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?