It’s too bad that Hannah is only 6 years old, because the world offered up a great lesson for her today. With the transition to kindergarten, she has been occasionally struggling with kids being “mean” to her. The first time this popped up (over the summer during camp) it struck me to the core. I felt terrible inside and wanted to storm down to the school, demand to talk to one of the camp counselors and possibly just pull her right out of the public school.
However, after some more digging into what was bothering her, the problem was not as nefarious as I had originally thought. I was imaging merciless teasing and horrible ostracizing of my darling daughter. But many times the issue was more subtle. It usually involved a poorly told, although harmless, joke. One such example is:
Boy in class: “Knock, knock”
Hannah: “Who’s there?”
Hannah: “Poop who?”
Boy: “Poop on your head!”
Is this joke good? No (although it is probably high comedy to a 6 year old. Just ask my family about “Danny Partridge” jokes…) Is this joke intended to slam the recipient? Probably not. Overall it seems like an excuse for a 6 year old to say the word “Poop” and then laugh hysterically. However, this joke and other experiences like it have on occasion gotten Hannah all riled up and thinking that everyone at school is mean. Which then puts me, the parent, in a precarious position.
On the one hand, I need to validate my daughter’s feelings and let her know that I love her, care about her and support her. On the other hand, I need to try to teach her that not everything that another person says that she doesn’t like that also happens to include her name in the same sentence (the use of her name in The Name Game has lately also fallen into this category) is an effort to hurt her feelings or be mean to her. To me, these things sound rather harmless, but then again, I wasn’t there. Maybe the child in question really was doing it to be mean to Hannah. Then again, does it really matter, because no matter what the intent was, Hannah’s feelings were clearly hurt. It is a delicate dance to dance. How do you explain all of the intricacies of humor to a 6 year old? Or anyone for that matter?
An effort at humor by The Onion today drew some attention and would have been a great lesson for Hannah about humor and joking. As you can tell from my Twitter feed at the side of the blog, I am a big fan of The Onion (I retweet 2-3 of their tweets on a daily basis). Extremely sarcastic and witty, with the occasional swear word and a willingness to go all out and not pull any punches make it my favorite source of humor. For example, today they posted this article lampooning the state of affairs in our Nation’s Capitol. Swear words, check. Timely and snarky, check. Walking on the border of appropriateness, probably. I didn’t find anything wrong with the article and if that was all that was involved, I don’t think it would have garnered any attention. The problem was the tweet they sent early this morning to get this “story” started:
TheOnion The Onion
BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.
When The Onion does something, they do it all out. If you are going to be a fake news source, you are going to play it all the way, so from a pure comedy standpoint, a tweet like this to get the story started makes sense. However from every other angle, this tweet is at minimum in poor taste. Not surprisingly this isolated tweet lit up Twitter and got a great many people rightfully worried about loved ones that worked at the Capitol Building. The Capitol Police even got involved and were none too happy about this entire situation.
In general, I think the world has trended to being a little too politically correct. There are plenty of situations that I just want to say people “Lighten up and stop taking yourself so seriously”. And maybe that is the case here too. Multiple people have stated that you deserve to be taken for a ride if you don’t recognize that The Onion is a fake news source and act accordingly. But even though I imagine myself as rather humor savvy, still did a double take and went to check other news sources. When it comes to humor, who is right and who is wrong? Are we too PC or not PC enough? When has something really gone too far?
Orson Welles is lauded as a genius for starting varying (and apparently debated) levels of hysteria with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. What is the difference between what he did and what The Onion did? To me it feels different because of the age that we live in. Is this not as big of a deal if things like 9/11, Columbine, Northern Illinois, Virginia Tech and too many other episodes of violence had never happened to make people rightfully sensitive to images of people being senselessly gunned down or otherwise harmed? The Onion clearly has the right to do it (woo hoo First Amendment!) but should they have? I am still not sure what is ultimately right, but in a vacuum that isolated tweet leaves me with an ill feeling inside, even for an obviously fake news source.
Shockingly, one of my favorite times of the year is when I find out that there is another Comedy Central Roast of some celebrity (The roast of Charlie Sheen is currently calling to me from the DVR.) Invariably, the jokes told are horrendously offensive in more ways that can be counted. Nothing is off limits. Race, sexuality, religion, life-altering personal tragedies. They are a free for all. And I laugh hysterically and enjoy myself immensely, in part because there are some things that get said that I cannot believe actually left the mouth of a human being. The amazing part is that no one ever gets in trouble, no one’s feelings get hurt and everyone hugs at the end. This is shown on national television and recorded for posterity! These jokes get told in any other venue or they are career enders. Why is that? Is it because everyone comes into the situation knowing what the rules are (that there are no rules) and that makes it okay… because everyone there is a willing participant? Is it because it is understood that no one is doing this out of anger, so its okay?
But that doesn’t work in the real world. People say this all the time after telling a joke about a Polish/Irish/gay/Arab/Muslim/Jewish/Mexican/Native American/Canadian/handicapped/Chinese/Black/guy/girl. “It’s just a joke.” “I didn’t mean anything by it.” “I like [fill in the group of people that was just the butt of the joke] people. I have a friend who is […]”
But as much as we would try to rationalize it away, intent is really only part of the equation. Communication, humorous or not, is a two-way street and the message that the other party receives is real and valid, whether it was the message you intended to send or not. And humor is so dangerous because, more than most other types of communication, it leaves so much up to interpretation.
Humor is tremendously powerful. It can make a small, scared child smile in the doctor’s office and put them (and their parents) at ease. It can also get you kicked out of the medical profession. In a way, I find that humor perfectly encapsulates the enigma that is the human being. When used for good, they both hold limitless power to break down barriers and spread joy to all. But when used for evil, a wake of destruction that knows no depth or bounds is just as possible.
Maybe when Hannah is 7 years old, she will be able to understand all of this. As long as we haven’t all been conquered by invading aliens by then.