A Joke Has Power

An old friend and I used to argue about whether or not a joke could ever go too far. His view was that comedy was a kind of sacred art that put comedians and the work they produced beyond criticism. He thought those who did criticize the art of comedy were either too sensitive or too stupid or simply unenlightened. They just “didn’t get the joke”. His view was that, as an artist, a comedian should never have to feel bad for their expression. It was, after all, beyond their control how their “expression” parsed and understood by the public, right?

My view was that, though of course everyone everywhere is allowed to say whatever they want, that doesn’t mean that some things, jokes included, aren’t distasteful or even harmful. I thought that if comedy were such a sacred art, it should always be striving to make the message clear and comedians should use their gift for the good of humanity not to hurt its most vulnerable populations. My view was that where comedy did not meet these ideals, it should be criticized, and the artist behind the joke should bear some responsibility for its impact.

We would go back and forth every few days, him saying that if people didn’t like the joke a comedian made, then they should simply leave the club, or turn off the TV rather than criticize and me saying the harm wasn’t with the people who could leave or change the channel, the harm lay with those who would stay and laugh. Those who believed the ugliness being spread below every pun and wisecrack.

He would ask me again and again what kind of jokes I would deem off-limits and I would say the obvious ones were those that made light of sexual assault or abuse and those that reinforced painful stereotypes of race, nationality, sex, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. He would tell jokes that were examples of each and try to explain to me why they were so funny, why they were art. “Because rape is absurd”, he would say, or “because the stereotype is stupid”. After so many rounds, I usually just gave up feeling exhausted and hurt myself.

Looking back on the discussions now I can see that I lacked the language or the syntax to explain that our diverging viewpoints lay in the fact that we had clearly been hearing very different jokes over the course of our lives.

People make fun of each other for a lot of reasons. It’s a good way to bond. It’s a form of communication. A joke can make the truth of something easier to see and easier to swallow. A joke can even be an expression of love. Comedy lifts the spirits and brings us all together. I know that, and I also know that jokes can hurt and those who use them to hurt do so both intentionally and unintentionally.

What I tried to tell this friend was that perhaps he could not empathize with those who were hurting because he was not a part of the many groups being made fun of. He retorted that he himself had been bullied, and he himself had been the butt of jokes his whole life. Who would know better than he? What I couldn’t articulate was that though jokes about an individual person were painful (I know this firsthand too), they were not the same as jokes that reflected the long and widespread hate some people faced and felt hopeless to overcome in their day-to-day lives.

It’s one thing to have a joke thrown at you in anger, but some people have never had a joke thrown at them in disgust. Some people have never been able to see that the truth behind a joke was how much they were hated, not just by the person telling the joke, but by society at large. Some people were never afraid that with each telling of the joke that disgust would grow and put them in danger.

When I was young, my father used to make fun of women in front of me and from a very young age I understood the joke was never that “the stereotype of women being stupid is absurd”. The joke was simply that women were stupid. Those jokes were never directed at me, but later there would be others that were.

Growing up, my father’s side of the family would joke that anything I did that they didn’t like or understand was because of my “white side”. Those jokes hurt, but back then I couldn’t understand why, but I know now it was because it wasn’t a joke about me personally. What made the joke so harmful was it emphasized the place of mixed-race children as in-between and outside of both cultures they were born out of. The joke was about a stereotype of me and people like me, and also about the way the world viewed us then.

These are early and somewhat tame examples from my life, but there would be many more and much worse as I got older. I learned to navigate them, and then I had to learn to stop telling them myself. I learned that many people don’t understand their own jokes, and if asked to explain, they quickly grasp the harm they cause. I learned that many people laugh at jokes simply because others are laughing and that if we speak up, we might find others who will agree that it isn’t a matter of sensitivity, intelligence, enlightenment but of belief and impact.

Looking back, I did agree with my friend on one thing, comedy is a sacred art but where we disagreed was that comedy is beyond reproach. Jokes have power, and like any power, it can be used for good or for evil. They can hurt people as sure as any weapon and laughter is the hardest ammunition to defend against. Jokes have the power to reinforce cruel beliefs, or they can utterly shatter them and lift our consciousness.

I’m not just talking about jokes told on stages or aired on TV specials. I’m talking about the jokes you hear around the office, the memes you share on social media, and the one-liners you get off in a group of close friends. Each one seems so small on its own but take them all together with the ones you’ve uttered and the ones you’ve laughed at and you can see that humor is a big part of everyday human life.

We should ask more and better of such a complex and common medium. We should ask more of every joke and earn each laugh, be in the name of what is good, not what is easy. We should examine why something is funny and whether that makes it right to say. A joke should never be funny because it is hurtful. A joke should never be funny because it belittles, offends, or spreads hate. A joke is never just a joke. A joke, in some ways, is the most serious thing you can tell another person.

A joke has power, and that should never be taken lightly.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 1: Joke

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

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Concepts I’m Lingering With

Different ways to tell a lie/mixing secondary colors/the addicting bitterness of coffee/how to ask the right questions/books that fit in your pocket/vulnerability in friendship/henley shirts/freshly sharpened pencils/the times of day that feel safe/the thrill of spicy food/cold showers/knowing the world through emotion/suddenly ostracized members of elementary-aged friend groups/Solipsism/the build-up of dead skin cells in the winter/how quickly X-Acto knives wear dull/what the word “sorry” means to me/birds that collect shiny objects/sleep procrastination/how much hate gets expressed in love/seizing the means of production/the quiet companionship of plants/pomegranates/where people go when I forget them/manifestos/is it possible anymore to do nothing at all?


Inspired by the poet Topaz Winters

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

A New Place to Start

“We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire. Confidence means forgiving ourselves for the horrors of our first attempts.”

The School of Life Confidence Prompt Card

Hello, hello, and welcome. My name is Lisa, and I’m very glad to meet you.

Some of you may already know me from Zen and Pi where I have been blogging for a couple of years now. This blog is new. I made it after months and months of struggling to write and realizing that much of what was holding me back was not having a place where I felt truly free to experiment.

For those who don’t know me yet, I’m a 33-years-old aspiring writer born, raised, and currently residing in Denver, Colorado. I work as a Bus Assistant, riding school bus routes with Special Needs children keeping them safe, and entertained, to and from school every day. 

I live with my girlfriend. We’ve been together for over 16 years now and less than a year from now we’ll be calling each other wife. We share our home with an anxious dog, a grumpy cat, and two very shy snakes. I come from a pretty big family that could be described as dysfunctional, but we’re close and we’re trying to be better and that’s enough for me.

I’ve been writing in journals since I was a teenager and have always had some small place on the internet to share my stories and secrets, usually anonymously. About two or three years ago I started writing under my own name and since then I’ve had a couple of pieces picked up by small online publications. I was initially very excited, but the recognition terrified me. I suffered intense imposter syndrome and lost all of my momentum and focus.

I’m trying a few different things to get my mojo back. I’m submitting work to publications again, entering contests, and joining challenges. I’ve also decided to convert Zen and Pi to something separate from myself, a place with its own niche and focus, and writing for myself here.

This is a place to learn how to practice. It’s a place for all my bad ideas and horrible first attempts to go. It’s a place to be accountable. A home base to return to, and start out from, again and again. It’s a place I will become a better writer in.

I like to write short, creative nonfiction and particularly personal, confessional, and memoir pieces but I’m working on perfecting my hand at persuasive and informative posts too. I enjoy poetry and have dabbled in micro-fiction as well. I am cultivating a habit of writing daily in a physical journal, excerpts of which may appear here too. When I’m not writing I like making little collages with words and images I find in magazines or old books.

Like most writers, I started out as a reader first. Right now I’m obsessed with Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and ancient Greek literature. Philosophy is another passion of mine and I’m working my way through authors like Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus. I also read graphic novels though not as much as I used to. My favorite at the moment is the Saga series by Brian K. Vaughan.

Science has always been an interest of mine, especially astronomy and biology. I watch a lot of movies particularly from the horror genre but I’m also into superheroes, documentaries, anything the makes me feel deeply, and anything from A24. I enjoy hiking and consider napping an art form. I’m an admitted coffee snob and a staunch political liberal.

I believe in honest painful self-reflection. I believe in sharing our stories, even the ugly and terrible ones, especially the ugly and terrible ones. I believe that beauty and profound truth can be found in ordinary and everyday places. I believe in being authentic and flawed and in love with humanity. I believe in grey areas.

I am a collector of quotes, perspectives, and interesting facts. I take what is useful—from the past, from religion, from schools of philosophy, from stories, from tradition, from ideologies—and leave the rest. I am a weigher of points, arguments, and ideas, and I am a talker.

Like most talkers, I guess I’m just looking for a place to shout myself out into the void and waiting for someone out there—or something inside me—to answer back. 

What I mean to say is, even though I am writing here for me first, I’m hoping that you’ll find something you need too and that we both might find a way forward. So, follow along, leave comments, say hello, and leave all the feedback you can.

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Photo by Simon Goetz on Unsplash