men rather than women. After all, the best activists are those who haven’t personally experienced the issues they’re working on, so it’s not exactly reasonable to expect men to do this work themselves. Men should certainly be allies to women who are advocating for men’s rights, but if feminists really care about helping men as well as women, they’ll pick up the slack.
Unfortunately, rather than improving the status of men in society, feminism has actively made men’s lives worse. The truth is that until feminism came about, men simply weren’t facing all these issues. They didn’t have to feel so much pressure to be strong, “masculine” breadwinners. They weren’t expected to provide for their wives and children. It was understood that men could be just as adept at raising children and maintaining a household as are women (whereas nowadays you always see commercials in which stupid, clumsy men ruin the laundry or feed the kids cheez-its for breakfast or whatever). Before feminism, men weren’t the ones who got drafted into the military, who were expected to die for their country while women stayed safe and comfortable at home. Men who were raped and wanted to press charges were actually taken seriously.
If this sounds like a drastically revisionist version of history, maybe that’s because it is. Maybe it’s time to question the assumption that freeing people from strict gender roles could possibly free men from them as well, and that encouraging people to believe and support survivors of rape means that they would also believe and support male survivors of rape. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that helping women succeed in their careers would mean that women would earn more money and be able to support their families as much as men can.
Or maybe I’m full of shit and completely incapable of logically justifying this bizarre worldview, and so are MRAs. Happy April Fools’ Day!
The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.
In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.
The criticism, of course, wasplentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”
This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”
Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.
And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.
Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.
My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.
Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.
But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.
Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.
*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.
I know Jezebel is low-hanging fruit, but I can’t resist picking apart their new “Sexytime Dilemmas” column and its endorsement of sexual assault, which apparently is okay when the target is a man.
One of the letter-writers wants to know how to get a guy to try anal play. Jezebel’s “sexpert” responds (TW for sexual assault):
If you want this to work you’re going to have to be very delicate, and take things slowly. No one wants a dry finger shoved up their butt at random. In my experience, guys are generally more open to new concepts, and trying out new things, when you have their dick in your mouth. (This is because fellatio slows their brain down to a point of temporary retardation, which means their guard is down.)
…So, while you’re sucking, start playing with his balls and then slowly move moving your fingers back in the desired direction. Be conscious of how he’s responding to your touch. If he flinches as soon as you start poking around in that area, that’s not a good sign, but don’t give up hope just yet. Wait a minute or so, then do something fancy with your tongue to distract him and try again, rubbing lightly around the outside of the hole, as not to scare it….Basically, never give up and remember that with a little perseverance you can do anything you put your mind to, Susie!
I’ll say it several times since apparently people still don’t get it:
This is sexual assault.
This is sexual assault.
This is sexual assault.
I’ll let the much-more-talented Rebecca Watson explain this further, along with the many other ways in which that Jezebel post is horrible. For now, I want to address the assertion–which I’ve seen a few self-identified feminists make–that this piece is somehow “funny” because “humor” and “satire” and “lol rape against men.”
First of all, blindly regurgitating problematic crap is not satire, and it’s not any other kind of humor, either. Just as it wasn’t funny when Daniel Tosh said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now?”, it’s not funny to be like, “LOLOL JUST STICK A FINGER UP HIS ASS WITHOUT CONSENT LOL.” And that’s basically what this piece is saying.
Now, if sexual assault of men were extremely rare, to the point of being unheard of, I can see how this might be funny. Sometimes, creating a satirical world–in which something that seems ludicrous in real life is commonplace–is humorous. That sort of role reversal inspired a play I saw recently, Venus Envy, which depicted a world in which men, not women, were the “weaker sex.” This type of satire points out problems in our society that are so entrenched that we take them for granted.
But this is not the case for sexual assault of men. Men are less likely than women to be raped, yes, but it’s not that rare. Men also face unique barriers in admitting and prosecuting sexual assault–from the perception that they “can’t” be raped to the victim-blamey belief that they ought to be able to defend themselves. Knowing that the hypothetical man in the article would receive very little support from others if he accused his female partner of violating him–knowing, in fact, that he may have internalized the “men can’t get raped” myth to the point that he wouldn’t even have the words to talk about what had happened–it’s just not funny to me.
As another (much better) Jezebel article once pointed out, it’s quite possible to joke about rape. Since the article was in response to the Tosh incident, it’s mostly talking about standup comedy, but it’s still relevant:
So, comics. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.
Do not make rape victims the butt of the joke.
It’s not funny when they’re female, and it’s equally not-funny when they’re male.
After I read the Sexytime Dilemmas article, I participated in a few online discussions about it and I found numerous (female) feminists who found it funny–and who openly admitted that they wouldn’t find it funny if the genders were flipped. And I felt sickened.
Yes, women are more likely than men to be sexually assaulted. But how on earth does that statistical fact make it any less tragic when a man is assaulted? Is the fact that it’s less likely supposed to make it more palatable somehow?
I don’t think so.
I am reminded of this wonderful post in which the author screams, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”
My feminism will concern itself with all rape victims or it will be bullshit.
My feminism will care about the ways in which men are harmed by patriarchy or it will be bullshit.
My feminism may not devote equal time to men’s issues as it does to women’s issues, but it will show compassion for all genders, or it will be bullshit.
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
[…]After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.
So, what we have here is a (male) comedian insisting that rape jokes are funny (in itself a barely defensible position), getting called out for it by a female audience member, and insisting that it would be “funny” if she got gang-raped.
Naturally, Tosh made a typical non-apology:
I just love how he claims, as usual, that his comments were taken “out of context.” Is there any context in which, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” is an acceptable thing to say?
While I’m pretty sure that most decent people would see this “humor” for the crap that it is, a number of online conversations I’ve had the misfortune of having today suggest otherwise. For the record, every single person who has defended Tosh in this situation is 1) a man, and 2) someone who admitted to having previously watched and enjoyed Tosh’s show. So something tells me that there’s a little bit of “But I like this guy and I need to convince everyone that I’m still a good person!” psychological trickery going on here. In technical parlance, we call that “cognitive dissonance,” and it helps explain why some people defend assholes like Tosh so rabidly.
Here are some Actual Arguments that I’ve seen.
But humor relies on offensive jokes!
Now, that’s just false. My favorite comedians, such as Jon Stewart and Tina Fey, may make fun of people, but they don’t need to try to crack jokes about rape to be “funny.” And, as I’ll discuss later, there are different ways to be offensive.
But that’s just his Thing!
Um, so…get a new Thing, then? If you need to remind people of some of the most terrible things they’ve ever experienced in order to earn a living, you might want to consider getting a different career. Just sayin’.
But joking about terrible things makes it easier to get past them!
Why don’t you ask the survivors of said terrible things? Most rape survivors would disagree with you. Also, while there are definitely ways to incorporate sexual assault into a comedy routine that are sensitive and useful (Donald Glover has one that I can’t find the link to right now), joking about the gang-rape of an audience member is emphatically not one of those ways.
But FREE SPEECH!
Words cannot describe how tired I am of this argument. Anyone who makes it lacks even the most basic understanding of our Constitution. All the First Amendment means in this context is that the government can’t restrict Tosh’s right to include offensive material in his routines. It can’t censor videos of his routines, it can’t impose any fines or penalties on him for doing his routines, it can’t make it illegal to joke about rape, and so on.
But that’s it. The rest of us can still speak out when someone says something terrible. A company that employs that person or syndicates that person’s material can still fire the person or stop syndicating the material.
Yes, you have a God-given, constitutional right to be an asshole. But why, why must you exercise it?
But people should know what they’re getting into if they’re going to his show!
Well, that sounds awfully victim-blamey, doesn’t it? Should women also “know what they’re getting into” if they go to a bar alone? Should people going to prison “know what they’re getting into” if they get sexually assaulted there?
First of all, this isn’t always practical. The woman in question here was going to see a show that included several comedians, some of whom she knew of and others that she did not. It’s unreasonable to ask everyone going to a comedy show to research the comedian’s entire oeuvre to make sure that it’s free of rape jokes.
Second, Tosh has a show on Comedy Central. One of my friends pointed out that it’s often playing at the gym when she goes. Should she just avoid the gym, then? Should she call every gym she’s considering going to ahead of time to make sure that none of their TVs are currently playing Tosh’s show?
But other Comedy Central shows are offensive too! Why focus on this one?
This argument generally refers to South Park, which is well-known for being offensive. But there are different kinds of offensive. South Park, for the most part, is “offensive” because it covers taboo subjects and uses strong language. Such things can be shocking and unpleasant if you’re not expecting them, but they’re not outright prejudiced and harmful. And in fact, this type of “offensive” material can actually break down stigmas and encourage more openness around these subjects, which is great.
Joking about rape, as I mentioned above, is different from joking about religion or bodily functions or sex. It’s not merely “offensive,” it’s actually harmful to individuals and to society as a whole.
But other comedians are offensive too! Why focus on this one?
This is a stupid argument. I can’t speak for every single person offended by this incident, but I speak out every time I encounter something like this. Nobody is singling out poor Tosh, so calm down.
But she “heckled” him!
Am I to assume that interrupting a comedian’s show makes one deserving of rape?
First of all, as this woman makes clear in her blog post, we have a responsibility to speak out when something isn’t right. Could she have waited till afterwards? Sure. Could she have written Tosh a nice, polite, friendly letter that never made it past his secretary? Sure. But she wanted to be heard, and she had the right to be.
Second, even assuming that she was acting improperly (not something you’d ever accuse a man of, is it?), that still doesn’t make it okay to announce in front of an audience how “funny” it would be if she were gang-raped. I honestly have trouble believing that there are really people who would justify Tosh’s behavior this way, but I saw them with my own eyes on Facebook earlier this afternoon.
But you’re just taking it too personally!
Congratulations, you’ve now completely failed at being a decent person. Yes, there is such a thing as taking an insult too personally. If a comedian made a joke about brunettes or writers or psychology majors or other such mundane groups that I belong to, and I exploded at him, then yes, I would probably be “taking it too personally.”
But sexual assault is not something that can be “taken too personally.” It is personal. It’s personal even if you haven’t personally experienced it, because I guarantee you that someone you care about has.
It’s personal because a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault is still questioned about what she was wearing at the time. It’s personal because a man who accuses a woman of sexual assault is still laughed at and considered less of a man. It’s personal because a man who accuses a man of sexual assault is still called a f*****. It’s personal, people.
Perhaps there will come a day when sexual assault is treated exactly the same as other crimes. When it does not disproportionally affect women, people of color, young people, poor people, and others who are already marginalized. When we can all agree that there’s nothing anyone can do to “ask” for rape.
Perhaps when that day comes, it’ll be possible to joke about sexual assault and wonder how it could ever have been that people didn’t treat it seriously.
But Nobody Cares™! That’s Just How Things Are™! Nothing Will Ever Change™!
You’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people care, the faster things will change. Because they’re already changing. If you’re not interested in helping, bugger off while the rest of us change things.
But he said he’s sorry!
First of all, no, he really didn’t. He said, “All of the out of context misquotes aside, I’d like to sincerely apologize.” Out of context? Misquotes? Honey, stop. Here’s what should be a primer on how to actually apologize for something you’ve publicly said.
Second, even if he had made a genuine-sounding apology, I don’t understand this requirement that we have in our culture to accept any and all apologies and then never speak of the Matter again. What if I don’t accept your apology? What if the words “I’m sorry” are simply not sufficient to make up for what you did?
Nobody owes forgiveness to anyone, and even if Tosh had actually apologized, that doesn’t mean we should stop analyzing his words and making sure that others understand why he was wrong. You don’t get to be like “Yeah well I said I was sorry so why can’t you just get over it already!” Sorry, nope.
Or, perhaps, it’s only funny if you don’t consider the context.
Check it out:
This is the first episode of the wildly popular web series Shit Girls Say, which draws its humor from portraying stereotypical (white) (middle-/upper class) women in quick bursts of cliched speech. And I can definitely see how many people, even many women, would find it funny.
But let’s deconstruct it a bit.
Why do women talk like this and men don’t? No, seriously, try to answer that question. Is it because they have two X chromosomes? Is it because they have more estrogen? Is it because they have tits? Is it because their bodies produce eggs?*
Or is it something cultural?
Except for those of us who had the most progressive of parents, most of us were raised in a viscous sludge of “boys do this/girls do this/boys don’t do this/girls don’t do this” remarks. As my gender studies professor recently remarked, hang out near a parent with a toddler at a store sometime and you’ll hear a barrage of comments to the tune of “You’re not getting that, that’s for girls!” and “Don’t you want to wear something prettier?”
Right, so. Part of the education that most of us receive is how to properly relate to both same-sex friends and to members of the opposite sex. The basic lesson is, of course, “Boys don’t cry,” which can be extrapolated to mean that girls can cry, if they want to. From this basis, the entire structure of normative ways of interacting develops–women can be very emotional with each other; men cannot.
Eventually, girls who don’t display this “relational” style of behavior come to realize that they’re acting wrong somehow. I would know, because I was once such a girl. From early childhood onward, it was always “You’re so insensitive. Why can’t be you be more considerate? Why can’t you think about someone besides yourself? Why can’t you realize that I need your help? That wasn’t very nice of you to say that to your friend. Have you thought about what present to get her for her birthday? You really think she’d like that? Don’t say things like that, you’ll hurt someone’s feelings.”
I don’t think many little boys are told such things.
What the women in the Shit Girls Say videos are saying are more evolved forms of the things I was expected to say as a little girl. They relate to each other. They ask each others’ opinion. They want to share the details of their lives with each other. They want to commiserate, open up, engage. I could analyze the language of the videos in detail if anyone were interested in hearing it, but I think it will suffice to say that the stereotypical ways in which women behave–the gossiping, the complaining, the requests for help–are all designed to help them connect with each other.
(As for one of the girls’ constant need for help with the computer, I would hope I don’t need to explain how women’s supposed lack of technological expertise is not only a huge overgeneralization, but also entirely attributable to a culture that still values girls who play with dolls over those who tinker with electronics.)
Recently I noted that in our society, women are considered ugly if they don’t maintain their appearance, and vain if they do–unless, of course, they manage to wind up in that magical sweet spot where they always look flawless but make it seem like they haven’t expended any effort to look that way.
Well, this is similar. Our culture trains women to be relational, and then pokes fun at and belittles them for being so. Shit Girls Say succeeds in its comedic endeavors by noting and exaggerating stereotypes about how women behave, but women don’t behave that way because they’re women. They behave that way because they’re taught to behave that way.
You can’t really win as a woman. If you don’t act in a relational way, you’ll be a loner, like I was for many years before I learned how to wear a mask of friendliness and approachability. But if you do act in a relational way, you’ll find yourself the target of jokes about how frivolous women’s conversations supposedly are, how overexcited they are when they see each other, and how they apparently ask their boyfriends to do everything for them (don’t even get me started on the fact that many men still buy into antiquated ideas about how they’re supposed to be the “providers” and whatnot).
So I don’t think Shit Girls Say is funny. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sexist or misogynistic. But I would say that it’s ignorant in that it ignores the cultural origins and meanings of women’s behavior, and it’s insensitive in that it disregards the burden placed on women to act in those ways.
Cheap-shot comedy like this favors easy caricatures over meaningful critiques and analysis of our culture. (Try this for a still-funny but socially conscious parody of Shit Girls Say.) Go ahead and laugh–it’s funny in a way–but educate yourself, too.
*I’m defining “men” and “women” very generally here for the purposes of making a point. Needless to say, I don’t believe that any of the traits I listed are necessary for being a man or a woman.
Damn, I’m certainly on a crusade against humor these days.
That was sarcasm, by the way. I love humor. I just think it should be deployed carefully.
A few days ago in my Psychology of Personality class, the following happened:
Some people were having their own conversations while the professor was trying to give a lecture. The professor cracked a joke–“Hey guys, I have ADD so I can’t focus if other people are talking, so please stop!” followed by “I don’t really have ADD, but still.”
Now, for the record, I totally get that it sucks for a teacher when people are talking in class. But I also feel that there are other ways to address that situation without making a joke about having a mental illness that you don’t actually have. Especially, you know, if you’re a person who has a PhD in psychology and conducts research on people with actual mental illnesses.
The sad thing is, before he followed his comment up with that disclaimer, I was actually really touched. I thought it was wonderful that a professor of psychology would take a stand against the stigma of mental illness by stating in class that he has one. But then, you know, it turned out to just be a joke.
Last spring, I took a class on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It was an advanced class, with just around ten students or so, taught by one of the most esteemed professors in the department. We got to the chapter on Borderline Personality Disorder, which, as you may know, is considered one of the most frustrating mental disorders–both for clinicians and for the patient’s friends and family. So naturally, no discussion of it could be complete without my professor’s bombastic explanations about how she tries to avoid treating BPD patients because they’re just SUCH a pain and about how she once had a friend with BPD who was just SO hard to deal with. Everyone gasped and laughed at her descriptions.
Then, of course, the other students had to start raising their hands and talking about their own friends that they’d taken the liberty of diagnosing with BPD, and how horrific those people were.
This was a time in my life when I was seriously wondering if I had BPD myself, so, yeah, that was pretty unpleasant.
Last fall, I took a class on psychopathology. It was my second psychology course ever, and my first that related specifically to mental disorders–a topic very close to my heart at the time since I’d been diagnosed with major depression only a month before.
Before the course started, the professor sent out an anonymous survey to the entire class about our experiences with mental illness. On the first day of class, she disclosed the stunning results–more than half of us said we’d been diagnosed with one.
So we got to the chapter on depression and the professor started talking about depressive cognitive distortions, using specific examples. The professor started listing them off in such a way that the whole class started laughing. And laughing, and laughing.
Now, I totally get that it sounds funny. Consider this dialogue:
X: I’m getting a B in calculus. I’m a total failure.
Y: You’re not a failure at all! You have straight As in the rest of your classes.
X: Well, those don’t count. They’re easy anyway.
Y: Yes, and calculus is pretty hard, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t do as well. Besides, a B is a pretty good grade.
X: No, it’s a shitty grade. Everything I do is shitty and I’m always going to be a failure.
That is an example of several cognitive distortions, including overgeneralization, disqualifying the positive, magnification, and labeling. And, when read aloud in a particular tone of voice, I can see how it might sound kind of funny.
But having been through it myself and studied it extensively, I can also hear the pain behind what X is saying. It’s not a punchline. It’s a cry for help from a person trapped inside their malfunctioning mind.
Here’s the thing. I get it. People with PhDs in psychology have spent years and years reading, writing, and talking about stuff like this. I’m sure that it’s completely normal for two psychologists to crack jokes about mental illness to each other.
Knowing that many people who pursue degrees in psychology are spurred to do so by their own experiences with mental illness (I’m an example of this), I understand the urge to joke about it because I joke about it myself. It helps alleviate the fear and pain of living with mental illness.
That doesn’t mean I’d joke about it to a room full of 100 people who don’t know me well and who may be dealing with their own issues, though.
Case in point–at the time I took the aforementioned psychopathology class, I was still learning how to recognize cognitive distortions in myself, and I was beginning to realize the extent to which they’d ruined all of my previous interactions, friendships, and relationships. To have a room full of 100 people laughing uproariously about something that nearly brought you to suicide just three short months before is, well, no laughing matter.
I’m not saying there’s no room for humor about mental illness. There definitely is, and humor has been one of several strategies that have helped me process what happened to me. But humor must be used carefully.
I’ve written before about the complex relationship between humor and mental illness–here, here, here, here, and here. But this time, the situation is very different because the off-color jokes are coming not from comedians, television writers, novelists, or clueless friends of mine, but from people who know more about psychology than 99% of the population.
Unfortunately, I still haven’t quite worked up the courage to tell a person with a PhD that they’ve offended me.
Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.
Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3” on those posts.
But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”
Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.
Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.
I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.
If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”
What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.
Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.
Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.
If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.
And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.
I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”