I was only Joking

What are we allowed to joke about? What does this show us about the limits we set ourselves and the limits that society places upon us? I have been thinking about the sorts of words that we can use in jest/sarcastically, and those words/concepts which it is taboo to joke about or talk about sarcastically. Joking and sarcasm (hereafter just joking) are an intentional misuse of a word or idea to create humour or communicate disregard. I have found that often people use joking to create an in-group and an out-group. Much has been said about the evils of in-groups and out-groups, but I think that they are inevitable. The more pressing issue to me seems to be about how the in/out-group dynamic operates (rather than trying to abolish these dynamics). That is not what this small essay is about, though.

In order to narrow the scope of these reflections, I will focus on the mis/use of names. I don’t know if this is a long-lasting phenomenon, but after about the age of 18 I started to notice the use of first names as a description — I think the most widely know version of this is a “Karen”. These descriptions are rarely (if ever?) complimentary. Given names are used as signifiers of a whole person, this usage strikes me as pretty abhorrent (though I confess to having spoken in this way many times). When we misuse a name to criticise or more simply to curse (e.g., “For Pete’s sake”. Also, I think that cursing is probably what is going on in the Karen case, even though cursing is little discussed in modern speech) we associate the whole identity of many (innocent) individuals with the thing to be criticised. I am sure that people who regularly speak in this way will protest that they are not doing this and that they are just using a turn of phrase, but this leads to my central point — their careless misuse of words demonstrates a careless attending to the power of words; particularly to organise the world into categories to speed-up (and therefore enable) thought. Names are an example of abstraction, and are a key tool that we use to structure our experience and allow us to imagine/reason at increasingly higher levels of complexity. This is because they act as placeholders for a complex reality without us having to hold all that complexity in our heads at once (e.g., imagine having to describe the inner workings of a leaf every time you wanted to use the word “leaf” — biology textbooks would be considerably longer and needlessly more complicated).

The upshot of this is that when we misuse a name, we muddy our conception of those people by associating an incorrect thing with that name; therefore, we are intentionally feeding ourselves and others a false view of reality. The often humorous ways in which we misuse names in this way further reduces our ability to critically reflect on how language use is shaping how we see the word (as humour is about establishing a social connection and so is very good at muting our strictly rational capacities of critical reflection/analysis).

I have surprised myself in these reflections — I am usually of the opinion that folk should be allowed to say what they want and that restriction on speech is dangerous. While I still agree with that general view, I have convinced myself of the evil of misusing names, perhaps not to the point of legislation but certainly to the point of “that which is acceptable in society”. Not joking in this way displays and promotes a recognition of the dignity of individuals and the value of individual people — a value that I am very willing to support publicly!

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