Politics

What a Joke

I was at a play, something important and terribly sad, and at the most gut-wrenching moment of that play’s final scene, a man in the audience laughed. It was not a giggle, or even a chuckle. It was a sharp, barking crack, louder than the prop gun that had been fired moments earlier.

Rather than being rebuffed by fellow theater goers, as one might expect, this one laugh set off the rest of the audience. The entire crowd erupted. Short, muffled giggles at first, but then guffaws, peels, whoops. There were a few stunned faces that mirrored my own, but most people laughed.

After realizing the laughter was not going to cease, the actors mumbled their final lines and rushed off stage. The lights rose. The laughter died. The silence was horrible. No one in the audience could look at one another. No one dared move.

Laughter can be a response to a variety of stimuli, but I want to talk about the kind of laughter that erupts in response to tension. Like hearing an animal sound nearby and freezing, only to laugh when, after some time, nothing appears. Your body tensed, ready to fight or flight, but once the threat was gone, it needed a way to exorcise that tension, and so, you laughed.

Laughter can also be a communal release of societal tension. Ever had someone in a group break an uncomfortable silence with a joke? Probably a self-deprecating one? It’s a social tool to release tension as well.

And here we come to the problem of using “it is/was a joke” in response to allegations of sexual assault. When someone in a public position is accused of sexual assault, there is an immediate social tension: How should we, as the social, respond? And once this tension is created, we become invested in the release of this tension. Most people are not willing to wait in an awkward group silence. We as a culture would rather release the tension a claim of sexual assault gives us than continue to live with it.

Which is why “it was/is a joke” is so wonderfully convenient. Four words. Four words that release us. We don’t have to worry if it happened or the details of how it happened or anything else. We don’t have to sit with it at all. It happened, but it was a joke. Maybe the accuser didn’t find it funny. But hey, some people can’t take a joke.

And here, essentially, is the telling bit of referring to sexual assault as a misconstrued joke. The person who tells the joke gets to say it’s a joke, even if the person they told it to says it was not a joke. In fact, the person who tells the joke gets to say it is a joke even if millions of other people don’t think it is a joke. As long as they can find a few people who agree with them, it gets to count as a joke.

Because we all know that humor is subjective. Some people revel in puns. Others groan at them. Some people love the Three Stooges. Others find them idiotic. What makes us laugh, much more so than what makes us cry, is pretty difficult to nail down.  Which is why sexual predators love to say their predation is a joke. If all humor is subjective, then who’s to say sexual assault isn’t a joke?

There is a basic principle in humor of the benign violation, meaning that humor works by disrupting our concept of how the world normally functions in a way that causes no real harm. Here’s the thing about that construction—we can usually all agree on the first part, but the second? Well, therein lies the, ahem, rub.

To say sexual assault is a joke is to say that the violation of a woman’s body causes no harm. Think of the familiar comedic trope of honking a woman’s breasts, for example. The one we have photographic evidence of Al Franken conducting. The humor works by first making a body part make a noise it does not make, disrupting the natural order of the world. But to then think it is funny, one would have to think that groping a woman’s breasts causes no harm.

As I listened to Al Franken’s resignation speech on the Senate floor I could tell, I could absolutely tell, that he is going to say he considers what he did a joke. And of all the people who can and will bring this defense, a former comedian is one who can bring it most plausibly.

As the social, we have to not care if he genuinely thought he was being funny. We have to not care if all the people around him thought he was being funny. We have to say that accessing another person’s body without permission is never a joke. We have to say that sexual assault is not benign. We are going to have to sit in the uncomfortable tension of not being able to laugh it off.

These women are up there in the spotlight. Many have played their deepest, most vulnerable, sometimes most horrifying tragedies for us all to see. In response, the accused laughs. When he does so, we cannot join. If we laugh, we are agreeing that sexual assault is benign.

And what happens, then, when the lights come-up?

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Our Progressive Country Through a Glass, Darkly

The Friday after the election I took the train up to Chicago to join the protests. I found two separate gatherings. The first protest was outside the Trump building. I could hear it from the El station. These folks were angry. Their signs proclaimed “Not My President” and “Re-Count” and other variations of the same. The second was held in a park, with children and music and colorful signs, most of which claimed “Love Trumps Hate” or some version thereof. At this one, a young woman from Northwestern interviewed me. She asked, among many things, what my reaction had been on election night, how I had processed it all. I said that I wanted information. I needed percentages. I needed it broken down by precincts. I needed them compared to the results before the Voting Rights Act was gutted. And then I said the most telling thing.

“It just didn’t seem possible,” I said.

She nearly jumped in her eagerness to ask, “Why not?”

“Look,” I said. “People of color have been telling us for a long time that this is what our country is. I always thought it was maybe 20% this, but on the whole, we were better. I thought I was listening. I didn’t listen well enough.”

She asked a few more questions, then moved on to the next protestor. I kept thinking about what I had said. It didn’t seem possible. I hadn’t said those words before that moment. I hadn’t said much of anything, really. Sad. Angry. Scared. Exhausted. Words hadn’t come yet.

It didn’t seem possible, I had said. But what, exactly, was it?

After leaving the protests, I walked along the lake front and I began to cry. I did not sob. No one turned to look at me or avoided eye contact. They were slow, sporadic tears, brushed easily away by my gloved hands. I kept walking until they ceased. I hadn’t identified the antecedent yet, but an outline had emerged.

The next morning, I met a good friend for breakfast. This person is one of the most caring, kind-hearted, lovely people I have ever known. I don’t believe we have ever spoken cross words to one another. That morning, however, this person began working-out what to say to their family of Trump supporters over the holidays. I responded by saying how grateful I was that none of my immediate family had voted for him. I was done having those conversations. I was going to work harder at listening and supporting the people of color in my life and in my community and in my country. I was exhausted by the narrative of the “forgotten white working class.”

Our exchange sharpened. This person felt like I was attacking their family. I felt like I was defending mine. My voice began to rise. Theirs followed.

I don’t remember how the conversation ended. The meal ended and we both needed to get on with our day. (The privilege of this, of our ability to literally walk away from the discussion, is not lost on me.) We did not leave angry. We hugged when we parted. But there was a shard there, something sharp between us that had never been there before.

What I know now, what I can recognize now, is that we were grieving, and that the friction between us was the frustration of being in differing stages of grief.

How could this person be justifying this? I thought.

How can this person be so dismissive? They wondered.

They were bargaining and I was angry. We conflicted because our ways of processing grief did not align. Of all the lessons I have learned from Roxane Gay, the one I hold dearest is the action of not judging another person’s grieving process. We all do what we must to live with loss, and the ways we do so are not always pretty.

Shocked White America Liberals (SWALs) experienced a loss on election night. I do not simply mean we lost the election. Elections have been lost before. What we lost on election night was our story. In this story, America was the land of progress. Sure, there was slavery, and Native American genocide, and Japanese American internment camps, and Jim Crow, and gay bashing, and, and, and, and, but those things were in the past. We were better than our forefathers. We were creating an ever-more inclusive and humane society. Look, we have a black president. Look how much better we are. Do not look at Trayvon. Do not look at Flint. Do not look at domestic violence rates. Do not look at Native suicides. Look at Obama. Keep looking. Keep feeling good about our country. Keep looking at our president.

And then the president became Donald Trump and our story died.

In the wake if this death, we began to grieve in the ways we knew how.

What other than denial explains that Jill Stein, of all the desperate saviors to seek, raised $7.33 million dollars to challenge the results? How else to explain why I “kept wanting more information”? If evidence of voter suppression could be found, then we could deny that Trump is our story.

Anger lashed-out at Hillary. She should have done more. Done different. Been more. Been different. Anger took to the streets. Bullhorns and signs and chanting. I joined those bodies. We railed outside the walls of Trump’s narrative but could not, in the end, make them fall.

Bargaining followed swiftly. People hoped the Electoral College would make this a lie. Petitions were signed. Social media was awash in Obi-Wan Kanobe memes. I decided I would quit my job, go to law school, move to Alabama, and work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. This was my version of “if you’ll just let this not be true, Lord.”

Depression took many forms. We ate too much. We drank too much. We hooked up. We stopped hooking up. My depression took these forms as well. I also stopped writing anything new, the effort of imagination too taxing.

As for acceptance, well, some are there, some aren’t. I think we can see a level of acceptance in the number of SWALs who have joined social justice groups and the numbers running for political office, even in the deepest crimson of districts. For many years, I considered my teaching, specifically the way I try to use my teaching as a means of confronting systemic oppression, to be enough service. In the story where our country was progressing towards greater equality, we all thought something we were doing was enough. The story of Trump’s America tells us that there can ever be enough.

Which doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Our SWAL privilege must be used to directly combat his story. As individuals, it is never enough. Together, it sometimes can be. But in order to do this, I think we must also recognize our loss for what it is. The story of Our Progressive Country, the one we told ourselves when Obama became president, and doubled-down on when he was reelected, and went all-in on when we believed a woman would hold the position next, that story died. We should grieve it in the ways we need to grieve it and not judge each other for the different expressions of grief we take. Sometimes, I play Obama’s old interviews (my God, it already feels like they happened thirty years ago) just to feel again that old story. It’s the way I read old love letters to feel again that past love.

But just as those old letters hold only the bright, warm slivers of those past relationships, the Obama interviews hold only the bright, warm parts of our nation’s story those eight years. And this was never the whole story.

So while SWALs must do what we will to grieve the story of Our Progressive Country, we must also recognize that the story was a fictional one. Not entirely a lie. No believable story is ever entirely a lie. Obama was president. SCOTUS passed gay marriage. The ACA became law. There were bright, warm days. But to deny the darker ones makes us complicit in the systems that forged them.

There are probably a thousand analogies I could use to understand the effect of Trump’s election. For myself, at least, I think of it as a death, and I give myself the license to mourn as I will, knowing that the stages are rarely linear, and that they cycle through again and again and again. I am angry. I am depressed. I am in denial. I am bargaining. I am accepting. Shuffle. Repeat.*

But though grief must be accepted and processed in whatever ways we will, it must also be met with a certain resistance. Grief occupies a land between the living and the dead, and this liminal space can be seductive.

We must not stay. The living need us. Our grief over the death of Our Progressive Country is not as important as the lives of those who need us most in Trump’s America. We helped write this tale by accepting the romantic lie over the difficult truth. If we want a different story, our complicity is the first difficult truth we must face.


*It’s important to note the white privilege inherent in mourning without being criminalized for it.

I wasn’t ever going to write anything about this election. There are far smarter people handling it, and I don’t think one more white woman’s voice is what anyone needs. I still don’t. But this blog isn’t a national one; it’s a personal one. I told a friend recently I should just title it “one white girl’s awakening.” This election plays a pretty big part in that awakening. I don’t know that I can ever be fully woke, but I can keep awakening, and this space is where I try to be honest about that process.

Image taken from Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly