“I was only joking”

There was a very interesting set of tweets yesterday that dissected the social implications of saying, “I was only joking.” To paraphrase:

I’ve been mulling on the application of this analysis of humor with respect to the infamous “Donglegate” incident. Many men in tech responded with anger and fear over a conference attendee getting fired over a sexist joke. “It was only a joke!” they cried.

However, the justification falls flat if we assume that you’re never “just joking” and that jokes define in groups or out groups. The sexist joke shared between two white males (who were part of the dominant culture of conferences in 2013) defined them as part of the “in-group” and pushed the African American woman who overhead the “joke” into the “out-group”.

When the woman pushed back against the joke in by tweeting about it with a picture of the joker, the people who were part of the in-group who found that joke “funny” were angry. When the joker was fired, it was a sign that they were no longer the favored, dominant group. Fear of loss of social status is a powerful motivator, which is what caused people from the joke’s “in-group” to call for the woman to be fired as well.

Of course, it wasn’t all men who blasted the woman for reacting to a “joke”. There were many women who blasted the reporter for “public shaming”, or who thought the woman was being “too sensitive”, or rushed to reassure men that they had never experienced sexist jokes at conferences. Which brings us to the topic of “chill girls”:

The need for women to fit into a male-dominated tech world means that “chill girls” have to laugh at sexist jokes in order to be part of the “in-group”. To not laugh, or to call out the joker, would be to resign themselves to the “out-group”.

Humans have a fierce need to be socially accepted, and defining in-groups and out-groups is one way to secure that acceptance. This is exemplified in many people’s push back against what they see as too much “political correctness”.

For example, try getting your friends to stop using casually abelist terms like “lame”, “retarded”, “dumb”, or “stupid”. Bonus points if you can get them to remove classist terms like “ghetto” or homophobic statements like “that’s so gay”. What you’ll face are nonsense arguments like, “It’s just a word.” People who call out these terms are berated and no longer “cool”. Unconsciously or consciously, the person will try to preserve the in-groups and out-groups, and their own power from being a part of the in-group.

Stop laughing awkwardly. Your silence is only lending power to oppression. Start calling out people for alienating jokes. Stop preserving the hierarchy of classism, ablism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism.

6 thoughts on ““I was only joking”

  1. I think the issue is this… how far can you go before a joke no longer is a joke. Yes, it may be “just a joke” but if it isn’t funny?

    To be clear, I hate political correctness. However, it is quite painful to see a woman trying to get her foot in the door in an industry she *wants to work in* only to be given comments like “Look at how hot she is!”, “Nice tits”, and “Get back in the kitchen!”. (disclosure: I’m male. Shoot me now if you like!)

    I’ve been traveling through this blog, and whilst I tend to disagree that we should pick on everyone for “ableist”, “transphobic”, “homophobic”, etc. there are times when I agree with you; it can become a problem.

    For instance, someone making a “woman joke” once in an entire television series is not an issue. However, multiply that by a colossal factor, at a “geek conference”, and it doesn’t take long for it to get out of hand, and now you have a whole bunch of people start.

    I really don’t know where to stand on this. I hate political correctness, but I also hate bullying. It’s almost as if some of the responses you mentioned in this post are a little over the top, but at the same time, completely necessary.

    I used to think the best weapon for a joke is just to not laugh at it and give them a bit of a stare. It works well if you are the only person in the conversation; but what about a whole room?

    And if I get labeled as a “social justice warrior” then I’m happy to don the shields and put tiger marks on my face, metaphorically speaking!

  2. @Elton: good points (i.e., I feel more or less the same).

    @ Sarah: just to elaborate on an issue you only mentioned in passing (“public shaming”) – in my opinion and that of many people I have talked to, Adria Richards surely had a point in calling out behaviour that she deemed inappropriate.
    Shaming individuals on Twitter was probably not the most appropriate solution to the problem, however. I can absolutely understand her feelings but think that solving important, systemic issues via Twitter is inefficient, ineffective, and harmful.

    1. Twitter gives a way for marginalized people to connect and talk to each other, across country and state boundaries and socio-economic class boundaries. Slack fills a similar niche, IMO. Twitter is very effective at allowing people to spread information to a large group of people. I certainly think that people talking about harassment at conferences on Twitter caused people to ask their conference organizers to implement a Code of Conduct. We cannot create change without first making people aware of the problem, and that is what Twitter is good for.

  3. FWIW, I only understood @jaythenerdkid’s point when I clicked on that tweet to read the (extensive) rest of her point.

  4. I have to say – I was raised in an environment where making chauvinist comments were considered funny – because everybody is supposed to understand that these are outrageous (and false) things to be saying.

    However now that I’m a little older – I think it’s fair to say I agree fundamentally with Sarah. Making jokes is a strawman argument – patently some jokes are not funny – especially if someone feels excluded as a result of that joke. Recently I was in a group of men where the subject of a stay at home father came up – the most senior – manager guy in the group said “that’s just one step away from beeing a pufter (gay)” as a joke.

    Considering it was a group of 20 males – statistically speaking its likely there was at least one gay man in our group. You’d feel pretty uncomfortable – and unable to speak out in that situation. I’m not gay and still I didn’t feel I could speak out in that situation – so I can only imagine how it must have felt for someone else. I think people genuinely don’t stop to think about how their comments can be interpreted (I’ve done this myself) – or dismiss potential hurt feelings as only a joke and people should harden up.

    I think the right response is to calmly explain to people why what they do and say can be hurtful and try to imagine how it would feel to be negatively impacted by comments/actions of others.

    I think it’s difficult for people to put themselves in another person’s shoes and to understand that cumulative comments while relatively minor on their own – can amount to a kind of death by a thousands cuts to a person’s self esteem. And of course some people just don’t care – an unfortunate reality. We should take the time to separate those who ‘mis-speak’ from those who say what they say and don’t care if it hurts people’s feelings/esteem. The first sort of people should be mildly educated/rebuked – after all they don’t mean to cause offense – the second sort – should be opposed and called to task.

    That’s why I think the pycon guy getting fired is unfortunate and excessive – he certainly gave out signals to show he didn’t mean to cause offense. You would hope it would be possible for a company to express it’s disagreement with what he said without terminating his employment. People make mistakes, his mistake seemed innocent (presumably). Had he said what he had said in a malicious way – then by all means terminate him – else I feel his company should have wrapped him on the knuckles (metaphorically) and left it at that.

    The perception of disproportionate responses (if we accept firing was probably excessive) is the root of this idea of “political correctness gone mad”.


    That said – I don’t (as some do) blame liberals or ‘political correctness gone mad’ for the election of Trump and Brexit. What Trump espouses isn’t some sort of reset to balanced, sensible or proportionate world where people can demand to be treated equally and others can make mistakes and learn from those mistakes – he represents a slide into crypto-fascism, narcissism, racism – name an ism that’s bad and Trump is your man. Trump instead represents permission for sexists, racists and fascists to do pretty much whatever they feel like doing – he’s the anti-matter to political correctness.

    We should call out instances where we believe ourselves (or others) feel uncomfortable but equally we should be aware that people can (and do) innocently make mistakes and shouldn’t be hung, drawn and quartered for those mistakes – if only to take the wind out of the sails of Trump, the Brexiters and the Le Pen’s of the world.

    Also Sarah – you should come back to kernel development. I’m working with the XHCI driver now and I think it’s great, a credit to you. It’s a real loss to the community that you’ve set off away from it. Come back, set the example of how to behave, lead the way and call people to task when things are done or said you don’t agree with.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Bryan. Unfortunately, no, I will not come back to kernel development. There is a time and a place to lead with respect, but that can only happen if the project leadership allows the expression of dissenting views. I have no faith in the leadership to do the right thing or support me if harassment should occur. I choose to use my mental energy towards making other communities better, rather than calling out and fighting with a particular community. Besides, I’m having a boat load of fun with Python and NLP right now. 🙂

Comments are closed.