Insensitive Jokes: Coping with Humor or Outright Cruelty?
I have a friend who has a sight disability. I have always been fascinated by his ability to tell who is walking towards him so I asked him how he does it. His explanation was that as his sight continues to fail, his other senses become sharper. He has no option but to start thinking about smells, footsteps and patterns. This has meant that he can pretty much work out who is where by relying on his other senses. Recently I made a faux pas but he was quite nice about the whole thing. Fred is a nice guy like that but I don’t know whether there might be some resentment there. Those of us who still have all our faculties can be insensitive and cruel sometimes.
Here: I am not talking about the psychopaths who deliberately target disabled people for abuse. I am instead talking about those that think they are making things better when in fact they are making it worse. We were going to visit a mutual friend and I had forgotten the directions. Fred told me he knew the way but then we got lost again. So, in order to make light of the moment I said: “It’s a bit like the blind leading the blind”. He smiled knowingly but I immediately winced. How could I have said such a thing to my friend? I apologized profusely but Fred told me not to worry. “I know it was a joke…you are not like that”. I nevertheless felt so guilty. I who prided myself on being sensitive to the needs of others was guilty of making this tasteless joke.
I then remembered how Vice President Joe Biden had once asked a wheelchair bound person to stand up and be counted. Of course we all knew about Biden’s gaffes but I am certain he did not mean any offense. The point is that the offense was created, at least in the minds of those that were attending the meeting. Quite often the people who are abled feel that they ought to know better than to put things like that out there. Fred told me that people with disabilities tend to feel worse when they are the recipients of pity. For him it is actually a personal issue: girls think that he is so blind that he cannot do the deed. That means that he has to work twice as hard as abled people to close the deal when dating. “Everything else works just fine. It is just that I can’t see as well as you…but I can manage”
Insensitive Jokes: Checking our Prejudices
I think that is a message that would resonate with many people who have a disability. Nobody wants to be treated as if they were a piece of porcelain. We like to think that other people believe we are competent and worthy of respect. That is why there are people who are in need but will turn down charity offers. A pity party is no fun for the person that is on the receiving end. Fred can get quite angry when he feels that people are patronizing him. He tells me that it is much better if they come out with something that is politically incorrect but genuine. To him, genuine people are far better than those who pretend to care so much about his welfare. His words to describe it were ‘those that cry more than the bereaved”.
So how should an abled person behave around a person that has some sort of disability. I suppose it is all to do with the closeness of your friendship. The last thing you want to do is to make insensitive jokes about a disability in front of a perfect stranger. No matter how light hearted the comment is, they will not understand it. Even the Freds of this world would soon lose their patience if someone that they hardly knew started to make insensitive jokes around them. At the same time, I am very sympathetic to those that have made innocent mistakes. You tell a joke and it comes out wrong or the other person develops a look of horror and hurt on their face. You try to rescue the situation and make it even worse.
Now that is very different from the people at work or in any other public place decide that it is open season on disabilities. These are normally the crass brutish types that hide behind the cloak of freedom of expression. I get so irritated when people say hateful things and when I call them out on it, they immediately tell me how I am a “snowflake” and how my generation of millennials are too politically correct for their own good. I just think that we have the obligation to follow the acceptable social conventions of dealing with the people that we meet in life. You don’t have to be an expert in disability rights to know that there are certain restrictions on how you have to behave at work. The words may in fact be merely a precursor for other forms of discrimination including the loss of a job or great opportunities.
Insensitive Jokes: The Prejudice of Words Breeds Other Prejudices
They used to tell us when we were kids that “sticks and stones…etc.”. As I have grown older, I have actually come to the conclusion that words have meanings. They can be hurtful but they can also start the process of other forms of hurtful discrimination. Hitler started with words and speeches before he went on his murderous campaign. Many of the sociopaths that commit terrible crimes against minorities have an array of verbal indicators that they put out before they do the deed. Besides the emotional scars that hurtful words bring can take longer to heal than the physical wounds that result from the actions of the prejudiced person. That is why I think that the fight against political correctness is overrated.
The people that were fighting for freedom of expression and speech were talking about very different things from the kind of nonsense we get from trolls. They were talking about a government that becomes so powerful that it starts trying to control the way in which people think, feel and express themselves. Of course this is a futile exercise because our nature as human beings allows us to dissemble and to deceive when we want to mask our true intentions. That does not stop the state from trying and those that fall foul of its onerous rules are soon put in their place with brutal recriminations and consequences. That is a very different form of struggle from the mutterings of a prejudiced social Neanderthal who seeks to wound others by their thoughtless words and actions.
In fact, most of those that complain so much about freedom of speech became autocratic and angry the moment that I start seriously challenging their views. To them, any query concerning their views is tantamount to the government stopping them from expressing themselves. They fail to realize that we are all entitled to enjoy this world without being marginalized and harassed by people with their own hang ups. These people are not the kind of accidentally offensive people who make a genuine mistake, even if it does hurt. I use the analogy of a child that is not yet socialized and makes a comment that is so true but also quite disturbing when you think about it.
From the Mouths of Babes
I was once in an office and there this child who had serious physical disabilities and had been disfigured from birth. To say that his appearance was unusual is an understatement. All of us in the office were too polite to say anything. Then this kid came running in after his father. He took one look at the child and exclaimed “Ewww. Daddy. This boy has been fighting and has been beaten real bad”. We could not help but smile. That child was innocent and nobody could seriously claim that he wanted to hurt the disabled child.
The thing is that when we grow up, we are supposed to know better. You know that you cannot say everything that comes into your brain or else run the risk of getting punched. It is part of the socialization process. Those that miss the socialization process are going to cause offense. It is a mark of maturity and self-awareness to be able to realize that you may have caused offense. We have a number of less than complimentary words for those people that go through life hurting others without have a single care in the world. “Narcissist” comes to mind and we tend to avoid such people because we know that they can become dangerous if their pathologies remain unchecked.
I know that Fred really likes me and understood my mistake. I hope that having reflected on what happened, I might be a bit more sensitive in the future about the people who are around me. Careless hurtfulness is still hurtful no matter what your original intentions are.