(Trigger warning for animal abuse, rape, and general awfulness.)
So let’s assume, against all evidence, that Allison Benedikt isn’t one toddler tantrum away from murdering her entire family. What to make of her then? Well, in some ways that makes it even worse. If that column was a disturbed woman’s unconscious cry for help, that I can understand. But if it isn’t, then she actually thought she was being funny. By joking about drowning her dog in the bathtub.
I have a personal history with this issue, so allow me to share the Hamster-Maiming Incident of 2011.
I used to own a cage full of hamsters. They lived about as long as hamsters can, but of course they eventually all died, one several months after the others. When catching up with my dad a while later, he asked how my last hamster was doing and I told him it had died. The very first thing he said was not something like “That’s too bad” or “I’m sorry,” but to ask me what I did with the body. He then launched into a long joke about how I should cut off its head and put it in the freezer, laughing heartily the whole time.
Before you ask, no, the context doesn’t make it better.
Which brings me to a truly perplexing question: What is it with people who joke about killing and maiming animals? Who does that?
The most obvious point is that it’s inappropriate to joke about that sort of thing around someone who just lost (or is about to lose) a pet, and that if you’re someone like Allison Benedikt or my dad, you’re unlikely to know whether that’s happened to those around you or not, because no one with an ounce of sense would tell the hamster-maiming guy about their sick pet. But saying that it’s the wrong place and time for the joke is justifying the existence of the joke itself and, thus, missing the point.
Let’s talk about a pair of oft-misunderstood words: Dark humor. Dark humor is humor that explores topics not usually considered funny, such as death. Even more than most types of humor, it’s far more complex and subtle than most people realize, and the boundaries between a good joke and a merely offensive statement is not always apparent to the would-be comedians in our lives. But dark comedy follows the same rule as all comedy: It’s funny when it’s targeted at the powerful, not the powerless. It reminds us that power can be ephemeral and that those who believe themselves to be strongest can end up being the most helpless. It’s part subverted expectations, part wish fulfillment, and part memento mori, in addition to simply making people uncomfortable because of the subject matter.
So, for instance, why are nut shots considered funny? It’s because men and the masculine are associated with p0wer and the power is often very closely connected to their genitalia (hence “Grow a pair!”). So when male genitalia becomes a source of weakness instead, it’s funny*.
There are two kinds of people who misuse dark humor. First, there are the people who aren’t that bright and are honestly unaware that there’s anything to the joke beyond the simple fact that it’s about something that you don’t usually joke about (AKA you in middle school). I think dead-baby jokes tend to fall into this category. Come on, this is about as groundbreaking as giggling when someone says “boobies.” These people are annoying, but generally harmless.
And then there are the people who actively think it’s funny to pick on those less powerful than them. For instance, Mitt Romney telling a “humorous” story about his dad closing a factory and laying off thousands of workers. Or Tosh infamously saying of an audience member, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now?” Or…well, this shirt, shown at right. Yes, that’s a thing. Someone thought it was a good idea. The shirt’s description neatly encapsulates the misunderstanding of dark humor:
If you want to joke about rape and offend lots of people, just buy this shirt and have some fun.
It offends people, so it must be funny! This is closely related to ordinary trolling: Some people suddenly realize that they can say mean things and make other people feel bad and that the other people can’t really stop them and this sends them on a power trip. And, ultimately, it’s related to minstrel shows, court fools (who were often dwarves or deformed people), and the use of social undesirables as the butt of a joke.
It’s simply not funny to mock the powerless. And who could be more powerless than domestic animals, completely dependent on you, protected by only the flimsiest of laws, and not even able to say “Dude, not funny”? Curly Sue and Pretzel, at right, nearly died because their owner abandoned them at birth for being deformed! Hilarious!
There’s a simple way to tell whether someone is using humor, dark or otherwise, to tear down the powerful or whether they’re using it to reinforce their own power over others: The latter will also use their power elsewhere whenever they can. When I posted the comic shown at right, my dad got my whole family to conference call me in the middle of a vacation to bully me into taking it down. Mitt Romney, of course, “like[s] being able to fire people.” These people will avoid apologizing for inappropriate jokes and remarks, instead choosing to remove them, pretend they didn’t happen, or claim that it happened differently; when cornered into apologizing, they’ll issue a classic politician-style notpology that implies that there was nothing wrong with what they did and it’s the offended party’s fault for being so thin-skinned. Tosh did this; so did my dad. Why? Because they like the status quo. They revel in the fact that they can make jokes about whatever they want, regardless of the effect it has on the listener, and they adamantly defend their right to do so.
Will Allison Benedikt double down on her comments? Will she issue a notpology, or simply delete the column and pretend it never existed? We’ll see, but she may soon discover that she can’t solve all her problems by killing her dog.
*Thus the curious result that feminists tend not to find nut shots funny because we want to break down the societal idea that power is masculine.
Ski-border found here.