at the risk of opening up a big ol' can of worms...ramble

August 27, 2005

So yesterday I made an innapropriate remark (since largely edited out), and FoSO (living up to her moniker which stands for "Female of Strong Opinion") called me on it, and rightly so. (For the record, and I do apologize for it, I claimed I knew I was goyim (gentile, non-Jewish) because of my unwillingness to haggle, the inference perpetuating a stereotype about Jews; in googling up references I came across this blog entry that pointed out what seemed like a harmless if tasteless bit of joking can be the root of truly despicable stuff, such as providing ideological support for a German boycott of Jewish businesses in the 1930s.)

Of course, I have an unfortunate history of offending Jewish friends with my blog, mostly by stating my discontent with people assuming that my name indicates that I'm Jewish. I swear up and down it has nearly nothing to do with the risk of experiencing prejudice or the relative merits of the culture, and more of a geekly dislike of incorrect categorization. (Being categoryless is fine, but mislabling is Not Right, and I'll argue against it just like I argued on behalf of other high school students who incorrectly answered a misleading question that I got right because I had thought about it on a meta-level. Yes, I was a tremendous pain in the ass in high school, why do you ask?)

And at the risk of not heeding the ancient wisdom of "if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging"...I feel that my immediate family feels some level of connection with its Yiddish/Jewish past, even though it's several generations back and we have Protestant clergy in between...this might lead me to feel an innapropriate familarity with humor that might be ok intra-group but isn't acceptable from an outsider. Which I am, so the joke ain't funny.

It makes me wonder about humor based on stereotypes in general. On the one hand, there are a lot of downsides. People's feelings can be hurt, and if a stereotype is pervasive it might well influence people's decisions, from job hiring to how they generally treat others. It also causes people to make assumptions about others in a prejudging kind of way, which is wrong.

Conversely...well, I dunno. The old slogan is "Celebrate Diversity!", and it seems a little pollyanna to only be able to recognize the positive. "Diversity" is usually recognized as working on a cultural grouping level, not just appreciating everyone as individuals, and if people are allowed to take pride in their cultural heritage, as well as appreciate the collective accomplishments of other cultures...shouldn't we be able to admit to struggles different cultures face, problems they have, ways that their outlook always isn't helpful? (Of course its possible to make the positive view a bit ugly, like with Reggie White's infamous comments about Hispanics and the Japanese.) And if that's the case, is humor always going to be inappropriate to deal with it? I find humor to be a central, almost defining part of the human condition. Losing a sense of humor is a terrible thing.

Of course, I'm talking as a priveleged, educated, middle-class white male. There are some jokes made about "us", but not that many, and culturally speaking it seems to be an easier life than most. So it's pretty easy to say people should be less uptight about stereotypes and jokes and being PC, because I haven't had to bear the brunt of it.