For years I wrote one of those newsy Christmas letters. I tried to keep mine short and down-to-earth but one year I apparently went too far. In an effort to not be pretentious, somewhere in my narrative I used the word “shit”.
“There are a dozen or so words that should not appear in any Christmas greeting,” my husband laughed when he read the letter. “I’m pretty sure that ‘shit’ is one of them.”
It was too late, the letters had been mailed, and if friends or relatives were offended that year they didn’t mention it. I’m fairly certain that I can think of at least a dozen words that would have been worse, and you probably can too. Still, now that I’m older and wiser, I try to extend holiday greetings that don’t make anyone wince.
Fast forward to 2015, when I have been asked by a few people what I think of some Louisiana family’s attempt at a funny Christmas card that involved putting duct tape over the mom and daughter’s mouths. Outrage abounds, and I get why. There are probably a dozen or so things that should not appear in your Christmas family photo and duct-taped family members is one of them. However, people can make any stupid joke they want on their own holiday cards. In this case, the mom and female photographer both thought the photo was funny.
I admit that there was something oddly creepy about the duct tape on the little girl. It would have been less offensive if they’d just used mom and dad for the joke. Had these folks been my friends, I might have mentioned to them that their cards were a little tasteless, but then again not. I still think of Aunt Trudie, who stalwartly pretended she never noticed my little profanity.
What I wouldn’t have done, if I’d received the card, is laughed. I personally don’t find jokes that make fun of groups of people (including women) particularly humorous. Because of that, I’ve been accused most of my life of having no sense of humor …. which is odd because I think I’ve got a great one. I find lots of things funny — irony, puns, some sorts of silliness and certainly my own shortcomings. I just don’t find making fun of other people to be funny, at least when it involves any kind of mean streak …. and it is amazing how much humor is grounded in that.
I’ve wasted a lot of breath over the years trying to explain that there is a difference between the humor of those normally at a disadvantage (about those who have the upper hand), and humor on the part of those with the upper hand (that makes fun of the disadvantaged). When those who hold the power (be it by size, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental capabilities or wealth) demean those who don’t, there is an ugly element of repression and aggression there.
I realize that this is a subtle distinction to some, and yes there are grey areas. Also at some point the joke is just plain mean no matter who makes it about whom. I’d put any Christmas card involving duct tape over anyone’s mouth in this latter category. In other words, this one is still not funny even if the women are gloating and the males have their mouths taped shut. It’s in bad taste no matter how you do it.
I’ve noticed that being told to lighten up is a standard response to those unwilling to be part of mean-spirited humor. I wish there was an equally pithy response. Somehow, “heavy up” doesn’t work. That’s a shame, because in much of what passes for funny, we could use a heavier sense of the message behind the laughter. That heaviness might help us all distill the hurtful from the mirthful.
As for gentle humor, bring it on. I don’t think the world can have too much of that.