Can we afford to joke?

A group of students, faculty and staff walked into a (global) lounge.

They drank lots (of tea) and ate lots (of pie), got a little rowdy and laughed out lot as they thought out loud about what it means to live in a diverse community with others.

But the conversation was no joke (though it was about humour).

“Can we afford to joke? And can we afford not to?” read the title of the 2-hour evening event, a special edition in the Chat and Chai dialogue series, organized by UBC Vancouver’s Muslim Students Association. The dialogue was co-facilitated by Aftab Erfan, UBC’s Director of Dialogue and Conflict Engagement. It was organized in response to a familiar dilemma:

In many cultures, humour plays a special role in creating human connection, raising difficult issues in a light way, and helping communities get through tough times. Yet, in a diverse environment such as UBC campus, joking can get us into trouble: what is funny to some people is offensive and deeply hurtful to others. How do we find and navigate the line between laughable and inappropriate in our interactions in the UBC community?

The group came together not to give definitive answers to this question (we’re afraid no definitive answers exist), but to explore the topic in an open way, allowing every person to actually say what they think (and to change their mind), even if that meant we disagreed with each other.

The first half of the evening was spent in small group conversations. Participants told each other stories of how they were positively and negatively impacted by humour, how they wish other people around them would lighten up and laugh at jokes, or how they wish other people around them would be sensitive enough to know what is and isn’t funny. Some told stories about departments on our campus where publicly told and enacted jokes are known to have wreaked havoc. Many pointed out the difference between a publicly told joke and a privately told joke. Some argued that jokes play a different a function depending on the make-up of the group they are told in and depending on who is telling the joke – whereas others wondered why that should make a difference. Some pointed out that power plays a role in how jokes are told and received, and suggested that perhaps it is particularly jokes told across power differentials that run the risk of being inappropriate.

The second half of the evening was spent in a large group of about 50 people, using a dynamic facilitation technique that encouraged people to move in the space and show their agreement and disagreement with the views of others by literally walking closer or further from them. As the group moved about we fairly quickly found ourselves divided into two “sides”, which then had a structured debate with each other. The first side argued that when it comes to humour it is the intention that matters, and as long as intentions of the speaker are good, we should receive humour as constructive, recognizing that we would live in a boring and serious world if people stop joking lest they offend someone! The second side argued that it is not the intention of the humour that matters, but its impact. They cited many examples of good intentioned humour, or even unintended humour, which had been hurtful – not to mention the ways in which humour in the form of parody or irony (“oh, it was just a joke”) is often used to cover up for the damage that it is doing in perpetuating oppressive views such as sexism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia etc. (If you looked around the room as people passionately took turns arguing for these two sides, you would recognize a secondary pattern worth noting here: the first side was made up primarily of men, the second side almost entirely of women. We all had to pause and ask ourselves: ‘What is that all about?’).

At the end of the evening we did not declare a winning side (that was never the plan! In fact, we realized after a while that the two sides were saying almost the exact same things) but the group was invited to share any new insights that they were taking with them from the dialogue. Here is a summary of insights that emerged, either before people left the room or reflected in the evaluation survey that followed:

  • I need to become more ‘educated’, more sophisticated in the way I use humour and respond to it, particularly in so far as humour can shield prejudice.
  • I realize that what we are looking for when we are joking is human connection, and it is the human connection that needs to be prioritized. I need to err on the side of caution when I joke in order to take better care of human connections.
  • I would rather be in conversation with people different from me even if I occasionally get hurt by their jokes, than to not be in conversation at all. We can’t let perfection be the enemy of good.
  • Even though the conversation did not change my mind, it opened my eyes to the other “side” because they had some good arguments I hadn’t thought of.
  • The conversation illustrated how polarizing values and ideas can be on a campus but that there is a lot of common ground if people are willing to listen and talk rationally.
  • This was totally different from a class discussion because as students we don’t get to side with our favourite opinion in class. Here we were able to say what we really think. It was less formal, more engaged and more open.
  • As a staff member it was very insightful for me to witness and participate in a discussion that centered student’s experiences and views. I really appreciated the opportunity to talk frankly with students, faculty and other staff members.
  • As a faculty member, I want to say how valuable I found this conversation. Partly for the topic, but more so for the ability to talk with students outside a classroom setting. Mostly if I talk to students it is in classes, and there is a power dynamic there that didn’t exist at this event. It was great to talk to students more like a peer, to hear what they really think without them fearing anything because I am not their professor.
  • These kinds of training and conversation will improve my future interactions and makes me want to become more involved in the UBC community.

Stay tuned for future unusual dialogues events in collaboration between the Equity and Inclusion Office and student groups.

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