Almost every issue that we discuss today has had its comedic treatment, from education policy to marriage equality. People's views are parodied, explained, attacked, and defended. However, for all of comedy's ability to promote public discussion, the laughter of an audience has to be one of the most rhetorically violent events that can happen to person in his lifetime.
We hide from people laughing at us; we expend an abnormal amount of time making sure that we are not laughed at in public. It might be okay in a certain social situation (e.g. 21st party) but by and large our journeys out into the real world are marked by a rigid set of controls we designed so that we might not be publicly embarrassed, at least not too much.
We all have those embarrassing moments that we dread. Surely that archetypal childhood nightmare of going to school in our pyjamas is part of our young selves orientating toward fear of the laughter of our peers. This kind of comedy is a sort of spontaneous event, taking advantage of others unfortunate circumstances. However, in society we have another kind of comedy, a kind that takes that general spontaneous laughter and institutionalises it.
In New Zealand, there has recently been a spat of Facebook pages that purport to raise awareness about the 'babeness' that exists on the various university campuses. For example the 'UC Babe of the day' page etc., etc., etc. The existence of these pages naturally started a public discussion (which you can see part of here: www.stuff.co.nz).
People discussed the existence of these pages as revealing some of the deeply ingrained impulses in New Zealand society. Are we really sexist? Misogynistic? The conversation ranged across the New Zealand public with students, journalists, academics, and feminists joining in. What was remarkable (and you can see it in the comments on the bottom of the article) was the attempt at defending these pages that was made in the face of charges of sexism.
Amongst the absurd and almost beyond-caricature examples of sexism was the claim that this was all 'just a bit of fun'. I have heard this claim repeated so often, every time somebody expresses offence at something popular. Maybe there are times when this response is appropriate, although I can't think of any good examples that easily.
Let me speak personally here: the next time I hear someone say, in the face of a charge of sexism, it was all just a laugh, I will be sorely tempted to punch that person in the face. That sounds pretty extreme, and I doubt that I would actually have the nerve to go through with it, but as far as I can see, this is exactly what they are doing to the person who expressed offence.
It's a piece of rhetorical violence that takes that generic kind of embarrassing humour mentioned above, and says that, in the face of something potentially offensive and degrading, the right response is to find some sort of humorous enjoyment in it. The expected humour is violent in the way that it closes down dialogue. It's a very sophisticated way of not actually listening to somebody else, and of silencing people who disagree with you.
We as Christians have a particular duty to avoid this, I think. Christ's love for the outsider modelled the exact opposite of this kind of jocular disengagement. He listened and responded. I am not saying we must always agree with the person offended, but we should take the time to listen attentively. We ought not to worry that somebody outside of our circle has questioned our privilege.
Christ never laughed at his detractors or his prosecutors. He went about the very serious business of saving the world with sober seriousness (not to say he did not use humour, but he never used it to silence people, but rather to reveal their own absurdity) and he never used humour on somebody in a position of weakness.
So next time your position is challenged, and your pastime is confronted as offensive, check yourself. Are you laughing your way past somebodies complaints, and treading over their voice with your own enjoyment? How untrue that old adage we learn is: 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me'. In our democratic society words are all we have. Don't let them be silenced in the face of an unfeeling laugh.
Dale Wang (22) is studying his final year of a BA(hons) in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading Bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html