X Close

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of Making a joke can be an act of love

(Credit: Mark Makela/Getty)

(Credit: Mark Makela/Getty)


May 28, 2024   7 mins

My daughter started cutting herself when she was in the eighth grade. By the ninth, she had scars on both her wrists and her thighs, shallow ones, but visible. Covid lockdowns were beginning to end, but they had taken their toll on this young girl who had been isolated from friends. But the biggest pain was caused by her complex relationship with her father, who had treated her with neglect bordering on abuse. It would have been an awful lot for any adult to bear. She was only 14.

My own response to her cutting was pretty minimal. I saw the scars on her arm, but rather than move into pro-active hyperdrive, I barely acknowledged them. I was taking a gamble, and I knew it. Of course, I was far from indifferent to her pain. But I felt that sometimes moving into a full therapeutic response has the opposite effect of that intended: it might indulge with amped-up seriousness what might simply be an otherwise painful but manageable part of life. I knew that the wound caused by her father would take time to heal, time and other happier things to fill up her heart. And I wanted her to get better without the pathologising rigmarole. But how?

What a professional or a parent can’t accomplish, a friend often can. My daughter was partnered with a group of three boys in her home economics cooking class, all of them “toxically” — and wonderfully — male: irreverent, funny, and just the right amount of mean. “Don’t let Nat get near the knife!” they’d tease. “Knives are for cutting vegetables, Nat. Vegetables.”

“By drawing attention to my scars, they showed me that I didn’t have to feel ashamed of them.”

This ridicule might strike some as unusually cruel, a form of bullying and an instance of an “unsafe place” in her public school. But it was the mockery and jokes which were precisely what was healing for Nat. In her words: “It showed that they cared because they acknowledged my hurt, but they also showed that I didn’t have to let it overcome me. By drawing attention to my scars, they showed me that I didn’t have to feel ashamed of them. By laughing at me, they showed me that it was okay to laugh at myself.” And just like that, her cutting stopped.

But as I see it, there was another, deeper aspect to their ridicule that helped her to heal. It was the faith they had that she would take the jokes with a good spirit. Implicit in their teasing was their understanding that N would join in on the fun. And the bond created by that faith was the healing she needed. They trusted her to know that implicit in their mockery was care and love. Their leap of faith meant she felt less alone.

A university chaplain once told me something that seems to capture the spirit of our age: the highest ethic for the students she talks to, she said, is to not hurt another person’s feelings. That is a line that the kids will not cross. Not only do we not presume to tell one another how to live, we affirm others in their choices (largely to feel affirmed ourselves in our ethical, nonjudgmental behaviours. We are all such good people). Yet this seems to me to be profoundly anti-life, as well as deeply disrespectful of another’s capacity for good faith. How can one even begin to form real relationships if one is too afraid to hurt another person? How can we discuss ideas and feelings, debate them or contest them? How can we be authentic if we are constantly monitoring our every thought and action so as to not disrupt another’s sense of well-being?

It all reminds me of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with its two main characters, the swashbuckling Petruchio and the fiery-tongued Kate, the shrew. Even if one is inclined to look punitively at Petruchio’s “taming” of Kate, as many are, one cannot help but smile at the repartee between the two. They build upon each other’s insults and innuendos. The true lovers that they are, they go for the jugular, like the lover’s pinch, which, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra says, “hurts and is desired”.

In this, Kate and Petruchio are like other beloved Shakespearian lovers, Beatrice and Benedict, who never fail to land a hit. When Shakespeare has couples hurl barbs and banter, it is a reliable measure of their mutual affection, of their fitness for true friendship, and a measure of their equality. The brilliance of their mutual ridicule is a sign of respect. As Slavoj Žižek says: “The one measure of true love is: you can insult the other.”

If we refrain from ridiculing even the most sensitive thing about a friend, it reveals our belief in a friend’s weakness, not in his strength. Through our “respect for another”, we demonstrate our low view of their capacity for grace. In a reversal of morals, we come to believe that respect means to tiptoe around the sensitivities of another rather than to treat them with humour and good faith. Yet it is precisely both those things which can lead to healing because the good faith itself creates the bonds of love.

Making a joke is always a risk and an act of faith. Comedy, says comedian Charlie Demurs, is “like throwing a rock into a window and turning it into stain glass”. Something is broken: a placid surface, an ideal, a politeness. But the breaking of a social nicety is only the prequel to a more beautiful transformation. We laugh. Laughing makes us feel better. We have had faith in others. That faith creates a connection.

“It is somehow very typical of the modern sense of self,” writes Rowan Williams, “that when we speak about ‘self-confidence’ these days, we’re often talking about something that is in us – rather than having the courage to engage, to venture out, to be confident enough to exchange perspectives, truths, insights, to move into a particular kind of conversation or dialogue.” Or the courage to tell a joke, the courage to make fun of something, or even of someone. The difference between being merely mean and being funny is obvious. The spirit of the person is the determining factor, though of course even ridicule that is intended to cause hurt can be turned to nothing if one meets it with unselfconscious laughter; an insult loses its power if one refuses to feel insulted.

Consider this anecdote: a friend of mine has a son-in-law who is a trans man. This friend, who is the mother-in-law, was once waiting to use the restroom while her son-in-law was in it. When he came out of the restroom — at last — carrying with him a magazine my friend said to him: “Just like a man! To take so long using the toilet.” It was meant good humouredly, clearly. She not only embraced her son-in-law’s identity, but felt self-confident enough to, as Williams says, venture out, to include him in a joke about men. But instead of laughing the son-in-law bristled, feeling offended by his mother-in-law’s teasing about his toilet etiquette as a man.

Why is this, I wonder. First of all, it is possible that he still felt some compunction around discussing restroom use, perhaps left over from his upbringing as a girl. But I wonder if it is because a joke at your expense necessitates a moment of vulnerability — the breaking of the window, to use Demurs’s metaphor — which means that there is a moment when one isn’t in control, where one’s sense of self is not in one’s own hands but handled, somewhat roughly, by the observations of another. Here is Williams again: if we “take for granted a basic individualist model, the hard core to which everything has got to accommodate itself, you drift towards a steady expectation that the best relationship you can be in to the world is control. The best place to be is a place where you can never be surprised.” This sounds right, and why, as Matthew B Crawford has pointed out, propaganda is somehow the opposite of funny. Jokes require a letting go, not just a release of tension, but a transformation of it.

I am not suggesting that trans individuals are all unfunny, of course not. But, rather, that in a society in which individuals are thought to come into being through a process of inward-looking self-discovery, one is bound to be fragile, self-protective, and preoccupied with control. Surprises, such as those a punchline delivers, would be felt not as a delight but as a punch to the ego. The individualist wants to protect her self-identity, which can lead to controlling how others speak and behave, which can lead to isolation, which can lead to more desire for connection with others, which can lead to frustration, defensiveness, fragility and increased isolation. And so it goes. It is our openness to being surprised by others that may lead us out of our alienation from others.

The most surprising thing anyone has ever said to me came in the form of an unexpected joke. I told a man I was dating how I said goodbye to my closest friend the last time I saw her, not knowing that it would be the last time, as she was struck and killed by a car just days after. The loss of this friend still feels like an open wound, and the fact that I had the chance to hug her and tell her I loved her before we parted for the last time has always been a comfort. It was a moment of real vulnerability for me to express these things to this man. He listened intently. Then he said, quietly and calmly, “Well. Maybe if you hadn’t had such a beautiful final goodbye, she wouldn’t have died.”

It was the most shocking thing anyone has ever said to me. Ever. I stood stunned for a moment then doubled over, clutching my stomach and reeling. It felt like I had been sucker-punched in the gut. I had been taken utterly by surprise.

And what did I do to the man who dared to say such a thing? I married him! A man who had such faith that I would take his remark as it was intended — as a joke that in itself was intended to show his faith in me — deserves all my faith, and my openness, and my willingness to let go of control, and to be endlessly surprised. He has since held me close and spoke tenderly to me of the passing of my friend in ways that I did not always expect, and which have brought not only healing but also, of course, laughter.


Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She writes the substack Submission


Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Craven
Richard Craven
22 days ago

@Marilyn Simon
“Consider this anecdote: a friend of mine has a son-in-law who is a trans man. This friend, who is the mother-in-law, was once waiting to use the restroom while her son-in-law was in it. When he came out of the restroom — at last — carrying with him a magazine my friend said to him”
“Trans men” are women. That was your friend’s daughter-in-law. Stop using woke language. You’re demeaning yourself.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
22 days ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

When you are speaking about a specific individual like this, there is really no deep philosophical reason not to be polite. Bob Dylan’s ‘real’ name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, but why would anyone insist on that?

We could get along much better if *both* sides stopped obsessing about what people ‘really’ are, and dealt with the practical questions one by one. For a trans woman (natal male) should we use female pronouns? Why not. What should the medical records say? ‘Natal male’. Should this person be admitted to female prisons or sports teams? No. Should this person be admitted to all-women shortlists, or radical feminist conclaves? Up to the organisers to decide. Not all the problems are so easy to deal with, but we could deal with quite a few if we stopped being absolutist about it.

Paul T
Paul T
21 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Speaking to…not about. You are under no obligation to present their identity crisis as objective reality to third parties.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
21 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Why is it always the people being told to support a lie who have to be polite? That Dylan’s given name is Robert has no bearing on anything. Lots of Roberts go by some nickname, but in the end, there is no pretense that their legal name is something other than Robert. This is unlike pretending the biological man is a she. He isn’t. Politeness cuts both ways.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
21 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It was this type toxic politeness by everyone around her that led this young woman to spiral into a serious life changing mental illness. Affirming people benefits you socially – not the person you affirm.

Jim M
Jim M
21 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What if I don’t want to get along? I don’t care about these crazy people. This is just a modern contagion. This society deserves to die. Islam cures this.

William Shaw
William Shaw
21 days ago

“How can one even begin to form real relationships if one is too afraid to hurt another person?” “How can we be authentic if we are constantly monitoring our every thought and action”
Words of wisdom from Dr Jordan Peterson.

jane baker
jane baker
20 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Hurting other people is a great way to form connections and make friends and will NEVER get you shadow banned on YouTube or have your favourite creator BLOCK you. I JUST WANT YOU TO LOVE ME BACK,that’s why I keep commenting that your work is a pile of shit,don’t you understand.(!).
Yep,making cruel but true observations about the people all around you really endears you to them,it’s a fab way to live.

Terry M
Terry M
16 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

Maybe you missed this part:
The difference between being merely mean and being funny is obvious. The spirit of the person is the determining factor, though of course even ridicule that is intended to cause hurt can be turned to nothing if one meets it with unselfconscious laughter; an insult loses its power if one refuses to feel insulted.
My only correction would be that what is obvious to one person may not be obvious to another. One needs to adjust one’s criticism to the self-confidence of the other.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
22 days ago

Permissiveness in the culture towards anorexia, bulimia and self-harm seem to have led to this complete tolerance on the part of the middle class towards gender transition in the young. Yet the public were clear on the danger of this problems in the young.
In contrast, pharma and plastic surgeons have exploited this tolerance for the new radical gender politics. But where eating disorders and self-harm were recognised as dangerous psychological syndromes, a little like the circle of drug/alcohol/gambling addiction, no such luck with the Queer philosophy agenda driving trans politics.
The only question to ask a young person wanting to transition their gender is how it makes them feel sexually. This is certainly a question that might be asked of a 16-18 year old which is the minimum age that a youngster should be allowed to think about permanent gender changes.

Jim M
Jim M
21 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Why does this culture, the West, even consider removing a minor’s genitals as some sort of “cure” or a moral thing to do? What a sick castration cult. In ancient times, they would kill the child for their god as a sacrifice. Now, they remove their child’s genitals for social acceptance. How utterly pathetic.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim M

Why not say ‘she’ of the gender sensitive girl in the loo? Collusion with an act she may come to regret seems more troubling.

Terry M
Terry M
16 days ago
Reply to  Jim M

You may recall that European choirs would castrate young boys to keep their voices from changing: the castrati.
Gender affirmation is just as criminal.

Paul T
Paul T
21 days ago

If you fight for your limitations you will get to keep them.

Catherine Farrar
Catherine Farrar
21 days ago

I liked this essay and she has a really interesting substack. I trust she discussed it with her daughter. There is a difference between bullying, which is bad, and gentle teasing which is healthy. I guess the difference depends on the intention. The latter stops you taking yourself too seriously which today’s narcissism encourages. Hyper sensitivity and being quick to take offence is our fragile narcissism and the cure is not to strengthen your ego but to stop making everything personal.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
21 days ago

A wonderful essay. More of the same, please.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
21 days ago

I think you could send this essay to any activist or counsellor who advocates the introduction of “allies” and teaches of the dangers of micro-aggressions. The only problem is I don’t think they’d understand a single word.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
21 days ago

Very interesting and yes, being the butt of a good-humoured joke and laughing along with the joker is a good thing. My late husband could do it and I loved him all the more for his response. I’ve been trying to do the same, especially since I can be quite rude so I should expect to take as much as I dish out. It does get easier to laugh along with the teasers and I think it’s better for the mind.
Trans identifying people truly are a humourless bunch.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
21 days ago

There needs to be trust established in a relationship before jokes can be made at the others expense. It also depends on knowing if the other person can laugh at themselves without taking offense. The capacity to laugh at oneself is a gift indeed,

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
21 days ago

Through our “respect for another”, we demonstrate our low view of their capacity for grace.

Like forcing Australians to respect the achievements of Aboriginals, while we see their decline accelerating likely as a result of unearned money and praise thrown at them: pre-emptively killing aspiration – in addition to encouraging them to speak Stone-Age languages understood by a handful of people only.

Also the attempted forced respect for women, while violence is normalised to keep Aboriginal men out of jail, and our police are blocking even public servant witness reporting attempts of crimes punishable by 10 years in jail.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
22 days ago

I don’t think you should put your daughter’s mental distress into the public domain in print under any circumstances – not even if she gave you permission to do so. But what do I know.

J Bryant
J Bryant
22 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

She also provided a very unflattering characterization of the child’s father in the first paragraph. That characterization might be entirely accurate, or it might not. We only have the author’s account of events.
The author makes a convincing case about the usefulness of pointed jokes and the ability to laugh at ourselves. Her decision to provide what may be a partisan account of her family life as a starting point for her article, however, seems ill-advised and unnecessary.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
22 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yeh, is it the same guy she’s speaking about in the last paragraph as deserving all her ‘faith and openness.’
Possibly not..

William Shaw
William Shaw
21 days ago

Quite revealing, probably by accident.
The father of her daughter is not the man she claims to have married in the final paragraph.
Which begs the question… who’s daughter is she?

Jim M
Jim M
21 days ago

What a weird thing to say! How is a loving goodbye ever a cause of death? Only a humanities major would even consider such a statement as something to be taken seriously. They are totally unrelated and telling someone you love them does not cause the universe to kill that person off. What a bizarre and superstitious idea to entertain. I bet her present husband believes in psychics. He’s as unhinged as the author is.

jane baker
jane baker
20 days ago
Reply to  Jim M

Maybe it was in the spirit of all those creepy stories on the Alpha course about how I prayed and prayed for this girl I knew and then at last she told me she had accepted Jesus as her Saviour and the very next day she was killed in a car crash and I was so happy.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
19 days ago
Reply to  Jim M

I think she meant that the prolonged timing of their goodbyes fed into the moments when an accident occured.

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
15 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

So if they’d parted more quickly, the friend wouldn’t have come into harm’s way? Pretty sick joke.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
21 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

We only have the author’s account of events”
It’s sort of an inherent part of everything one reads; from Heidegger to the back of the cereal box.
I’m sure the author’s daughter and the girl’s father will survive this “violence” unscathed. And also that we all have better things to do than policing other people’s use of the language. It’s Ms. Simon’s business, not ours.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
22 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Or, perhaps the author trusted you to understand the very important intention within this essay? This can only be transmitted with reference to intimate relationships. She trusts her daughter not to be offended (and no doubt will have discussed this with her) whilst those who “take offence” on her daughter’s behalf have entirely missed the point of the essay.

In order to create something worthwhile, we have to “break the window”. No need to be a pane.

Paul T
Paul T
21 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Look out look out, the scolds are about.

William Shaw
William Shaw
21 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Give her a pass… she does indicate how important a father is in a young girls life.
Most feminists treat a father as completely superfluous.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Exactly. Thank you for your comment.

jane baker
jane baker
20 days ago

I did comprehend the message or moral of this story and I’m glad the authors daughter found healing AND I think the Mum was right not to big it up into an ISSUE. But this idea of laughing along with the jokers doesn’t always work,or not when the witty and funny observations actually hide a lethal hate of you (maybe deserved,maybe just).When you laugh and agree with the funny put down,THEY stop laughing,they stop smiling. They don’t want to identify with you. They don’t want you to identify with them. It’s stony,sober,straight faces all round.
If you make an ironic observation it’s taken totally seriously and in a slow and pedestrian way explained to you why what you have just said is illogical and factually inaccurate.
No “showing you’re human too” doesn’t always work (especially if they’re convinced youre not human and never will be) and not all banter and joshing is well intentioned. It’s a good way to blame free exclude too.