When Is It Okay to Joke About Abuse?

“Abuse” for the purposes of this article refers to any cruel, physically/sexually/verbally violent or psychologically damaging treatment inflicted on any person.

It is evident to me recently that a lot of people I know are considerably attached to making jokes about abuse. Why? I don’t know. That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way. I genuinely would like to know. Why is this such an important right to so many? Why is this of all things their hill to die on?

Since I am confident that people will never just stop making jokes about abuse, I’ve made a handy guide to help ensure that at least you are joking about abuse in a constructive way. Yes, it can be done. But it requires immense empathy and immense care. And even then, it is likely you will fail.

So. When is it okay to joke about abuse?

It Is Absolutely Not Okay When…

you imply in any way that the victim deserved it.

I should not have to explain this one. Whether or not it’s “just a joke,” you wouldn’t say something like this if you were exercising even an ounce of empathy. You wouldn’t say it at all if you were even trying to be funny. Your only goal here is be cruel. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and stop reading this? I can already tell you are beyond my reach. 

the act of abuse or the manner of it is presented as funny.

I don’t care how it happened or to whom it happened. The simple occurrence of abuse is not a joke in and of itself. It is not funny in and of itself. And if you think so, you are absolutely a sociopath. Please seek help.

you’re doing it for shock value.

You would think this would be evident already, but no. There are literally millions of idiots out there who think “shocking” equals “funny”. Occasionally, the two go hand in hand, but one absolutely does not beget the other. Assuming so is like seeing a nice cisgender, heterosexual couple out on a romantic walk together and then asking the woman what it was like when she gave birth to the man. This is a classic logical fallacy known as “False Cause”. Unlearn the idea that that shock value is inherently humorous. It’s not.

you are hijacking a serious discussion about abuse.

I cannot even count how many times I have been discussing my experiences with being abused in a serious manner, during a serious conversation, only to have some dude (it’s always a dude) feel compelled to crack a quip about it. If you want to know what it feels like to bring up the most painful and regrettable parts of your personal experience only to have someone effectively turn it all into a fucking joke for everyone else to laugh about instead of listening to and engaging with you, I will tell you. It feels like a betrayal. 

If you can’t handle being expected to empathize with someone else’s very real, enduring emotional pain for just one minute of your life, then you need to isolate yourself from humanity. There are three appropriate responses when you feel that someone else’s lived trauma is making you personally uncomfortable, and they are:

  1. Suck it up and keep your mouth shut.
  2. Suck it up and keep your mouth shut.
  3. Go fuck yourself.

it violates one of the above rules, but it’s just really, REALLY funny.

First of all, if the possibility of making one (1) solitary funny joke is more important to you than not behaving in a way that is ethically reprehensible, we have a problem I am not equipped to address. That said, there is not a single person on this planet hilarious enough to make a mean-spirited joke at the expense of abuse survivors that is actually funny. And if there were, trust me, it would not be you.

Probably Don’t When…

it’s ostensibly satire.

Here is the thing about satire. Real satire is a tool used to make a point. Real satire says something pointed and necessary. Real satire highlights the problematic aspects of power structures. Real satire is not, I repeat, is not when you say something derogatory toward those who have suffered and then say “but I didn’t mean it haha it was a joke, relax.” Satire is a tool, not an excuse. Say it with me. “Satire is a tool, not an excuse.” Write it down if you have to. Satire is a tool, not an excuse.

The other thing about satire is that the point you are making should be evident. I should not have to puzzle over your joke for several minutes wondering to what degree you meant the things you said. There should be no gray area surrounding your motives in choosing to say your piece. There is a time and a place for subtlety, but in this case, your true point must be obvious. 

Not sure if your satirical joke makes the cut? Run it by a friend first. And I don’t mean your “Freedom of Speech” bro whom you know is going to egg you on no matter what you say. I mean someone who is discerning and empathetic whom you can trust to tell you the truth.

the abuse survivor made a joke about it first.

It’s important to respect the narratives of others and to recognize that they do not belong to you. Just because someone makes a joke about their own experience, that does not give you license to join in. It’s not the same thing. That said, there are extenuating circumstances in which a joke might be okay, if other criteria are also met. I will get into that shortly.

It Is Maybe Okay When…

you are joking about your own personal experience.

Hey, we all do what we have to to reclaim control of our memories and our narratives. If joking about your past and/or present abuse helps you survive or feel strong, then go ahead. I do it often. But please, for your own sake and for the sake of your fellow survivors, be kind to yourself. You deserve kindness from yourself.

you are joking about abuse in general, and the joke highlights the transgressions of abusers/abuse enablers.

If you have a sick burn on abusers in general or about a high-profile abuser like Bill Cosby, then that’s probably fine. When you get into specific instances of abuse (especially involving someone you know personally), things get really murky, really quickly. But, in general, I’d say feel free to slam abusive shitheads the world over. Just make sure you’re not making these jokes in the presence of someone who might find the discussion triggering. It is always beneficial to take extra care with these things.

you have an epic burn lined up for the specific abuser of someone who is present, active and in control of the current conversation, who introduced the topic of their own abuse themselves, and who is comfortable with joking about it.

Say you have a friend who has been abused. Of course you’re angry at the fucker who did it. Come on, that’s your friend! You’ve got the most epic, no-holds-barred takedown of this garbage human being in your holster. Is it okay to let it fly?

Maybe, but make sure a few key things are checked off, first:

Is your friend present? If not, that’s dicey. Maybe they don’t want their experience to be public knowledge. Maybe there’s something in your joke they object to that you could not have foreseen. I know I would feel a little weird if my friends were talking about my abuser when I wasn’t around. I think it’s just safer if the affected party is present to speak for themselves.

Does your friend hold power in the current conversation? There are times when I’ve stood on the fringes of a conversation while other people trade jokes about my lived experience. It’s surreal, and it’s incredibly upsetting to listen to multiple other people talk about your personal trauma while you can’t get a word in edgewise. Make sure your friend is in control and being heard. Things will go sour when they no longer feel safe.

Did the topic come up from the survivor? Don’t introduce the topic just so you can drop your hilarious joke, man. That’s really messed up. Your friend shouldn’t have to talk about or hear about their abuse unless they choose to. There are so few aspects of emotional trauma we can control. Give your friend this one choice.

Did your friend make it clear that jokes were okay? This is calling back all the way to the first section of this guide. Don’t hijack someone’s serious discussion of abuse to make your joke. Read the room. If your friend is approaching the topic with an attitude that makes it apparent that a funny takedown of their abuser would be welcome, then you’re probably in the clear. But be prepared to apologize and make amends if you’ve misread the situation.

In the end, it’s probably not worth taking the risk.

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