It’s only a joke

I get a little confused with my Twitter timeline sometimes. I catch the edge of a debate and someone somewhere is saying ‘I was only joking’ or ‘but it’s my account, I can say what I like’ (although usually at least one word is spelled incorrectly). Given who I follow, this is probably one of two arguments. It’s either an “outspoken” woman who has been threatened with violence, rape or murder, whose respondent has returned the ‘only joking’ defence, or it’s a cyclist pulling someone up on making random threats to cyclists, whose respondent likewise has claimed it was a bit of a joke, honest.

Over the last few days I’ve noticed increasing resemblances between those who want to shut women up by threatening violence and those who think that running cyclists over is funny. Don’t get me wrong. I realise there are substantial differences between what women are threatened with and the treatment meted out to cyclists. I don’t mean to be insensitive here but I do find the similarities instructive. In fact at one point the two arguments collided when one charming individual claimed I would argue about “road tax” less if I had more cock in my life. News flash, dick wad, I could have been engaged in a Viagra-fuelled marathon for the previous 48 hours and I’d still call you out on your idiocy.

The most obvious difference is in the threats being put forward. People who cycle are threatened with being run over, women are threatened with rape and other violent acts when they transgress gender boundaries. If women are strident, outspoken or heaven forfend, feisty, they don’t fit certain norms about female behaviour and so, according to some individuals, sex should be used to control the supposedly errant behaviour (this is by no means a new threat, it was old hat when Shakespeare wrote Taming of the Shrew). And those adjectives are not used to describe men: speaking out is only a transgression and only worth describing as such if it is women doing the talking.

There are other differences in the threats. The ones to cyclists tend to be scattergun, just a broad ‘I hate cyclists there in the way innit’ (grammar and spelling are rarely the anti-cyclist’s strong suit). The ones to women are very specifically targeted and sent directly to a named person.  But what then of the similarities? When pulled up on their behaviour those doing the threatening most frequently resort to saying ‘I was only joking’. This got me thinking. What does it mean to be joking? What are we relying on when we make a joke? What pact is going on that it will be understood as such?

We might start from a baseline that jokes are funny. However, what counts as funny varies from person to person, which is partly what makes the ‘only joking’ defence possible and so insidious. Didn’t get the joke? Well aren’t you the humourless one. I don’t find Miranda remotely funny, others think the series is hilarious. Mrs Brown’s Boys? What? I just don’t see it. There are only 10 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t. Now that is funny. Or pretentious bellendery. You choose.

Thus it’s not about whether or not the person hearing the joke finds it funny, but more about whether the intention was for it to be funny. And that intention can be light or dark. Humour is rarely purely joyous. Often it is used to survive dark situations and it is this sense of darkness that gives it its power and that makes the ‘only joking’ defence so problematic to combat.

In order to see if something is a joke or not, it helps to look at context. Frankie Boyle, no matter how offensive he might be, can fairly legitimately claim to be joking, since that is what he’s paid to do. Bomb threats at airports are never treated as a joke, so don’t try it. On public forums such as Twitter they may also get you into hot water. And again, the problem is context, and risk. How well do I know this person? Do I know this is a joke, based on how well I know them? If I don’t know them and have only 140 character soundbites in which to judge them, what are the odds it’s a joke? What are the dangers of assuming it’s a joke when it isn’t? (the airport might get blown up). What are the dangers of assuming it’s serious when it isn’t? (I might look stupid).

Now there are times when claiming in retrospect that something was a joke is roughly the equivalent of claiming the dog ate your homework. It lacks imagination and it’s obviously a post hoc excuse for something you’ve just realised is about to get you into trouble. You can see it here with Daisy Abela’s series of tweets:


She later claimed


Now, when friends ask me if I’m joking or not, as her friend did, I tend not to respond with ‘I’m deadly serious’ unless, you know, I’m being serious. Plus, some people really need lessons on the public nature of Twitter. It isn’t Facebook.

Having received so many tweets that she locked her account, Ms Abela apparently opened a new one specifically to apologise for her tweets, though not for hitting a cyclist, which she now denies, by and large.

(Read tweets from the bottom up):


When I asked her she would not explain why she’d seen fit to overtake when her way forward was not clear. (Hint, if the cyclist can easily catch up with you, you didn’t need to overtake though frankly if you need that explained to you, you are an idiot). She’s also not been entirely clear about why her story varied so much, except again to say it was a joke, just one the world in general didn’t get.


So what’s going on here? I mean apart from post hoc justification because the police were involved.

In Ms Abela’s case I think that’s all there is to it. She’s desperately looking for a way out because if what she said was serious, she had just confessed to deliberately driving into someone whilst drunk. However, often there is something else going on. The idea that something is a joke depends on trust and understanding between the joker and the listener. There’s an unwritten compact between the two. Now when this trust is broken, something more sinister is occurring.

There is a form of abuse known as gaslighting in which the abuser feeds someone misinformation so that they will call into doubt their own perception and memory. It is manipulative behaviour and the ‘only joking’ defence seems to me to be related to it. It’s putting the onus on the listener – it’s their behaviour that is called into question. The joker, oh they were only ever joking, don’t you know. Thus the listener, initially convinced that the statements were serious may well start to question their perception of events. Even if they don’t question their own perception, they’re still left on shifting sands because it is difficult to prove that it really was not a joke. The contract over what is or is not a joke has been broken.

In the case of the anti-cycling idiots, the ‘only joking’ defence is plainly daft. In the case of those who have threatened rape it is altogether nastier. First they are trying to control women by threatening sexual violence, then they are trying to undermine women by claiming that they don’t have a grasp on reality, that they cannot tell threat from joke. However, in both cases the abuse and threats come from a similar source. Women are threatened when they acts in ways not perceived as ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’ enough by those doing the threatening. Cyclists are threatened because they too are seen as transgressing boundaries. Cyclists are not buying into a consumerist car culture. They’re not as invested in the materialism of car ownership as many anti-cyclists are. They probably own cars as well, they just choose not to use them the whole time. In both cases, threats are an expression of fear.

Now I’m off for a strident, shrewish, hysterical pedal on my bike, whilst shouting like a fishwife. And no, that isn’t a joke.

25 thoughts on “It’s only a joke

  1. This is an incredible post. I’ve been studying oppression for a while (mostly sexism) and have also noticed the similarities with how people treat cyclists. In fact, I was starting to write a post about it!

    Of course, as you said, it’s not that they are ‘the same’ — it’s more of acknowledging the ways that a majority/powerful group continue to disempower the minority/marginalized group. The tactics are strikingly similar–being invalidating and dismissive, “it was just a joke,” threats of violence, and — my personal favorite — WE’RE (majority group) the REAL victims here!”

    Now I’m not sure if I can write this though, you did such a great job!! =D

    1. Thanks, Echo. I think there is more to be said. E.g. why do people think that it’s acceptable to say things are jokes? In the case of anti-cyclists people genuinely seem to think that hitting people on bikes is funny. In the case of people who think rape jokes are funny – no idea. Cannot see why anyone would find it remotely funny.
      My sense of humour can be very black but I reserve the blackest jokes for friends I know very well, who will know where I’m coming from.

      1. I agree, lots more to be said!

        I don’t understand either, and I wonder if it relates to turning them into “others” and somehow dehumanizing them. Maybe not that extreme, but there must be some kind of process of turning them into someone not worthy of empathy, compassion, kindness.

        And that isn’t a dark sense of humor…it’s just sick. I also have a dark sense of humor, it’s dry and sarcastic. But I never find jokes about the act of rape or injury funny. I do find that some comedians can joke about privilege in a clever way.

        Example, Dave Chappelle did that really well. His “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that” skits about his white friend are some of the best jokes highlighting the nature of white privilege I have ever seen.

        And still, I agree that even it’s around those who I know and who know me well.

  2. Great post, the link to gaslighting is illuminating, so thanks for that. It reminded me of an abusive concept/tactic I came across a while ago called ‘negging’, whereby someone belittles someone else in order to undermine their self-confidence, so that person will be more vulnerable and seek approval from the belittler. Manipulative but very effective in some cases as people often feel they have to conform to narrow versions of feminine or masculine stereotypes. Sod that I’m off out on my bike 🙂

    1. That’s what bullies at school did to me for years – don’t know if they realised what they were up to or if it was behaviour learned from others that they then inflicted on me. Interesting to examine the behaviour now as an adult and realise the effects it has.

    1. Yes, that’s why I put road tax in quotation marks since it was abolished in the 1930s and is now car tax or VED. I just thought the post would be very long if I stopped to explain it here. Surprising how often drivers don’t realise that though!

  3. Very interesting post. To me the ‘it was only a joke’ defence is no defence at all, on Twitter or in real life. It tends to be used when the perpetrator has been defeated in argument, or confronted with consequences. It’s as spurious and disingenuous as ‘I was only obeying orders’.

    Jokes are often used to belittle, manipulate and hurt. They are not automatically benign, they are often weapons. Thus, when a misogynistic moron is caught out on Twitter, his ‘joke’ defence has zero credibility.

  4. Fantastic and thought-provoking post. There’s something really interesting in the concept of a “joke” being used as a tool of oppression against a target group, in order to reinforce stereotypes and disempower members of that group. Indeed, saying something that can easily be interpreted as serious and then claiming that it is a joke is doubly harmful in that it acts to undermine the concerns of the person or group it’s aimed at.

  5. Very very interesting, As some who is a staunch bicycle advocate who is friends with someone who works to empower women and works an awful lot with people who have been victims of abuse (, I have often drawn big similarities on the things she RT’s and the things I do. I have never quite managed to put it into words as well as you have without trivialising rape and the rape threats on twitter. Very well done.

    I have also noticed, especially recently the victim blaming mentality of many ‘road safety’ campaigns. There are parallels to be drawn along those lines also.

  6. Excellent post. Really, most excellent.

    I have a fairly broad sense of humour (late forties & still read Viz) But completely fail to see how boasting that you have run down a fellow human is remotely funny.
    If she had posted the following text, would people have laughed & taken it at face value?

    “HaHa, Someone shouted at me for pushing in the supermarket queue, so I purposely stabbed him LOL see yaaa”

    As you have pointed out so well, it doesn’t take much to change these hate tweets around into something truly awful.

  7. Thanks for the feedback everyone. I hadn’t realised this would spark quite so much interest! I’m glad it’s opened up a discussion though. Now perhaps some practical steps to make change?

  8. Fantastic Helen!

    There’s a great article in the I today (by Grace Dent) which is well worth reading. Hers contrasts the small bunch of weirdos in days past, who got their kicks through heavy breathing down the phone line because they get off on the reaction, with a much larger bunch of weirdos doing the internet equivalent.

    In some online communities, what might’ve started out as an occasional outrageous-but-timely quip by the occasional deliciously arch, articulate wit aimed at someone who’s acting like a complete prat, falls victim to the curse of people wanting MORE OF THAT to the point where it’s pervasive, poorly timed and everyone’s a target.

    I think that’s a bit like an audience member at a comedy club being singled out by the stand-up comic. There might be a few shocked gasps at each barbed remark that wouldn’t be laughed at outside the comedy club, but as long as it’s being followed by a wave of applause and hoots of laughter then the comic thinks, “it’s good”. And so the comic ups the ante the following week. And the audience come to expect it, and even look forward to it. Gradually, the bounds of acceptability in that context shifts far beyond what people would tolerate outside the club.

    Eventually, like the Northern comedy circuit found with racism and sexism, people begin to apply the same boundaries INSIDE the club as well as outside it and it’s only at that point that the comic suddenly finds themselves being isolated for doing the very things that made them feel popular to begin with. In time, I guess the same thing’ll happen on the internets – people will become very bored with this outrageous stuff, or rubicons will be crossed and the audience, not the commentards or the Thread Po-Lice or the ISPs or the government, will be the ones who create the cultural shift.

  9. Linked in my blog. Your Twitter Twit has generated a storm of controversy about hitting cyclists on both sides of The Pond.

    1. Thanks, Opus. There’s always quite a discussion about it though.
      Mind you someone has just tweeted to say that both cyclists and women are awful and when I pulled him up on it said it was only a joke. Then he told me I think too much.
      So there are men out there who not only want to stop women talking, but want to police our thoughts as well. Nice.

  10. Absolutely spot on.Its about power and control, however the logical analysis (if they had ever applied it) should still lead these trolls/idiots to the same conclusion:

    Riders will continue to ride
    Women will continue to have rights and gain better equality

    Their little tirades really have no consequence other than sometimes getting themselves into hot water.

  11. Reblogged this on Bike Musings from the West Coast and commented:
    Helen Blackman: “I’ve noticed increasing resemblances between those who want to shut women up by threatening violence and those who think that running cyclists over is funny. “

  12. “I think that’s a bit like an audience member at a comedy club being singled out by the stand-up comic.”

    I’ve seen this. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of audience teasing but what I saw was merely crude and left a very nasty taste in the mouth (no, it wasn’t me on the stage).

    As for the rape threats, I hope that all concerned have their collars felt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s