Adventures in Ethics and Science

On April Fool’s Day, our local Socrates Café had an interesting discussion around the question of what makes something funny. One observation that came up repeatedly was that most jokes seem aimed at particular audiences — at people who share particular assumptions, experiences, and contexts with the person telling the joke. The expectation is that those “in the know” will recognize what’s funny, and that those who don’t see the humor are failing to find the funny because they’re not in possession of the crucial knowledge or insight held by those in the in-group. Moreover, the person telling the joke seems effectively to assert his or her membership in that in-group. People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, “Probably not.”

With this hunch about joking in hand, I wanted to take a closer look at a particular joke and what it might convey.

The joke was posted at Greg Laden’s blog:

How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

The very choice of patritypical hyper macho sexual imagery in reference to what one might do with a light bulb exposes a deeply held and hegemonic bias objectifying the light bulb as both passive, willing victim and as compliant proxy for the colonial fate of southern hemisphere alterity.

I’m going to take a pass on a detailed translation on the pseudo-postmodernist jargon in the answer to the question. Clearly, the joke is supposed to turn on the idea that feminists see everything in terms of heavy theory that seems kind of crazy to normal people. Or that they constantly inspect everyday activities for reasons to be pissed off.

The question raging in the comments after the post seems to be is this joke actually funny?

Greg asserts that it is:

What is really funny is that this joke is in no way sexist. It does not have sexism or women as it’s intent or object. It is a joke about pomposity in academics and post modern readjustments of reality…

Anyway, my student, who is a certified feminist (and indeed one of the commenters above) thinks its funny, and she is a VERY hard audience….

(and this is science. I’m an anthropologist. This is a ribbing critique, mini critique, really, about communication in the social sciences.)

(Bold emphasis added.)

Of course, the joke didn’t open with “How many academics in the social sciences does it take to change a lightbulb?” But maybe that’s just a function of Greg not being a professional joke writer. Still, from the opening, the “critique” comes across as targeted specifically at feminists. Not feminist anthropologists, not feminist academics, but feminists.

Greg asserts here that the joke isn’t sexist. And, he tells us his student, a “certified feminist”, found it funny. (I’m wondering now when and where I was supposed to get certified …) So, the in-group that finds the joke funny, I take it from this comment, is supposed to include feminists. Moreover, Greg, in telling the joke, is asserting his membership in the in-group (although it’s rather vaguer from the comment where he is on the Venn diagram — whether he also takes himself to be a feminist).

Not every commenter seemed to agree that the joke was funny, or that is was not sexist. For example, notfunny2 explained:

I’m sure most of us feel it’s your ‘right’ to post this, just as it’s the right of many of us to find it unfunny without being called humourless feminazis. Ask any comedian about the importance of context to a joke. You’re posting this on ScienceBlogs, where I would garner that many/most of your female readers are scientists, science students, or working professionals. Which means that a lot of us have to deal with shit from men in our male-dominated workplaces and we come here to have a somewhat more enlightened discourse. Or not.

It’s as easy to make fun of humourless 1970′s style feminists as it is to make fun of humourless Marxist-Leninist Russians. The difference is that your visitors aren’t Marxist-Leninist Russians, but women, many of whom would call themselves feminist in at least some ways, even if they don’t relate to the type being made fun of in that joke…

I’m guessing you’re actually not a bad guy and that, chances are, with your background and your biologist wife etc that you are far enough away from a lot of this that you think we’re all ‘past’ it. Which is why you perceive it as ok to joke about it, because it’s a non-issue. The thing is Greg, for many of us, it’s not. When the other woman in your building is a secretary, and when all the men turn around and give you the stink eye when you walk into the library, it gets to you. The same as “funny feminist jokes” can get to you when you see them on a place like ScienceBlogs. Probably I’ll be called a humourless feminazi now, but so be it. Walk a mile in my shoes, in MANY of our shoes, y’all

In short: Greg may not be as far in with the in-group as he thinks he is. Or maybe the issue is that he’s misjudged his audience and what they’ll find funny on the basis of their experiences.

One of the commenters who found humor in the joke, StephanieZ, notes that some of Greg’s unlaughing readers may not actually be the target audience for the joke:

Jokes have their audience. None of them are universal. If you’re not part of the audience for this joke, it isn’t necessarily a reflection on Greg–or on you. Calling Greg sexist because you don’t share the same sense of humor, especially after he’s explained the joke to you, is a waste of time you could spend on something you do enjoy.

I disagree with the assessment that there’s no useful way the joke — and its failing to amuse some of Greg’s readers — reflects back on Greg, but that’s a point I’ll return to.

Indeed, responding to Greg’s “it’s not sexist at all, a feminist told me so” comment, notfunny2 notes that context in which the joke is delivered brings with it a certain audience:

…unfortunately, the joke in the context of this site is for me, sexist. And given some of the reactions, I wager I’m not the only one. If we were all academics in a similar field, or if we had just been joking about jargon, I might have been more inclined to give it a pass. But what looks like a tired old joke on a general science site? Like I said, sometimes context is everything. You seem to be assuming a whole context for this post that a lot of readers, like me, are just not going to ‘get’…

(Bold emphasis added)

Further downthread, Another leak in the pipeline puts it more succinctly:

Just another reminder of why I’m getting the hell out of science.

I do not know whether Greg expected to be met with virtual peals of laughter upon posting this joke. I find it interesting that when commenters indicated they didn’t find the joke funny for various reasons, Greg seemed to want to assure them that really, it was funny — they just needed to understand the joke, and here’s the cheat-sheet to find the funny … and why aren’t you laughing?

Greg seems not to be listening to the commenters explaining the reasons the joke is not connecting with their funnybones. I don’t think his consciously pulling the sexist equivalent of the Whipping Out Your Best Friends maneuver to avoid really dealing with racism, but resting the whole “not sexist AND funny” judgment on the assessment of a single self-identified feminist — when other self-identified feminists are voicing alternate views — seems like a suspect move.

And you have to wonder if what he’s really saying is, “I’m telling this joke to those of you who agree that it’s funny; the rest of you are not really part of the group I’m trying to speak to here.”

We all have our audiences, the people we have in our minds who we think we’re trying to reach when we hit the publish button. What’s kind of coming across from some of these comments (and from Greg’s responses to them) is that maybe Greg’s is narrower than some of his readers thought it was. He already knows all he needs to know about how women experience jokes, and he’s not open to any reconsideration of whether his own is as funny and non-sexist as he thinks it is.

On a blog, he doesn’t need to listen to the people who disagree with him. That’s his prerogative. In real life, it’s also taken to be the prerogative of those at or near the top of the hierarchies to decide whether to listen or care about all sorts of things — how well the “standard” ways to make hiring decisions or tenure evaluations work, whether it’s worth the trouble to switch to double-blind peer reviewing just to reduce gender bias, whether one ought to gather any kind of information beyond introspecting that, “Gee, I’m not consciously discriminating against anyone, and I don’t see my colleagues doing it” before deciding that everything is just fine.

Just like context affects what makes you laugh, it also affects what you notice. And the fact that you don’t notice something that others do does not mean you should automatically assume those others are hallucinating, or oversensitive, or humorless.

(And to nip in the bud comments to the effect that I have no sense of humor, I’d argue that my jokes do reasonably well when the in-group is stacked with nerds.)

Comments

  1. #1 PhysioProf
    April 26, 2008

    pwned!

  2. #2 bill
    April 26, 2008

    Humorless feminazi screechymonkey liberal. How dare you insinuate that Greg Laden™ is not all he thinks he is?

    He patiently explained the joke so that you could see the funny even though it was over your pretty little head (pat pat), and he established his Feminist Credentials by reference to a Certified Feminist who (we have his word for it) thinks he’s funny and not sexist. And besides, it’s Science™ — he’s an Anthropologist. (Oooooohhhh!)

    What more could you possibly want of him? After all, it’s pretty clear that he has all he could possibly want from him.

    (By the way, once you get your Certification, will you be my Feminist Friend that I can Whip Out?)

  3. #3 Donalbain
    April 26, 2008

    I am a feminist. I didnt find the joke funny. Not for any deep philosophical reasons, it just failed to even make me smile.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    April 26, 2008

    (By the way, once you get your Certification, will you be my Feminist Friend that I can Whip Out?)

    Don’t you already have a Feminist Friend that you can Whip Out whenever you want?

    (Was that funny?)

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    April 26, 2008

    I pretty much think everything is funny, no matter how offensive, but that joke struck me as sort of dull.

    An old Mennonite minister of my acquaintance told me that he didn’t know what makes something funny to one person and not to another, but that he had noticed over many years that if a couple laughed at the same things, most likely their marriage would succeed.

    The cartoon that got John Callahan (the quadriplegic cartoonist) thrown off the Chicago Tribune was one frame titled “Freaks of nature”, which showed “an obedient cat, a happy-go-lucky feminist, and an honest lawyer.” So many wrote in to complain that the paper got a different, completely inoffensive cartoonist for their Sunday feature. (Hint: no cats and very few lawyers complained.) I do miss seeing his clumsy drawings in the paper.

  6. #6 sharon
    April 26, 2008

    There are two elements of the joke – the parody of certain types of academic language in the 2nd half, which is mildly funny, and the group of people targeted in the 1st half… which isn’t. If you said ‘how many postmodernists does it take…’ you could finish the joke in virtually the same way. But the author (and subsequent repeaters) of the joke decided to pick on feminists. Many academics who are not feminists use that kind of language, and many (most?) feminists don’t. So what is it if not sexist?

    (How many misogynists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to do the screwing and several thousand to argue that isn’t really what he’s doing at all and why are you such humourless bitches?)

  7. #7 Spaulding
    April 26, 2008

    I’ve previously heard that joke in a different form:

    Q: “How many Feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
    A: “THAT’S NOT FUNNY!”

    Also, in discussing joke effectiveness, audience is important, context is important, but don’t forget the huge importance of delivery. I find that effective styles of written jokes are not always the same as effective styles of spoken jokes.

  8. #8 idlemind
    April 26, 2008

    Sharon,

    I think you nailed it. Feminism has had a few pretentious postmodernists, but it’s hardly typified by them; the joke engages in the same form of stereotyping as countless others, and is open to the same criticisms.

  9. #9 Spaulding
    April 26, 2008

    Sharon, is it inherently sexist to make fun of feminists? If so, why?

    There’s an implicit question of whether humor ought to be bound by the tastes of the easily offended. Are Monty Python anti-semitic for making light of the Inquisition? Is it inherently unethical to make fun of tragedy? Is Dave Chappelle a bigot for his efforts to generate amusement from racism and racial caricatures?

    My position is that there are no boundaries on what is fair game for humor, but when humor at the edge of taste falls flat, the speaker tends to be judged harshly.

    It’s risky, but the alternative is unfunny Family Circus-type pablum. Comedy is supposed to knock us off balance!

  10. #10 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 26, 2008

    Sharon, is it inherently sexist to make fun of feminists? If so, why?

    Not answering for Sharon, just for myself:

    I think it depends on whether one is making fun of particular feminist strategies and tactics or whether one is making fun of the project of ensuring that women are treated as fully human. The former — when done well — can be hilarious. The latter? To me at least, not so much.

    Again, context matters hugely. If one is using humor to target a feature of a group one actually belongs to, it has more potential for success than (say) pointing at a group that has less power than one’s own and laughing. Similarly, pointing out the foibles of a group uphill from one’s own hierarchically is often funny.

    Maybe the harsh judgment is not of the joke-teller per se, but of his (mistaken) pretensions that he can claim membership to the group he’s poking fun at — or of his (mistaken) assumption that the people he’s expecting to laugh feel themselves to be in kinship with the joke-teller on his views.

  11. #11 tbell
    April 26, 2008

    Love this blog. have a long comment though, apologies.
    I continue to find discussions about what is funny pretty fascinating.

    First, I agree that insisting to someone who didn’t like a joke you told, that it really was funny likely seems condescending and patronizing.

    However, it can also be a mistake to assume a whole lot about the intentions and beliefs of someone who tells a ‘bad’ joke. Maybe they are just clueless, maybe they made a bad call, maybe they are just in a light place.

    This situation arises a lot on the internet, where tone of voice and other clues to intent are absent. You call them on the crap joke, you can explain that you personally didn’t care for it, possibly accuse/imply them of something they don’t believe, possibly they get defensive. Possibly they apologize, possibly they offer reassurances. Possibly you believe them, possibly you patronize them by insisting that anyone who tells such jokes must believe X, Y, and Z. The outcome of such exchanges may vary, perhaps it is an opportunity to become a little more sensitive (for the joker), perhaps it is an opportunity to lighten up a bit (for everyone), perhaps it will lead summary judgments, avoidance, etc.

    Here’s are some questions that interest me, as they seem to be a set of unstated assumptions.

    Do people believe that making a joke about something serious, mean that the joke teller doesn’t find any merit or worth, or respect the serious of that topic at all?

    Is it possible to take something lightly, even though it is important? Or perhaps more importantly, take oneself less seriously, even though one is extremely concerned about a topic? (say environmental destruction, genocide, politics, oppression, poverty, feminism, etc.)

    I guess i have a black sense of humor. I don’t insist that everyone share it, and I don’t direct it towards someone who is suffering. I sometimes try to get people who seem very serious, to lighten up, but I try to titrate that to the degree which i think they will appreciate it. It’s because I find that laughing (about oneself, and even the world) is preferable in the long run to crying and rage. I don’t expect someone who is raging, or worn down, or has suffered or watched other suffers to laugh or be in the mood to be light, but I’m amazed and delighted when they can. We live, if you are inclined to look at in that way, in a world absurdly filled with suffering, injustice and pain. Getting angry can solve certain problems and provide certain focus, i get that, but it’s a high cost and it’s not the fuel that everyone runs on.

    Are all invitations to lightness thought of as trivializing? No doubt some of theme are. I happen to love the feminist lightbulb joke. Does this mean i read it as implying ‘all feminists are humourless’? or the goals of feminism are to be trivialized? or that the struggle and suffering are unimportant? I don’t. why do i find the joke funny? because I’m not overextending it. I take it to apply only to a stereotype of self-serious academics (who may in fact be doing important work, but i’m unlikely to want to spend time around). But I get that you’d probably have to know and trust me to believe me. And since i believe I have a pretty good read on people that i’m telling my jokes too, I don’t pour salt in open wounds. And I always try to make it right if I screw up. I don’t always feel like laughing, and there are things that cut too deep to make light of easily.

  12. #12 Graculus
    April 26, 2008

    in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, “Probably not.”

    *ahem*

    Puns. Puns and fart jokes.

  13. #13 dreikin
    April 26, 2008

    “and he’s not open to any reconsideration of whether his own is as funny and non-sexist as he thinks it is.”
    So – is the prejudicial content of an action determined by it’s motives, or by the possible ways it can be interpreted? Kind of an ends vs. means problem: is it not sexist because of the means taken to get to the joke, or is it sexist because of an after-the-fact interpretation of it?

    “People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, “Probably not.”"
    How about universally un-funny?

    One of Zuska’s post also comes to mind: http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2008/01/undergraduate_men_and_their_oh.php

  14. #14 kw
    April 26, 2008

    An excellent post on the issues of in-group & out-group comedy can be found at Kung Fu Monkey:
    http://kfmonkey.blogspot.com/2007/04/i-sense-your-confusion-time.html

    regarding the Imus affair a while back.

    The point here is that Greg hasn’t made feminism enough a part of his blog that he has sufficient in-group status to make that kind of joke.

    Lastly, I have to seriously question whether a student — someone in down-the-hierarchy from Greg — is in any position to give an honest, open appraisal to a superior.

  15. #15 decrepitoldfool
    April 26, 2008

    All this ground was covered years ago in the book God, Man, and Archie Bunker. People used to stop Carrol O’Connor on the street and lecture him about women’s rights. They confused character with actor. Some people really are irony-impaired but playing a misogynist and racist character was O’Connor’s contribution to equal rights.

    In many jokes the real butt of the joke is not the putative one but the mythic teller. To say something outrageously sexist is to condemn the stereotypic sexist – mocking the character the teller plays for a moment.

    Irony-impairment cripples in two direction. First, the hearer may think the teller is an enemy instead of an ally. Or if a sexist/racist the hearer may agree with the mythic teller as some people cheered in apparently sincere agreement with Archie Bunker. Both are risks of every joke that has any edge at all. And a new risk is encoded in Poe’s law, that it can be very difficult to tell a sexist teller from a sexist/racist mythic teller.

  16. #16 tbell
    April 26, 2008

    in-group status–basically enough credit to trust that a joke is a joke, and an invitation to lightness, not a bid to ‘put someone in their place’
    good link kw.

  17. #17 bill
    April 27, 2008

    Don’t you already have a Feminist Friend that you can Whip Out whenever you want?

    Whenever I want? They’d lock me away.

  18. #18 Donalbain
    April 27, 2008

    How many kids with ADD does it take to change a lightbulb?
    Lets go ride bikes!!

  19. #19 PhysioProf
    April 27, 2008

    How many bloggers does it take to change a lightbulb?

    You’re RUINING TEH INTERNETZ!11!!!!!!!1!!!ELEVENTY!111!11!!

  20. #20 Becca
    April 27, 2008

    I think that if we assume *Laden* is a pretentious post-modernist academic, the joke is much funnier.

    Also, I think that the jokes people responded with on this thread are much funnier than the ones on Laden’s thread… wonder what that reveals?

  21. #21 S. Rivlin
    April 27, 2008

    I am a Jew and I find the joke to be un-funny.

  22. #22 PhysioProf
    April 27, 2008

    Hey, Sol! Have you heard the one about the three rabbis who walk into a bar?

  23. #23 Laura M.
    April 27, 2008

    I’ve got reasonably good feminist credentials (though I’m not an academic feminist anymore, so perhaps I have less at stake) and I thought it was mildly funny. It could have used a couple of re-writes. Actually, now that I think about it, I didn’t find it funny the first time I read it, because I didn’t feel inclined to read past the first line, but by the third line, I did find myself lightly giggling. The short version is much funnier, though I can imagine saying it with the wrong intonation and it not being funny.

    I don’t think it’s an in-group/out-group thing, though I’m sure there’s some correlation between those categories and who thinks it’s funny. I think it’s more an issue of whether you believe the topic is something that should be joked about or if you see it as so important that it should be above joking. Feminist academic jargon (which, again, the joke *almost* parodies successfully, though not quite, in my opinion) can be funny, which is not the same thing as saying or implying that it is inherently ridiculous under all circumstances.

    Whether Greg Laden choosing to post this joke is interpreted as a hostile act, a self-mocking act, or a silly act is a separate issue from whether the joke is funny or not, anyway.

  24. #24 S. Rivlin
    April 27, 2008

    PP, I forgot to mention that I am also a feminist. Have you heard the joke about the Pope and the Rabbi?

  25. #25 Lindsay Beyerstein
    April 27, 2008

    As jokes genres go, “screw in a lightbulb” jokes tend to suck.

    Lightbulb jokes are a step up from “knock knock” jokes, but only just.

    The form is dated. I haven’t heard a fresh lightbulb joke in years. Laden’s feminist gag is at least 20 years old.

    I don’t think the joke is necessarily sexist, or that Laden was acting sexist when he told it.

    A sexist could use that joke to put down all women, or all feminists. It really depends on the context.

    Of course, it’s fair to ask why a joke teller wants to put down feminists (or whoever the butt of a joke happens to be). If lightbulb jokes are funny at all, they’re usually funny because they strike the listener as apt or accurate.

    It’s pretty common for sexists to segue from mocking feminists to mocking women in general. Rush Limbaugh isn’t just putting down women’s rights activists and academics when he throws out the term “feminazi.” He uses it to make fun of anyone who takes women’s equality seriously or challenges male privileges. Coming from him, and his ditto heads, “feminiazi” is a straight up sexist bullying tactic.

  26. #26 Stephanie Z
    April 27, 2008

    I admit, I have the context to know that Greg is pro-women in science and generally supportive of his female readership. So I knew the joke wasn’t directly about the answer before I clicked through to read the punchline.

    Could Greg have been more eloquent and tactful in the comments? Sure. Absolutely. Funnier, too. I also have the context to know that Greg’s first reaction to most negative responses to posts is to say, “Read it again. That’s not what I said.” The second is to say, “If I add this context, does that make my intent clear?” The third is to muse for a while on what didn’t work, and the fourth is to act on what he’s learned.

    People without that context weren’t going to know that he was putting them in the same queue as anyone else or that he was taking them seriously by skipping to step 2. (Greg’s first response to comments was to provide the context that the joke came out of: an academic running dry of humor because she’s been studying humor–specifically feminist humor. How do you make it funny again? Make it more academic.)

    Bloggers should be aware that they’re always going to have new readers (if they’re lucky) who aren’t going to understand the tone of the place. Newer readers should also be aware that a blog develops understandings among regular readers. If readers are reacting to a post in wildly different ways, particularly if it’s a joke, there’s a fair chance the post requires some trust on the reader’s part that regulars have built up and new readers haven’t.

    Does a blogger never post something that falls into this category? If they do, what do they say to the new reader beyond “You don’t know me but trust me” and “My intent is not to offend you”? If the new reader doesn’t accept that and still believes that the blogger’s intent is hostile, then what? That’s where my comment came in.

  27. #27 notfunny2
    April 27, 2008

    It’s kind of funny to see one’s comment interaction turned into a blog post, but I think Dr. Free-Ride did a good job of going into this in more detail.

    As for Greg Laden, well, his last reply to me was particularly odd: “Well, now that you get it, you get it, right? What you were experiencing was a misinterpretation. What you are now experiencing is a learning experience!”

    Um, no.

    It’s a little odd, or maybe the word I’m looking for here is ‘patronizing’, to be told what I’m experiencing. In fact, I’m not ‘misinterpreting’ anything, especially since I know that Greg obviously thinks it’s funny or he wouldn’t have posted it in the first place, and I have no problem at all ‘interpreting’ what Greg thinks since, like many of you, this isn’t the first time someone has shared a “totally funny joke! (TM)” with me in the wrong context and with the same tone-deafness. Instead, I was trying to get Greg to understand how OTHER people besides him, namely myself and his readers, might interpret his “funny joke”. Greg is neither a woman, nor an academic feminist. That means that whether or not he likes it, his joke-telling can easily be held to different contexts and meanings than he intends. Like, old male friend for 10 years sends me sexist but funny joke? Probably funny. Recent coworker in my 98% male workplace with possibly suspect attitudes who posts same joke? Probably not funny. And that’s assuming a potentially funny joke in the first place, which I would argue Greg’s was not, if not just because I have probably heard some variant of that one about 200 times in my life. Kind of like when people tell me the same joke about my last name to me, for the billionth time, like I’ve never heard it before. Funny! But hey, it’s funny if Greg says so, right? I just need to experience a “learning experience!”.

    Clearly no ‘learning experience’ is forthcoming to him, unfortunately.

  28. #28 Lab Lemming
    April 28, 2008

    Who here can give an example of a joke they they found to be both personally offensive AND funny?

  29. #29 Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde
    April 28, 2008

    Lightbulb jokes are a step up from “knock knock” jokes, but only just.

    Disagree. Those jokes are so old that they invite terrific subversions of form, because the audience already understands the setup. The “That’s not funny!” is one example (and, I think, a pretty funny one, at least when told with some ironic intent). In the same category:

    A: Knock knock.
    B: Who’s there?
    A: Control freak. Ok, now you say, “Control freak who?”

    But everyone else’s comments on the importance of context, particularly the identities of the jokester and the audience, are spot-on.

  30. #30 PhysioProf
    April 28, 2008

    As for Greg Laden, well, his last reply to me was particularly odd: “Well, now that you get it, you get it, right? What you were experiencing was a misinterpretation. What you are now experiencing is a learning experience!”

    What you have to understand about Laden is that he is almost always trying to be funny, and he is almost always failing.

  31. #31 etbnc
    April 28, 2008

    I have observed a widespread inability to perceive harm which underlies many social conflicts.

    The culture of science places high value on ideas as abstract, disconnected entities. Seeing the connection between our behaviors when we express ideas and the consequences of our behaviors seems to be a difficult challenge.

    If we were to observe our human interactions with the same degree of curiosity, with the same degree of care that we observe our experiments, what would we see?

    What are the effects of our own behavior?

    How should we behave if we care about the answer?

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Janet,

    Thanks for this analysis, it is very interesting.

    The question that arises in my mind after reading your post (and most of the comments on your post and on mine) is this: There seems to be a kind of “certification” process for being a feminist. How does that work?

    My most cynical thought in this regard is that some people decide to be the judges, and everyone else either has to accept that or accept a verbal lashing. In my day to day activities in academics and political activism, I don’t see that as being the norm (or at least it is not the most common theme). But on blogs it seems to be common (as well as in similar on line discussion contexts).

    notfunny2:

    It is true that I was not clear in my responses to you, but you should know that I appreciate and take seriously your comments.

    By the way, many of the Sb blogs, mine included, are often noted as having less science than they “should.” What I think needs to be understood is that the overlap between science and politics is huge, and I see my blog as just as important (to me as a means of expression) in political areas as in science. Also, there are links that I probably see that others probably can’t see between science and politics. For instance, I’m very interested in the science aspects of both race/racism and gender issues. So, these social and political areas may come through as political posts but what is going on in my mind makes the link. I don’t feel that I need to make that link explicit.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Oh, and shouldn’t that be “whom”???

  34. #34 Virgil Samms
    April 28, 2008

    Someone makes a joke about feminists not having a sense of humor, and your response is to prove that you do not have a sense of humor. This is a bit like those Muslims who riot when a cartoonist depicts Muslims as being violent. That’ll show ‘em.

  35. #35 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 28, 2008

    Don’t hang this one on feminists, Virgil — it’s the philosophers who are to blame.

    You’ll notice that in my post I do not take a stand on whether Greg’s joke is objectively funny or unfunny. Rather, I’m examining why it might be that it was not a fully successful joke, at least as judged by the responses of various commenters.

    I know not everyone digs the philosophical habit of analyzing everyday occurrences that most people happily take for granted. There’s a reason they gave Socrates that hemlock …

    Greg, the “certification” people are riffing on comes from your own statement that “my student, who is a certified feminist (and indeed one of the commenters above) thinks its funny, and she is a VERY hard audience….” You were kidding about her being certified, right? As are the rest of us — because we get humor! (Or were you claiming she was certified to inflate our perception of her credentials?)

    Also, Greg’s synopsis over at his own pad:

    Greg Laden, it turns out, is not only not funny but he is a sexist bastard with no credentials.

    has got to be a reference to the contributions of the commenters here, given that nowhere in my post do I:

    1. say Greg (or even his lightbulb joke) isn’t funny
    2. call Greg a sexist
    3. question Greg’s parentage
  36. #36 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Greg, the “certification” people are riffing on comes from your own statement that “my student, who is a certified feminist (and indeed one of the commenters above) thinks its funny, and she is a VERY hard audience….” You were kidding about her being certified, right?

    The entire statement was a cynical, perhaps funny (well, I thought so but I’m often found off by myself grinning for no apparent reason), remark about the whole process of certification that I am indeed asking you about, yes.

    I could write off the certification issue as just an annoying thing and nothing more, but I’m not sure that is a good idea. There is probably another level to this discussion: The attribution of meaning and intention, and how powerful that can be. Self-serving judgment often seems to replace a desire to understand.

    The light bulb joke, by the way, is probably funny, but it’s not that funny. It is not nearly as funny, for instance, as the Interrupting Sheep joke.

    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    The Interrupting Sheep.

    The Interrupting She..

    BAAAAAAAAAA!!!

  37. #37 Gerard Harbison
    April 28, 2008

    This is just a re-hash of the centuries old argument of whether it’s less of a problem for Jews that gentiles to tell Rabbi jokes. One is hardly going to make significant progress on that question.

    What is truly interesting is the (let me try to be as neutral as possible) vehemence of the response, which began with personal insults to Greg, and has gotten downright anatomical in some places. I grew up in Ireland, and ‘Irish’ jokes in England are the equivalent of ‘Polish’ jokes in the US. And the Irish and English have a certain amount of history (no more than 800 years of it, though). Do we get upset when we hear them from an Englishman? Mostly, no. They’re a set-piece, and frankly my delight at hearing a really good joke far outweighs that there’s a slight edginess in that a Brit’s telling it to me.

    So let me ask what I think is a much better question: why the enraged response? And I do mean enraged, not testy or even angry.

  38. #38 Stephanie Z
    April 28, 2008

    notfunny2, this is something I should have said in the comments of the original post, but I was angry at having my feminism put in quotes (not by you) and wasn’t at my best. Thank you for reaching past your first emotional response to give the context of your reaction. You went far beyond the efforts of any other commenter, myself included, to use reason and not be defensive. I’m sorry that got lost in the fray. I appreciate it more than I can say.

    I hope you’ll bring some of that perspective back to Greg’s blog from time to time and allow us to show ourselves in a better light. We’re a contentious bunch who tend to talk in hyperbole (see sexist bastard, above), and there are a couple of unbelievable trolls because Greg doesn’t moderate actively, but once you sort that out, we’re pretty friendly. I’ll understand if you think that’s more work than it’s worth, but I’ll be sorry.

    Again, thank you.

  39. #39 Jay De Lanoy
    April 28, 2008

    Interesting discussion, which I mostly will avoid. However, in relation to the “Interrupting Sheep” point which Greg raises in his most recent post, I would like to point out a good callback to follow that (or its cousin, “Interrupting Cow”) up with that a friend told me: “Interrupting 3-toed Sloth”.
    The form is, a few minutes after telling one of the more traditional “Interrupting Farm Animal” Jokes:
    Knock knock.
    Who’s there?
    Interrupting 3-toed Sloth.
    Interrupt- (person 1 begins slowly swinging there arm at person 2 with just 3 fingers out in a slight curve, imitating a sloth) -ing 3-toed Sloth who? (at this point, if you’ve moved your arm more than a foot, you’re too fast, and if it’s less than an inch, it’s probably too slow).

  40. #40 PhysioProf
    April 28, 2008

    I like the sheep joke! That one really was funny!

    In relation to “certification”, as far as I can tell, you don’t get “certified” as a feminist or feminist ally. What you do is build up a reserve of trust over time through one’s statements and actions that you are, indeed, a good-faith ally.

    For men, building this trust seems to require that one exhibit at least some recognition of one’s privileged status, and some willingness to modulate one’s statements and actions based on that recognition.

  41. #41 DrugMonkey
    April 28, 2008

    Bloggers should be aware that they’re always going to have new readers (if they’re lucky) who aren’t going to understand the tone of the place. Newer readers should also be aware that a blog develops understandings among regular readers. If readers are reacting to a post in wildly different ways, particularly if it’s a joke, there’s a fair chance the post requires some trust on the reader’s part that regulars have built up and new readers haven’t.

    Privileged straight white males in their workplaces should be aware that they may occasionally get new female/gay/minority colleagues who aren’t going to understand the tone of the place. These new arrivals should be aware that a privileged straight white male enclave develops understandings among the in crowd. If newbies are reacting to cultural mores in wildly different ways, particularly if it is a joke, there a fair chance the newbies should just ‘trust’ that the privileged straight white males are not in fact discriminating against them but are actually just joshin’ them with the greatest love to make them feel welcomed.

    [/massive eyeroll]

  42. #42 DrugMonkey
    April 28, 2008

    My most cynical thought in this regard is that some people decide to be the judges, and everyone else either has to accept that or accept a verbal lashing.

    kinda like you judge whether someone is engaging in civil discourse or not and whether they are “an asshole” or not? You are pretty free yourself with the “judging of people rather than what they’ve said”. Not to mention pretty free with the “attribution of malicious intent”.

    Since you are a professional anthropologist and all I won’t draw all the obvious parallels with the same hypocrisy commonly expressed in privileged white male responses to critique.

    In my day to day activities in academics and political activism, I don’t see that as being the norm (or at least it is not the most common theme). But on blogs it seems to be common (as well as in similar on line discussion contexts).

    It is quite possible that the real life analogs are eye rolling, disgusted expressions and post-encounter discussions to which you are oblivious or not privy. It could very well be that these responses are common IRL too, they are just not as salient to you because there is no lasting record for you to peruse at your leisure.

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Drugmonkey: Any statement I may have made that you are an ass is not really something that can be brought into question. I’m not judging you at all, or even making some kind of insightful observation. I’m merely pointing out the obvious, and indeed, this is your desire, to be seen this way. Otherwise why would you act the part so marvelously well?!?!? If you have a different goal in mind, you hide it very well.

    Please don’t misinterpret this as me calling you names. I’m just reiterating what you’ve stated.

    Have you added the pomposity lately, or has that always been part of the act?

  44. #44 Stephanie Z
    April 28, 2008

    DrugMonkey, thank you for explaining that you know what I mean so much better than I do. I appreciate your attempt to keep the discussion from getting patronizing. I also appreciate being dismissed as part of “a privileged straight white male enclave” along with the other female regulars at Greg’s blog whose wit, wisdom and unabashed feminism are part of the appeal of the place.

    I’ve already said that Greg did not handle this as well as I’d have liked, that I didn’t handle it by my normal standards either. The paragraph you reinterpret isn’t intended to be a defense of my behavior or his (which is his to defend or not as he sees fit).

    That said, is it wrong to suggest that if someone gets to know a person a bit before dismissing them and their cohort, they may find more allies, albeit some weird ones? I’m not talking about embracing people indiscriminately, just looking a little longer before backing away. It’s an approach that risks more, but it’s how I try to face the world.

    I’m aware that there are people who are already taking enough risks to make the approach unappealing. I’ve been one of them. That’s where I struggle with how much rearranging of my personal space is appropriate (obviously more than I did with notfunny2). Did you have any answers to my questions on the subject?

  45. #45 PhysioProf
    April 28, 2008

    Have you added the pomposity lately, or has that always been part of the act?

    No, no, no!! I’m the pompous one! DM’s the condescending one!

    Please try to keep your assholes straight.

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    Physio: You know, honestly, I do constantly confuse you two. Sorry about that. Sorry Drug Monkey.

  47. #47 DrugMonkey
    April 28, 2008

    Greg, that uncomfortable feeling you are having is called a learning experience. (I got that from some super insightful blogger recently but I’ll pass it along anyway.)

    DrugMonkey, thank you for explaining that you know what I mean so much better than I do. I appreciate your attempt to keep the discussion from getting patronizing. I also appreciate being dismissed as part of “a privileged straight white male enclave” along with the other female regulars at Greg’s blog whose wit, wisdom and unabashed feminism are part of the appeal of the place.

    One way to examine the quality of one’s logic is to translate it to other situations and see how it holds up. This “learning experience” does not require that you be a part of any specific group. In fact, the underlying assumption of choosing this particular translation of your argument is that you in fact do not feel sympathy with the group being (tacitly) critiqued. I actually sort of assumed you were female based on the ‘plume “Stephanie” but if you are in fact merely a sockpuppet for a privileged white man, then I can see how the confusion might arise.

  48. #48 bill
    April 28, 2008

    Please try to keep your assholes straight.

    I — but that’s — I mean, wouldn’t that —

    *dies*

  49. #49 Tony Jeremiah
    April 28, 2008

    People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, “Probably not.”

    Probably there are no jokes that are universally unfunny as well. But it seems as a general rule, if it needs explaining, it most likely won’t be funny to the target audience, or, it is quickly rendered unfunny.

  50. #50 murcielago
    April 28, 2008

    Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    The best twist on this that I’ve heard was when the punch line was preempted by the other person (the straight man, not the joker) in this fashion —

    A: I don’t know, but I bet it isn’t funny.

  51. #51 kw
    April 28, 2008

    Stephanie Z., Greg Laden,

    Both of you are asserting Greg’s in-group status — to quote SZ, his “unabashed feminism”. Can you please provide some references on the blog that would back this up?

    [This is not snark or hostility, but really an honest request -- I paged back through about 20 pages of posts without anything jumping out at me as relevant to feminism, women-in-science, etc. I'd appreciate some context for your assertions.]

  52. #52 Napoleon Dworkin
    April 28, 2008

    Blog author says “Rather, I’m examining why it might be that it was not a fully successful joke, at least as judged by the responses of various commenters.”

    hmm…that criticism of his theory laden feminist joke seems even MORE funny now;-)

    “How many misogynists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to do the screwing and several thousand to argue that isn’t really what he’s doing at all and why are you such humourless bitches?”

    Well if that isn’t the most pretentious bit of misandrist posturing I have seen in this discussion yet [not]! And packaged in such a complete gendered-female projection of terms…mysogyny is always the Judy Chicago-shaped shield that man haters hide their misandry behind…

    But this IS funny–>”if we assume *Laden* is a pretentious post-modernist academic, the joke is much funnier”
    Greg…pretentious…hahhahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaaahwahawhawhawhawhaw

    Physio says: “he is almost always trying to be funny, and he is almost always failing.”
    yeah. Maybe Greg would be funnier if he made up words like “douchetabulous” and “whackaloon…”

  53. #53 Stephanie Z
    April 28, 2008

    Of course, DrugMonkey, one of the criticisms above is that Greg did not simply change the target group in rewriting the joke to make his point more clear. Swapping situations affects the perceived meaning. Pardon me for assuming you were using the tactic to dismiss me. Rolling your eyes will do that. So will pasting lopsided obligations into a description of a social impasse.

    I take it that you have nothing to contribute to the question of how obligation is distributed beyond, “Whatever Greg does, that ain’t it.”

  54. #54 Stephanie Z
    April 28, 2008

    kw, going through Greg’s archives is a daunting task, but in this context, it sounds fun. I’ll work on it tonight when I have fewer distractions and a better browser to work with.

  55. #55 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2008

    I think it would be more productive to evaluate my work under the broader topic of “gender” … then you will also be able to find stuff using the subject tags on my old site (gregladen.com) and my current site here on scienceblogs.

  56. #56 PhysioProf
    April 28, 2008

    douchetabulous

    Hey, I like that! Another great word I learned on Janet’s blog! Sol taught me “tucheslacker” and now you taught me “douchetabulous”!

    I will definitely be working that into a post soon, and will give you the h/t. Thanks, Nap!

  57. #57 plum grenville
    April 28, 2008

    “The light bulb joke, by the way, is probably funny, but it’s not that funny. It is not nearly as funny, for instance, as the Interrupting Sheep joke.

    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    The Interrupting Sheep.

    The Interrupting She..

    BAAAAAAAAAA!!!”

    - Greg Laden

    Greg, as long as you keep insisting that, the lightbulb joke IS funny (and of course that you are best arbiter of that), you are giving the impression that if you bothered to read this feedback at all, it’s gone in one eye and out the other.

    A lot of commenters here and perhaps on your own blog have stressed their opinion that humour is very dependent on context. You can disagree with that view, of course, but simply ignoring it and continuing to insist that the joke IS funny is offensive because of the implication that the views of people who think differently than you aren’t even worth the courtesy of an acknowledgement.

    You seem to like this joke so much that you’ve wedded yourself to the claim that the funniness of a joke is a matter of objective determination (and that you are better qualified than any of your critics to be arbiter – which comes across as pretty arrogant). Others regard humour as being heavily context-dependent and significantly subjective. The point is no longer simply whether the joke is funny or not, but whether it’s possible to categorically determine the funniness or lack thereof of a joke (and if it is, whether you are the only one qualified to do so). It seems to me that it’s awfully hard to defend the view I’ve attributed to you, so I have to wonder how carefully you’ve thought out your position.

    My point of view? I don’t find the feminist joke funny (or the sheep knock knock joke either, although it doesn’t offend me). The reason it’s not funny to me is that it is a joke that a sexist man would tell as a putdown of feminists, and by extension, women. Particularly since the joke is so TIRED. It’s as mouldy as King Tut’s tomb. With no other information, I would expect a man with feminist cred to know the history of this joke – its identification with sexists and also that it is so ancient that whatever humour it may have once had has long since withered away. I would write off a man who told that joke as an unreconstructed MCP. Do you really want to risk coming across that way to people who don’t know you well enough to know your actual views?

  58. #58 Ed Darrell
    April 28, 2008

    Sure it’s sexist. It’s also funny.

    It also pokes fun at sexists who think the stereotype is funny enough to be made into a joke.

    But then, I’m a lawyer who likes lawyer jokes. I’ve learned over the years to be distrustful and wary of people who think lawyer jokes are funny because they accurately lampoon lawyers, though. I hope feminists have their consciousness raised that far, too.

  59. #59 Becca
    April 28, 2008

    Bill- +1.
    Nap- I’m glad you enjoyed the meta-humor.
    Greg- Stick to sheep.

  60. #60 chris
    April 29, 2008

    heard about the new corduroy pillows?

    They’re making headlines.

    Thats funny.

  61. #61 chris
    April 29, 2008

    oh yeah, a good lightbulb joke…

    (A German comedian speaking)
    How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb?

    One, if it is engineered properly.

  62. #62 Bad
    April 29, 2008

    Seems to me to all just come down to exactly who you picture as identifying with the term feminist. I think some people would think of the pomo sect immediately and primarily (i.e. many women’s studies departments), while many regular people either wouldn’t have a clue what the joke was getting at, or understand the term feminist to broadly mean anyone who supports the legal and cultural equality of women, and hence find the joke, at best, quite weak.

    I think the “THATS NOT FUNNY” or the “A: I don’t know, but I bet it isn’t funny.” is a much better, broader, and more pointed joke, because, well, how do you object to it without seeming humorless youself? :)

    Most jokes fall back and lazy stereotypes: that’s just the reality of the genre. What often matters is if there is some pointed kernel of truth to the stereotype. Feminism as an intellectual movement (separate from simply the core goal and ideal), especially in academia, probably overindulged itself plenty to justify someone poking fun at this excess: and you don’t need to be a sexist to call a movement out on such things.

    The real problem is that most of these overindulgences are like, 30 years back at this point: if that kind of strident, over the top feminism was ever that big to begin with, it’s most weeded itself out over the last few decades. That gives the joke the sort of maliciously outdated feel you’d get from someone trying to poke fun at modern geologists for denying plate tectonics (since they used to way back when).

  63. #63 Stephanie Z
    April 29, 2008

    kw, of the gender posts on the old site, the bottom one, “What’s in a name?” was one that caught my eye as cutting through crap effectively. On the ScienceBlogs site, the tag is actually gender and sexual orientation. Then there’s this one I remembered, but which wasn’t tagged as a gender article, just a science article.

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2008/03/science_diversity_meme.php

    Same with the follow-up this month that links to the collected names. There’s also this series, where Greg posted one of his student’s questions to his blog because they were too good to answer privately:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=595

    There are also the posts about human evolution and food that don’t skimp on the importance of gathering in shaping a hunter-gatherer society and that don’t suggest the gender roles involved are anything other than social constructs.

    Then there are the personal experiences: The note he sent apologizing to me after I picked a slapfight with one of his more trollish commenters to explain why he doesn’t ban them. It was a private note, so I’m not comfortable sharing his reasons, but I appreciated the outreach. The one time I’ve seen him in public (didn’t know it was him at the time, so we haven’t quite met), he was soliciting the opinions of a couple of female bloggers on the direction of science blogging. I know from more behind the scenes chatter that at least one of his SuperReaders(TM) is female.

    So while I might call Greg a badger at this point, I haven’t seen any reason to call him sexist that isn’t already explained by some other bad habit. And I’ve seen plenty to indicate that he’s generally thoughtful on the topic of gender.

  64. #64 Samantha Vimes
    April 29, 2008

    The interrupting sloth joke was REALLY funny, but you need to have heard the interrupting sheep for it to work.

    I imagine Greg’s feminist joke probably works best for people who work in an academic setting, where that kind of analysis is heard all the time. It’s kind of pointlessly off the mark of how non-academics respond.

    How many Pandagonians does it take to change a light bulb?
    2 to work on it regularly, several other to give input once in a while, and hundreds to argue over whether the ones doing the changing did it right, which one actually held the light bulb this time, and whether the illumination is going beyond the room.
    (okay, I just made that up, I think it’s funny, it’s about feminists… and I wonder who here will get it?)

  65. #65 Greg Laden
    April 29, 2008

    Plum,

    I agree with you that funniness of a joke is contextual and even personal (different individuals will think something is funny or not), and the same applies to non-funniness. What I would like to know is why is it that you believe that your judgment of the joke, as well as your judgment of me and my politics, is the word?

    Plum, listen to yourself.

  66. #66 absinthe
    April 29, 2008

    I have a collection of budgie jokes. I learned them from a boss a long time ago who had an seemingly endless supply of them (I used to have pet budgies, so I guess I was his “in crowd”).

    Q: How many budgies does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    A: Only two, but I don’t know how you get them in there…

  67. #67 etbnc
    April 29, 2008

    Unfortunately, Stephanie Z, the behaviors you have witnessed and experienced in personal, private interactions seem considerably different from the consistently repeated pattern of behavior I have witnessed in the online, public space of ScienceBlogs.

    I find it helpful to distinguish explanation from excuse. What you have described serves as an explanation for your involvement in this particular episode. But for me, that does not excuse what I have observed of your associate’s consistently repeated pattern of socially detrimental behavior. Your explanation does not excuse the pattern of behavior I have observed in multiple incidents, going as far back as I can recall your associate’s comment and blog participation at ScienceBlogs.

    Behaviors matter. Behaviors matter, because behaviors create consequences. Here, online, our words are behaviors. Our words matter, because our words create consequences.

    And for me, Stephanie, the pattern of harmful behavior goes beyond your associate, and it goes beyond this particular incident. A frequently demonstrated inability to perceive harm seems to characterize our culture.

    Our culture, the culture of science, or at least the subculture of ScienceBlogs, seems to expend considerable effort to avoid integrating the simple causal connection of words, behaviors, and consequences into its cultural knowledge base.

    Here, in this thread, in numerous other comment threads, and in bloggers’ writings, I witness the culture of ScienceBlogs expend remarkable effort to avoid integrating any ability to perceive harm into its cultural practice. A widespread inability to incorporate feedback from authentic human interaction seems to me one of the single greatest impediments to this subculture’s ability to function.

     

  68. #68 Dave S.
    April 29, 2008

    People in the discussion probed the question of whether there was anything that could be counted on to be universally funny; our tentative answer was, “Probably not.”

    In my experience, physical humor, as a whole, is universal among ages, sexes, religions, races, etc. There’s just something irresistibly side splitting about people you don’t know getting moderately injured.

  69. #69 Stephanie Z
    April 29, 2008

    Dave S., I feel like I’m playing contrarian, but I have to disagree. Near-miss physical humor makes me laugh like anyone else, but actual slapstick creeps me out. The Three Stooges leave me queasy.

  70. #70 Donalbain
    April 29, 2008

    Whoever it was that tried to apply the logic of a blog post to work… STOP IT! That is VERY sloppy thinking. What is acceptable in one context may or may not be acceptable in another context. In this case, there was the idea that a blognewbie should be aware that a blog has a certain ethos and atmosphere that may make them feel uncomfortable, and they should not expect the blog to cater specifically to what they want out of it. You then tried to shift that idea to show that it would not be acceptable at work as if that was somehow relevant. It is not. A work place is a vastly different place to a blog. For one thing, you spend 8 or so hours of your day at a work place, and you go there primarily to do a job of work which you rely on to feed your sprogs.
    A blog is somewhere you may visit for an hour at most each day, and you do it out of choice.

    To suggest that the two are equivalent or even similar is very very sloppy thinking. A bad workplace environment can lead to stress, illness, poor productivity, unhappiness and eventual poverty and death. A bag blog environments can lead to.. well, I dont know what it can lead to since every time I didnt like a blog, I just didnt read it anymore and suffered no consequences from that choice.

  71. #71 Napoleon Dworkin
    April 29, 2008

    etbnc:”Our words matter, because our words create consequences.”

    Yes, it is true: in this case we have the *word police* showing up here at Stemwedels dooor, and inserting overly analytical hyperbole such as
    ” A widespread inability to incorporate feedback from authentic human interaction seems to me one of the single greatest impediments to this subculture’s ability to function.”

    into a discussion about “humorlessness…”

    Very Soviet, circa 1967…but you are right if you meant to say that “sciborgs are often too insular, and Minncestuous for their own good…”

  72. #72 kw
    April 29, 2008

    Stephanie Z, Greg Laden:

    Apologies for the length, quote Pascal about it, etc. I’ve cut this down as much as I can.

    I’ve read the two posts SZ referred to, as well as all Greg’s posts under “Sex differences”, “Sex Differences”, “GLBTA”, and “Gender and Sexual Orientation”. If there are others I should be looking at, please feel free to point them out. Of about 2200 posts on Greg’s SciBlogs site, these categories account for a total of 24 posts, or 1.1% of postings, and even some of these have no relation to feminism. So, to say that Greg does not focus on feminism or gender issues on his blog seems a fair statement. Now, one might respond that it’s not the number of posts one makes, but rather what one says when making them. And on that score, Greg seems like a fairly reasonable guy. However, I don’t think this lets him off the hook on this one, and I want to explain why.

    I can see three ways you can do a joke that disparages another person or group of people. One way is if that person/group has (in a given context) more power than you — that is, kicking up the power hierarchy. Examples: Celebrities, politicians, captains of industry, etc. Another way is if you are indisputably part of that group – that is, self-mockery. Examples: See a large number of comedy acts not performed by white guys. The third way is if the group is so universally reviled that nobody minds if you kick them. Examples: Pedophiles.

    Think about a comedian who is a black guy. He could do a “How many black guys does it take to screw in a light bulb?”/{answer that puts down black guys} joke, as he is definitively part of the group he would be mocking. I don’t think there’s a white comedian in the country that could ever pull off that joke — the power dynamics of it are all wrong (again, referring to this, which is as good a discussion of comedy&power as I’ve ever seen).

    Consider what might happen if some white guy told a joke putting down black people in your presence. You would (I hope) be offended. You might be insulted that the joke teller perceives you as someone who would appreciate such jokes. However, these would be second-order effects. If you’re a white person, you cannot perceive the joke as being targetted at you, as disparaging you directly (only indirectly and/or unintentionally).

    This is where I think Greg’s joke fails (or at least fails in being non-offensive). To me, Greg does not give the impression that he is enough of a feminist in the context of his blog (relatively thin postings directly on the subject, no categories specifically devoted to “feminism”, “women in science”, etc.) that disparagement of feminists is felt by him as disparagement directly of him. If someone were to say, “All feminists are crazy.” around Greg, my impression is that he might be annoyed, he might be insulted that anyone would think he might agree with that statement, but I doubt he’d think, “Hey, that person just called me crazy.”. Maybe I’m wrong about this, maybe Greg would think that. If so, then all I can tell you is that degree of commitment and self-identification doesn’t come across to me in the SciBlogs context, and it evidently doesn’t come across to a number of other folks as well.

    In short (too late, I know), if you don’t self-identify with a group strongly enough that disparagement of that group feels directly and unhesitatingly as disparagement of you, then IMO you don’t have enough “cred” with the group to disparage it in a joke, particularly if you are otherwise higher in the power hierarchies.

  73. #73 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    KW:

    Thank you for your judgment, in regards to the issue of whether or not I should be let off the hook. The hook that you put me on…

    Now, would you be so kind as to lay out your qualifications for being the judge of my qualities as a human being?

  74. #74 kw
    April 30, 2008

    Forgot to add…, I liked the sheep joke.

  75. #75 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    kw:

    Sorry, I need to add this … my first thought on reading your analysis (which sparks my primary annoyance with it) but which I did not have time/energy to mention…

    Your analysis by which you judge me as not sufficiently feminist because I have only a certain feminosity index on my blog is deeply flawed as well as a bit offensive for a number of reasons.

    I happen to be pretty darn good at fishing. But only 0.00000-whatever percentage of my blog posts are on fishing. So am I therefore not telling the truth when I say that I’m good at fishing? (full disclosure: I’m not a pro) In other words, my blog is what IT is, it is not what I am. When I suggested going through those particular topics to Steph, I was not suggesting a flawed statistical analysis (indeed, the idea of judging a particular aspect of my politics by looking at my blog was not my idea anyway)… My suggestion was to actually READ the material.

    I happen to be, at least in my own apparently worthless opinion, a fairly altruistic blogger. I write posts that do nothing but to point to other posts on the internet (“blogospherics”) that I think my readers would like, and that is in part to promote the bloggers to whom I point (hey, if you want real data, go check the gender of the bloggers I point to … and compare it to a valid measure of gender across the matched part of the blogosphere, and see if there is a bias. That might be interesting). I report carnivals that I hear about on a regular basis. Ca 192 posts on my site are carnival related, and 185 tagged as “blogospheric” which includes many (but not all) of the “pointing” posts. So, nearly 20 percent of my blogging is me being a nice guy.

    You realize what this means, right? If I was a shit, and ignored my fellow bloggers, my feminist index would go up without saying another word about feminism. Do you see now how your analysis is flawed?

    In the past, when charged with being a privileged white male misogynist (or whatever), I have occasionally bothered to answer those charges with information about my thinking, writing, teaching, and so on. But the counter answer to those claims is usually something like “oh, he’s now telling us that he has a feminist friend, thus making him a feminist” and so on (my cynical remark about this on the sister thread on my site was utterly missed by most readers, by the way). In other words, in the eyes of someone who has pre-judged me as politically inadequate, for whatever reason, I cannot produce credentials or any evidence to the contrary, because even the act of producing such information is seen as white male privilege “male explaining things” whatever whatever… In other words, the tired old trope is unveiled for the ingenuous to marvel at and the rest of us who have been in this fight for decades to simply be annoyed at.

  76. #76 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    The sheep joke comes from Shari Lewis, if I recall correctly.

  77. #77 DrugMonkey
    April 30, 2008

    I cannot produce credentials or any evidence to the contrary, because even the act of producing such information is seen as white male privilege “male explaining things” whatever whatever

    Actually a simple “Sorry, my bad” without self-justifying “yeah-but”s might work out okay as “evidence”.

    So am I therefore not telling the truth when I say that I’m good at fishing?

    I, for one, am willing to believe you are highly skilled at trolling for fish, on your say-so.

  78. #78 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    Drug Monkey,

    I hesitate to reply to you, and do so in trepidation. My preference is to ignore you. Start expecting that.

    You are asking me to take your judgment at face value and confess. That is the only allowable option. Who do you think you are? Un-fucking-believable.

  79. #79 DrugMonkey
    April 30, 2008

    You are asking me to take your judgment at face value and confess. That is the only allowable option.

    I merely suggested one possible option that would be “evidence to the contrary” that you could present that has a low probability of running afoul of accusations of yet more male privileged behavior.

    (You will note that the concept of taking ownership of the effect of your blogging irrespective of your intent is far from an original sentiment, going by the comment threads here and on your site.)

  80. #80 kw
    April 30, 2008

    Greg Laden:

    Tone is difficult on the Net, particularly on subjects controversial or near-and-dear. My previous post obviously came across as hostile — that was not my intent. I apologize.

    From here on out, I’m going to try to be very clear — to distinguish between Greg-Laden-the-person and Greg-Laden-the-blog. I think a lack of clear distinction between these is part of the problem. Making these distinctions explicit will probably make my comments sound a bit pedantic, but I think the improvement in clarity will be worth it.

    I’m also going to take things a step at a time. I will get back to everything from my previous comment and your response to it — if we don’t come to a point that we just can’t understand each other on first. I’m not avoiding or conceding anything here, just trying to keep the scope of current discussion manageable, and keep these comments reasonably short. And if we can’t agree on the ground rules, there’s no point in discussing the finer aspects of the game.

    My first-and-only point for this comment: My overall impression of your blog has been that your postings are typically fairly sane on women’s issues (or I wouldn’t have continued reading). But I didn’t get the impression from your blog that you (the person) self-identify as a feminist. You are telling me that my impressions are wrong on that score, and that you do self-identify as a feminist. In short, you consider “feminists” as a “we” word, rather than a “they” word. Do I have that right?

  81. #81 Stephanie Z
    April 30, 2008

    kw, my response to your post is short, but I do appreciate you taking the space to be clear. You’re getting into the area of asserting that Greg needs credentials to make a joke on his blog. If he has established them to some readers’ satisfaction but not to others’, who decides what he has a right to post?

  82. #82 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 30, 2008

    Stephanie, as far as I can tell, no one is questioning Greg’s right to post the joke (or anything else) on his blog. What’s in question, rather, is whether he can persuade others to agree that it’s actually funny. To the extent that humor is context dependent, it may well be that the context he has provided on his blog is not sufficient to persuade all his readers to LOL.

  83. #83 Napoleon Poundstone
    April 30, 2008

    “Of about 2200 posts on Greg’s SciBlogs site, these categories account for a total of 24 posts, or 1.1% of postings…”

    Greg: Peer pressure at its finest. Gentrification of gender issues, full of dualistic misogynist expectations of/on male gender–as if men must somehow live up to a female standard, or qualification of credentials. Matriarchal coercion by femicentric group ethos, and social deprivation…how bonobo-like.

    Greg, nothing short of full emasculation will help this sort of issue-laden, credential flawed “feminiSS perspective”. It is impossible to please absolutists, and Dworkinist seperatists–and who wants to anyways? That perspective is, um, way too “heavy,” for man…

    NO ONE is more privileged than whining white middle class faux-feminists who sit here in America and ‘eat offa’ da fat of da land,’ complaining about patriarchy and covertly instigating the next world war via miss-educated child-missiles launched into the future by misandrists driving SUV’s full of soccer playing ten year olds to the next Ubermatch.

    Little Sparta, courtesy of fauxminism.

  84. #84 Napoleon Poundstone
    April 30, 2008

    This discussion reminds me of another hypocritical quasi-fascist debate that is currently leveraging food:

    Bill Clinton, like Greg with a paltry 1+% of Bonni-Fee-Day feministicism credentials is just an “honorary sister…or he ain’t no brother at all…”

    http://www.komotv.com/news/election/18175084.html

    Maybe if Greg wore blackface then? Maybe Greg “hasn’t done the spadework necessary to be president….”

    Ooops…wrong identity-divisive politic…

  85. #85 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    In short, you consider “feminists” as a “we” word, rather than a “they” word. Do I have that right?

    One hundred percent correct.

    Janet: I think the joke has proven itself to be funny. A little. It has also proven itself to be very short of hysterically funny.

    Who knows, maybe feminist humor is just not going anywhere in the present decade? And so, I eagerly await the results of my student’s research….

    (I quickly add, her grade partly depends on if her research paper is funny. Could be trouble.)

  86. #86 kw
    April 30, 2008

    Stephanie Z,

    I don’t think I’m asking for “credentials” — or at least (again), that’s not my intent.

    I honestly want to know if Greg (the person) self-identifies as a feminist — as I said, if it is a “we” word to him, not a “they” word — simply in order to know where to go with this discussion. Because to me, that is the crucial difference in humor between (acceptable) self-mockery and (unacceptable) mockery-of-others-with-less-power-than-you.

    If he doesn’t self-identify as a feminist, then he’s disparaging people with less power than he has. That’s really hard (I’d say impossible) to make funny. I’m open to the idea that it’s possible. But I have yet to see it done successfully. It’s a discussion I’d be interesting in having.

    If he does self-identify as a feminist, then the question is whether or not there is sufficient context on the blog for one to determine that — if those who objected to the joke should have been able to determine it was a little ribbing from one feminist to another. That’s a different conversation.

    My goal in asking the question was determining what kind of conversation to have. I’m betting on Case #2, but didn’t want to make any assumptions here. There are plenty of guys out there in the sympathetic-to-the-cause category, but who won’t take the last step, cross the line, and apply the dreaded “feminist” label to themselves.

    And if Greg just wants to leap directly into one or the other discussion without answering directly, I’m fine with that, too. Just want to know which direction to go.

    Signing off for tonight,

  87. #87 Stephanie Z
    April 30, 2008

    Janet, you may well be right that kw is only trying to determine for herself whether the joke is funny. I’m not sure. I’m sure she’ll clarify.

  88. #88 Greg Laden
    April 30, 2008

    This topsy turvy world of moderated posts (thus coming out in chunks) is dizzying…

    kw: I don’t get the relationship between feminist and power that you specifically mention. Maybe you could expand or clarify.

  89. #89 Napoleon Poundstone
    May 1, 2008

    OOps…correction to my earlier post.

    The phrase “full of dualistic misogynist expectations of/on male gender” should have been : this discussion is chock full of “dualistic misandrist representations of men, with misandrist expectations of/on male gendered individuals”

    and then: “worst of all, it is always the wrong males that are coerced in such a way; it is always the most vulnerable that are targeted by the violent/aggressive/dominance seeking, etc…in this case Greg, a ‘friendly’ instead of, um, Dick freekin’ Cheney….

    The whole questioning of Gregs feminism is indicative of:

    a)coercion by females (imagine this line of pressure, and associated forms of bullying and other ‘consequences’ exerted on children–young males specifically)

    b)labelling theory, proven as “the label comes first”

    c)female aggression in the passive-agressive state

    d)a classic example of Humberto Eco’s reasoning of “us and them” Ur-fascism

    “This topsy turvy world of moderated posts (thus coming out in chunks) is dizzying…”

    I’m feelin’ it….*speeEEw…

  90. #90 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 1, 2008

    Napoleon, if expecting males and females alike to act as decent human beings, and to treat each other as such, is “misandrist” in your book, I think someone sold you a bum book.

    (And, if you’re actually on Greg’s side here, how exactly does your over the top ranting help convince those in doubt that he’s a nice, non-sexist guy?)

    Maybe you’ll see this as coercion or bullying, but as far as this blog goes, I’m putting you on “time-out” until you can settle down.

    Toodles.

  91. #91 Garland Wipke
    May 1, 2008

    If he doesn’t self-identify as a feminist, then he’s disparaging people with less power than he has.

    You’re moving victim status around to suit your purposes. Who says the subjects of the joke, academic gender theorists*, have any less power than Greg Laden? This isn’t general misogynistic humor, about which you’d have a point.

    Now, I think that’s an absurd way to define the word “feminists”, and that the proper objection is to that misuse, but I’m dealing with the assumptions already in place.

    BTW, could someone please explain what I’m missing with that budgie joke?

  92. #92 Greg Laden
    May 1, 2008

    Imagine budgies. Now imagine budgies screwing. Now imagine the budgies are doing it in the light bulb.

  93. #93 Danielle
    May 1, 2008

    Thank you so much for writing this post. Really.

  94. #94 kw
    May 2, 2008

    Greg,

    You asked for clarification of the relationship I’m talking about “between feminist and power”.

    {pause} I’ve been sitting here for a couple hours, writing and re-writing, and I’m not sure I really understand exactly what the question is. Maybe I’m being dense — it’s been a long day, and tomorrow promises to be even longer. But I don’t want to lose the conversation, my original attempt at a clarification was rambling and I’m trying to keep these short. So forgive me for going one more level of “let’s stop and define our terms” here, but let me try to narrow the question before I respond:

    1. Are you questioning whether feminists (as a group) have less power than men (as a group)?

    2. Are you rejecting any analysis involving “feminists” as a group? “Men” as a group?

    3. Are you questioning my use of a who-has-more-or-less-power proposition as an explanation for whether someone will find something funny?

    4. Are you questioning whether any non-feminist individual can ever be in a sufficiently power-negative position vis-a-vis feminists to make the mocking of feminists okay?

    5. Some other question that my poor, tired brain is not grokking?

  95. #95 jeb
    May 2, 2008

    Anyone who would post a rape joke is not a feminist, Greg.

  96. #96 Greg Laden
    May 2, 2008

    KW: I simply did not understand the meaning of this statement:

    If he doesn’t self-identify as a feminist, then he’s disparaging people with less power than he has.

    I parse: If greg laden says “I’m not a feminist” then he has more power than … women? feminists? But, if he says “I am a feminist” then he has less power/same power as … women? feminists?

    This could not possibly be what you meant because it makes no sense, at least the way I’m parsing it. So I was asking for a clarification.

  97. #97 kw
    May 2, 2008

    Let me start by quoting from my favorite resource on comedy, John Rogers:

    [...] Humorists don’t use jokes to establish power. We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. I do believe that this balance, these scales are hardwired into us culturally. This is why we tolerate celebrity-bashing humor — the comedian is our proxy in levelling the playing field. “Britney may be rich and beautiful but she’s still a redneck” … and therefore not better than I am. This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny.

    The power relationship is why you need to be self-effacing — if you’re not in a power negative position, you’re kind of breaking the contract. [...]

    [Original post is here.]

    And again:

    Comedy is by its nature uncivil. Comedy is, in both linguistic structure and overall psychological impact, hostile. Sometimes overtly, often not. But there is no such thing as a joke structured like: “You know what makes me happy? Yeah, that same thing that makes everybody else happy. (sigh)” There is no laugh there.

    [Original post is here, (which was a follow-up to this one).]

    My perception of humor seems fairly close to JR’s: All humor contains some elements of hostility. Who/what is an acceptable target of that hostility depends upon the comic, the target, the audience, and the power relationships among them.

    So far, I hope you’re just nodding along and thinking, “Get to the point.”. But feel free to jump in here if you have differing views.

    I’ve got a couple hours’ work left tonight, but I’ll follow-up later (tonight or tomorrow) with what I was trying to get at.

  98. #98 PhysioProf
    May 3, 2008

    Laden is a white dude. He is privileged vis a vis women. Feminists are women. Therefore, Laden making jokes at the expense of feminists represents Laden flinging shit downhill. Whether Laden calls himself a feminist is completely irrelevant to this analysis.

  99. #99 Greg Laden
    May 3, 2008

    kw:

    J.R.’s analysis requires adherence to, reification, of, and therefore empowerment of, a set of value-spectra of wealth, beauty and SES defined by him (and you) that serve to maintain existing inequalities. Why is Britney Spears pretty? What if a woman does not look like Britney Spears… does that make her a lesser person in your view, or the potential butt of humor? Do you determine that “redneck” is a category of lesser individuals? Are you sure you want to make a dichotomy between, say “feminist” and “redneck” where the group you are a member of is superior over the other? What is that about? You may say that you reject these conventions, but it is too late. You just used them to make your argument. Rather than critiquing them, you’ve used them and thus made them stronger. Do you not care about people that you would define as “ugly rednecks”? Wow.

    Do you realize that your very discussion of power relationships is itself a power play? I don’t think you understand that.

    Most importantly, though, this analysis you are attempting is a destructive oversimplification. I guarantee that if you let me into your life and give me a few hours, I’ll find a thousand ways in which you are doing severe harm to others. Years ago, I knew and loved many people in Central Africa, where I lived, who have subsequently died miserable deaths or seen their children or parents die because YOU have a cell phone. Materials needed to make cell phones come mainly from an area that has suffered warfare and strife mainly for the purposes of mining this material. That’s an easy one. In ways I can’t describe unless I know you, but that are certainly there, you carry out acts of violence against powerless people every single day of your life.

    So do I. And so does every other hypocrite, from Janet to CMF to Stephanie, who’s words grace or soil this web page.

    From this perspective, you have no right to make this analysis until you clean up your own act.

    “But wait” you say …. “______________” (fill in the blank).

    Fill in the blank with the justification explaining how you are not the scum of the earth, how you wash your hands of the death of Maria and Abele, who were hacked to death by soldiers trying to save ammo, opting to use a machete instead to kill the woman they raped and her father. Your justification is an inadequate denizen of the simple, one dimensional world that your arguments (and everyone else (including the indescribably abhorrent self righteous shit “physioprof”) inhabit.

    The world that you live in, kw (and Janet and everyone else) is more complex. You allow yourself that complexity. But you do not allow it for select others, those you chose to be the object of your petty self serving analysis.

    All actions denigrate someone, take power from someone. All of them. Did you eat today? Did you breath today? Did you shit today? Did you turn your computer on today? You have done violence today.

    Critical analysis, left unfettered, will always obliterate humor.

    I am not joking. Not even a little.

    This discussion has been fun, but to me, I think it has run its course. I am too preoccupied with work and illness, I need to devote my typing-time to my own stuff. But if something interesting happens, please send me an email and I’ll come and look.

  100. #100 Stephanie Z
    May 3, 2008

    Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged):

    feminism: a: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes b: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
    feminist: one that advocates or practices feminism

    PhysioProf, I don’t think your argument stands up.

    kw, Rogers’ comments on humor in those posts are insightful, but I don’t think they’re the whole picture. One of the things he points out is that his perspective on viewing comedy is not the audience’s perspective. As an audience of humor, I’m much less passive than his notes on shifting power would suggest. That’s a side note though, at least so far. Don’t let me interrupt. This is fascinating, and I’m interested to see where it’s all going.

  101. #101 PhysioProf
    May 3, 2008

    All actions denigrate someone, take power from someone. All of them. Did you eat today? Did you breath today? Did you shit today? Did you turn your computer on today? You have done violence today.

    There is always something worse happening to someone somewhere in the world, and everything we do contributes in some way or another to all of it.

    This is no excuse for acting like a dick.

  102. #102 kw
    May 4, 2008

    Greg,

    [Greg asked to be emailed if "something interesting happens". I don't know if this qualifies, but it seemed ethical to give him the heads up and a chance to respond if he chooses (and considering our host blog here, how can we not be ethical? :-). I have emailed him to let him know. It's up to him whether or not he chooses to respond.]

    Let me say to Greg that we seem doomed to misunderstand each other — each comment exchange dragging us one step further down into a morass of “ummm, what?!?”-ness. Your last comment in particular seems to me to come of out left field. [If this has been some kind of massive meta-joke about what it's like to be you and have your post misunderstood, then congratulations -- you've strung me along nicely for quite a while -- kudos! :-)]

    We seem to be having massive problems in communicating tone. I can’t even decide if your first paragraph is a sincere critique or intended as some kind of turn-the-tables-sarcastic-mockery of analysis. If it’s mockery, then I don’t think there’s really any need to respond to it. However, I don’t see any smiley faces, and considering the trouble we’ve been having understanding each other, I don’t think you’d have gone for that without some kind of subsequent see-how-it-feels explanation. So I’m going with assuming a good-faith attempt to communicate here. I’m going for the belief that you’re comment opening is meant sincerely, if bitingly. If it was intended as mocking, well, just chalk it up to misunderstanding #126.

    My response is long, so I’m going to split it into two, separate comments after this — one addressing the humor issues, the other addressing everything else. If you respond, I’d ask you to read them both before you do.

  103. #103 kw
    May 4, 2008

    Continue #1:

    I excerpted the part of J.R.’s post that I thought relevant to the discussion at hand — that is, how the power relationships among comedian, audience and joke-target work to enable humor. In no way did J.R.’s original post (or my excerpt of it) imply that these judgments about Britney Spears, or rednecks or anyone else are objectively valid (or that the current power/social relationships among them are in any sense right). The focus of the text is is describing the power dynamic from the point-of-view of the audience. And in fact, it seems to me that the tone of the piece is rejecting the objective validity of that particular funny (versus the perception of the audience) rather than otherwise. Your construction of J.R.’s words as being approving toward redneck-bashing just honestly never occurred to me, and I don’t think that’s his intent. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been reading his site for a while now, and can hear his “voice” enough (or at least think I can) to have a good handle on its shifts, and that doesn’t come across in a short excerpt to those unfamiliar with his work. I do now take your point about the possible construction that can be put on the excerpt, however. I made an error in reading context that wasn’t there when constructing the excerpt, and will be more careful in the future.

    Given how your comment begins, I was going to assume here that you’ve already read J.R.’s entire post, as writing an analysis of his views based on my excerpts (rather than looking at the quotes in the context of the complete, original post) would be rather unfair to him. But looking at your comment more closely, it’s not clear whether you’re critiquing J.R.’s (complete) views, or just critiquing me based on my excerpt from it. So if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so. If you already have read it, then I think we must settle on the idea that we really just do not understand each other at all.

    In summary, we seem to have wandered a fair ways away from (what I took to be) the issue under discussion, namely how people find humor in a joke (or not), and how the (perceptions of the) particular power relationships among the various participants might affect that. If you want to re-engage our conversation on this topic, we can at least give it a go. Otherwise, I think we’re at a point where no further useful conversation can be had on the topic.

  104. #104 kw
    May 4, 2008

    Continue #2:

    As for the rest of your comment, all I can say is that you have only a partial, sketchy idea of me, which (given the nature of this conversation) is expected and inevitable. So, let me add a few data points: I am not a stranger to other parts of the world. I’ve lost a friend to violence there, too. [There are specific, personal reasons why I'm not going into details here, but they aren't relevant. If they become so, it can be discussed via email.]

    You have my sympathies for the loss of your friends.

    This isn’t a who-has-suffered-enough-to-have-the-right-to-comment ploy — just a reality check. I think my view of the world (including the effects my actions have on it (I know about coltan and the grief it causes, and have for quite some time)) is considerably wider than you give me credit for. I have thought a great deal about the compromises I make, and how to live ethically in the western world. I haven’t always been happy with where I’ve ended up, but I haven’t stumbled blindly into it. I try to live my life as ethically, honestly and consistently as I can, but I’m well aware we all live in a compromised place, and don’t think I’ve ever asserted otherwise. The only thing any of us can do is to keep trying to do better (trite, I know).

    Now I understand that there’s no way you could know any of that, my never having written about these previous experiences before in our comment exchange (I’m not crazy about talking about it, it tends to be a conversation-stopper, it didn’t seem relevant to what I took to be the topic at hand, and frankly it still doesn’t seem relevant). Perhaps (given what I perceive as the tone of your current responses of me) your first response will be to think that I’m lying. Or to think that wherever I’ve been and whatever I’ve seen, I probably didn’t learn much from it. Honestly, some days I look at the world and I think that, too. Who can say?

    Our views of others are shaped by the words on the screen. All I ask you to consider is that just as my words here have given you an incomplete view of who I am, your words on your blog likewise give us an incomplete view of who you are, and in neither case are those views likely to be completely what we think they are or ought to be. We’re all looking for clarification, a next approximation that is just a little bit closer to reality.

    Opportunities to misinterpret another’s position are rife. Seizing the situations in which they happen, to figure out why and how, and how we might be just a little bit clearer the next time — that’s the best we can hope for. (FSM knows, I’ll be looking over this exchange to try to figure out how it seems to have ended up here.)

    Lastly, I do want to thank Greg for taking the time to comment and discuss this, to thank Janet for hosting and moderating the discussion, and to thank SZ and others for their contributions. It has been an interesting discussion.

    My life is insanely busy as well, but I will stop back in a couple days or so. I would really prefer not to discuss the stuff in this particular comment any further. If Greg wants to continue to try to talk about humor, we can give it a go. Or not. To be brutally honest, I’m hoping not. I do have a ton of crap to do, and this exchange has already taken a good amount of time and energy. But the main problem is that we don’t seem to be making any kind of progress in understanding each other here at all. In fact, it seems to be quite the reverse — we seem to just keep getting deeper and deeper into not understanding each other. (And the idea that we might suddenly reverse course on that seems wildly optimistic. :-) And any follow-up here on my part after this will probably be at a significantly lower frequency, as other stuff requires my attention.

  105. #105 Greg Laden
    May 4, 2008

    kw:

    You are getting very close to getting what I am saying. You have all the pieces.

    In many parts of this discussion, here and and on my site, I have not been afforded the luxury you afford JR. That is, you seem to care what he intends. Is that valid? Does his intent matter? I think it does, and that it is obnoxious to not pay attention to that. I’m glad we agree. But I demand the same courtesy, without exception, and anyone who does not grant me that is not in conversation with me. They may be talking at me, or about me, but not with me.

    I would ask you to reconsider your second (third, actually) part in a different way. This is a frame shift. I was not talking about you. I was talking about us. (American liberal intellectuals.) Please rethink this entire thing only understanding that I am talking about us, not you. And I totally accept what you are saying, no proof needed.

  106. #106 PhysioProf
    May 4, 2008

    Does his intent matter? I think it does, and that it is obnoxious to not pay attention to that. I’m glad we agree. But I demand the same courtesy, without exception, and anyone who does not grant me that is not in conversation with me. They may be talking at me, or about me, but not with me.

    Dude, you seem to have continual troubles with people “misunderstanding” you. Instead of taking that as a sign that maybe you should work on communicating more clearly, you petulantly demand that everyone else shoulder the burden of divining your “intent”.

    This is what happened with Buck, and now it’s happened with your lame-ass joke.

  107. #107 kw
    May 8, 2008

    Greg,

    Well, let’s hear it for “wild optimism” :-). I think we might be making some progress in understanding each other. [Or I hope so, but perhaps ought not count-my-chickens here quite yet.]

    I mentioned in my previous comment that I’d be reviewing our exchange — I did that last night as I was composing this. Looking back with added benefit of your latest comment, I can see that some of my own haven’t been as clear as I’d have liked. I have assumed some context from J.R.’s blog, from Janet’s post, and from your own comments that isn’t reflected back in what I’ve said. (I know, the irony of that statement here must be killing you. :-) So, I’ll take a good whack of the responsibility here for our difficulty in understanding one another. As I said, all we can hope for is to look at where things went wrong and try to do better the next time.

    I do agree with you that intent is crucial in understanding humor. It is perhaps a measure of my miscommunication that I did not realize that was still an open issue in the conversation. And to be sure to be totally clear here, I did originally misunderstand your intent, and do understand that I was in error on that.

    Now, this may seem a little weird, but if you’re amenable, I’d like to suspend our discussion on the particular topic of (perception of) intent, at least temporarily. I think diving back into it immediately might to lead to further difficulty communicating, and I believe it is actually superseded by the larger topic you raised — that of the complexity (multi-dimensionality?) of humor (or at least I think that’s what you’re getting at?).

    If I understand you correctly (and boy, do I feel like I’m tiptoeing up to the edge when I say that :-), I might crudely summarize the analogy you chose in three parts:

    Focusing rigidly on effect without factoring in any interest in intent (the “I don’t care what you meant, all that matters is the effect” case): If applied consistently, this can lead to some very unpleasant conclusions.

    Focusing rigidly on intent without factoring in any interest in effect (the “I know what I meant and have no interest in the effect on others” case): If applied consistently, this can lead to some fairly callous conclusions as well.

    It’s more complicated than any single aspect — intent, effect, whatever. Essentially, we all live in a complex and compromised place, in which intent and effect are only two of the factors to consider. We all have to look at the totality of the situation and judge for ourselves what degree of potential negative effect to others we’re prepared to risk/accept by our actions.

    If I have understood you correctly, then yes, I agree.

    What I’m less clear on is this: Given that complexity, is there’s anything further that can be said about it? To put it in geek terms: Can one discuss one axis (or even a few axes) of the search space, given constraints on the others? At least as it pertains to humor (feminist or otherwise). Is that even a reasonable analogy to propose?

    I’m going to leave off this here for now, as any further expansion is dependent upon whether or not I am understanding you, and to what degree you (dis)agree with what I’ve written here.

    If I’ve got your position correct, then I’m okay with closing our discussion here. [To continue the search-space analogy, I expect we'd be arguing about relative values on the various axes. So it's probably not a productive use of time. Although, if you have any comment or resources on your views as to what the relevant aspects of humor are (its dimensionality), that would be interesting.]

    If I’ve not got your position correct, I’d be interested in a clarification of where I’m still not grokking.

  108. #108 Greg Laden
    May 8, 2008

    Thanks for the additional comments!

    Focusing rigidly on effect without factoring in any interest in intent (the “I don’t care what you meant, all that matters is the effect” case): If applied consistently, this can lead to some very unpleasant conclusions.

    I agree, and would go a step farther and say that it allows the investigator/commenter to easily be dishonest and self serving in developing arguments. At least, I see that happen a lot.

    Focusing rigidly on intent without factoring in any interest in effect (the “I know what I meant and have no interest in the effect on others” case): If applied consistently, this can lead to some fairly callous conclusions as well.

    Yes, this would take responsibility away from everyone who ever imparts any communication.

    And the above two sides of the see-saw can be played back and forth against each other endlessly. Both (all) parties have to recognize the futility of that game, I think. Or not, in which case it just goes on forever.

    I think we are on the same page. I would just add that if it is the intent (see some of the comments above for examples) to simply pick a fight, then no amount of reasoning or discussion about intent or meaning will help. Some wet dirt is fertile ground. The same wet dirt can also be mud!

  109. #109 Stephanie Z
    May 8, 2008

    Hey, kw, I think you’re exactly right in terms of what is productive discussion on the topic, and you’ve laid out why in far greater detail than I was ever prepared to go into. Cool discussion and some interesting things to chew on. Thanks again.

  110. #110 Katharine
    May 9, 2008

    You’re doing the interrupting three-toed sloth joke all wrong! It’s:

    Knock knock.
    Who’s there?
    … Interrupting Three-Toed Sloth.
    Interrupting Three-Toed Sloth who?

  111. #111 Dick Pickett
    May 27, 2009

    Whoa! What a wild ride. Best laughs in a while. You Scientists are funny!

    . . . and now some sobering thoughts from the liberal arts:

    “Probably there is an imperceptible touch of something permanent that one feels instinctively to adhere to true humour, whereas wit may be the mere conversational shooting up of “smartness”–a bright feather, to be blown into space the second after it is launched…Wit seems to be counted a very poor relation to Humour….Humour is never artificial.”
    Mark Twain- quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, September 17, 1895, , pp. 5-6.

    “Humor, to be comprehensible to anybody, must be built upon a foundation with which he is familiar. If he can’t see the foundation the superstructure is to him merely a freak — like the Flatiron building without any visible means of support — something that ought to be arrested.
    Mark Twain- “A Humorist’s Confession,” The New York Times, November 26, 1905″

    “It is not true that owing to my lack of humor I was once discharged from a humorous publication. It’s an event that could very likely happen were I on the staff of a humorous paper–but then I’d never get into a fix like that. I’d never undertake to be humorous by contract. If I wanted my worst enemy to be racked I’d make him the editor of a comic paper. For me there must be contrast; for humorous effect I must have solemn background; I’d let my contribution into an undertaker’s paper or the London Times. Set a diamond upon a pall of black if you’d have it glisten.”
    - Interview titled “With Mark Twain,” Sydney (Australia) Bulletin, January 4, 1896

    “What is it that strikes a spark of humor from a man? It is the effort to throw off, to fight back the burden of grief that is laid on each one of us. In youth we don’t feel it, but as we grow to manhood we find the burden on our shoulders. Humor? It is nature’s effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.”
    - Interview in New York World Sunday Magazine, November 26, 1905