You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The other day, one of my children said something mean to her sister. When I confronted her, her defense was, “I was just joking.”

This week, I saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders on television say that Trump was just joking during a speech he gave in Long Island this past weekend, where he basically encouraged police brutality when handling suspects. Trump “jokes” repeatedly, from police brutality, to threats of firing Tom Price for not winning the healthcare repeal vote, to encouraging Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.

I’m willing to tolerate a certain amount of joking with my children, as it helps develop a social sense of humor and learning. Recently, a young child told me a joke and I was enthralled not because it was funny, but because I saw a key moment in his development, when his understanding of humor clicked. He was able to negotiate his reality enough to find humor in the joke.

Humor and joking have a place both in our personal stories and throughout human history. A History of Laughter describes the potential that humor has to bond humans but also to separate and isolate them. The “just joking” defense, however, uses the joke as a form of deflection.

This is a way for children to test boundaries: when they’ve crossed one, they can back away and not take ownership over what they said. This process allows children to learn. They realize where the social boundaries are, and (hopefully) won’t cross them again. By the time someone grows to become an adult, they should have a clear understanding of where these boundaries are. An adult who uses the just joking defense no longer is testing boundaries but is attempting to escape punishment for crossing them.

What bothers me most about adults using the just joking defense, however, is that someone is trying to not only escape blame, but reassign it. Instead of listeners reprimanding a speaker who says something cruel, insensitive, or wrong, they are told they are being overly sensitive for taking offensive. The just joking defense also ignores the power construct within it. Oftentimes, the punch line of an offensive statement attacks a group with less power within society. Finally, the just joking defense cuts off conversation and dialogue, something we need more of in our culture. Instead of being able to engage in a conversation about why joking about police brutality is offensive, the conversation is immediately cut off.

Some will say that this is merely a phenomenon of the current US President, and let’s hope it is. Yet, if we continue accepting the just joking defense, where everything can be laughed off as a joke, then words themselves no longer matter. New forms of communication, like Twitter and Snapchat, encourage the use of quick bursts of communication and the pairing of pictures with short captions, at the expense of context and the thoughtful construction of language. The Twitter

President expresses his Id on Twitter, then claims it doesn’t mean anything when people express outrage at his offensive statements. It’s not his fault, he says, but ours.

Humor is important to our culture, but people need to grow out of using a certain type of humor in order to become responsible members of society. It’s crucial for our children and a healthy society that words and meaning matters. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can, have, and still hurt us.