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.