Saturday, April 24, 2010

Red Lines

Last week, I sacrificed the feelings of a friend on the altar of humor. I heard about a Facebook page with a clever name that made me laugh and I couldn't resist signing on as a fan. As my finger hovered over my left mouse, a little voice niggled at me, "Some of your friends may be offended by the sentiment expressed here—Rhonda, for instance."

The idea put forth by the name of that group crossed over societal red lines by expressing the hope that someone holding a hallowed American office would die. But the way it was worded was so clever! I didn't so much care about the meaning of the words, I just liked the wording. So I ignored that little voice and it's been bothering me ever since. Why did I choose humor over the feelings of a friend?

It isn't the first time I've crossed red lines for the sake of humor. I offended another friend around the time of Michael Jackson's death by quoting an MJ joke on Twitter. The same thing happened. A little voice said, "This might be offensive to Viki, for instance," and I stilled the voice and ploughed forward.

I cannot figure out why I ignored the little voice, not once, but twice. I know that people's feelings matter to me. I did not have the intention of hurting feelings. I think I hoped that the humor would prevail over any offense caused. But why was I so misguided? Why did I repeat and compound the error by ignoring the voice a second time?

I decided to explore the psychology of humor with my limited resources to see if I might gain insight. I discovered the work of psychologist Rod Martin whose research involves studying the ways in which people employ humor. Martin says that being funny may not be an expression of social skills, but rather the sign of a personality flaw.

Humor can be used to improve relationships or help the individual to cope with difficulties. But humor can also be self-deprecating or antagonistic. "It's a form of communication, like speech, and we all use it differently," says Martin. The clown who puts himself down has low self-esteem. When the put-down is directed toward someone else however, it may be an adaptive response. The tense air of the office can be lightened by ridiculing a tyrannical boss in his absence.

The world abounds with Jewish comics. Jews have long used humor to cope with oppression. It breaks the tension. Laughing or causing laughter takes away the stress of the situation. Making fun of the enemy knocks him down a peg or two. Remember the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Hassid asks his rebbe, "Rabbi, is there a proper blessing for the Czar?"

The rabbi says, "Of course my son, there is a blessing for everything," and thinking a moment recites, "May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us!"

Humor is a key facet of my personality. I've always loved generating laughs. Sometimes I'm not even aware I'm being funny until someone laughs. Making others laugh involves generating a kind of surprised gut reaction. Socializing involves a certain protocol, being polite and adhering to norms. Laughter, on the other hand, is genuine and comes unbidden. It needn't conform to the standards of Emily Post. It just is.

So making someone laugh is about the nicest thing I know how to do. I like it better than anything. I don't even care about the sense of the words in the joke. I just want to hear those laughs. But maybe there's something else going on.

President Obama scares me. He poses an existential threat to me, my family, my country, and my fellow Israelis on many levels. I feel a sense of urgency that is not shared by many of my friends. Was my joining that page perhaps a way of pushing the boundaries, saying: "Please see my situation: my dilemma?"

I think so.

So, how do I explain away the MJ jokes?

I guess it boils down to how I view Michael Jackson. He had to change anti-Semitic lyrics in the song, They Don't Care About Us. He swore that these lyrics were benign. But then, in 2005, tapes were aired on Good Morning America, "They suck … They're like leeches. … I'm so tired of it … It is a conspiracy. The Jews do it on purpose."

It doesn't matter a bit to me that he changed the lyrics of that song to accommodate the ADL or got in bed with Shmuely Boteach. As far as I'm concerned, Jackson was an anti-Semite—a very talented person, but an extreme anti-Semite. I can never again listen to his music without the thought of his anti-Semitism coming to mind.

It isn't just his anti-Semitism, though. I also think about the baby-dangling incident. To me, MJ was not a good person. The court cases don't have anything to do with these feelings. I only look at facts. The facts makes him fair game as the butt of jokes—but NOT at the expense of my long friendship with Viki.

I think that joking about these two personalities boils down to wishing that my friends would share my passionate beliefs or at least see and recognize my feelings and fears. I crossed their red lines to make them see my own red lines. I think I would rather make my feelings known through humorous asides than by lecturing or being strident. But twice now, all I succeeded in doing was to cause offense.

I think what I learned from these two incidents is that friendship is not predicated on agreement. No matter how urgent an issue feels to me, it does not follow that a friend must agree. It's hard to take this in when I feel the issues are existential. But losing a friend is even harder.

I resolve to listen to those little voices, the next time they whisper a warning. I don't promise not to fail sometimes, but I hope that setting down my thoughts like this will firm things up in my mind and help me avoid future pitfalls that threaten my friendships with the people I love.


  1. Varda, you are a beautiful and brave person.

    Humor, in my opinion, has to do with making connections between things in an unexpected way. It's not just about laughing, although sometimes it is, but also being able to put an unexpected spin on something in a way that is creative and good, and helps us see goodness where we didn't before.

    A real friend makes mistakes. And a real friend makes up for them. What a friend you are!

    Love, Rivkah

  2. Rivkah, thank you for these words. I think what you say is very true: humor can and should be used as a force for good.

  3. As you know, I thought that tyhe Obama thing was bad taste, but didn't comment on it until afterwards.

    A few days earlier, a New Jersey teacher's union honcho did the same thing, but his target was the excellent new governor of NJ, Chris Christie. People came down on him hard, and with cause. Even if you think it's cute (and even if you really want Joe Biden to be President - give THAT a moment's thought, why don't you)), we cannot criticize the NJ teachers' union and then allow our own people to do the same thing.

    It's clear that you didn't really mean it, because there is a reference to one Michael Jackson as a favorite singer, but still, we must be responsible. Someone has to be the adult in the conversation.

  4. Sorry, I punctuated "teachers'" wrong in the first usage. There doesn't seem to be a "delete" button here.

  5. Ha! Proves my point, Israel...I'm not a fan of MJ OR of Farrah F.I just thought the phrase a clever one.

    On the other hand, f I were an Obama fan, I never would have found humor in the name of that page.

    In short, I crossed a line. I said something taboo and hurtful.

  6. Dearest Varda,

    We've only met once and our friendship is long distance, but I knew that I could tell you exactly how I felt without jeopardizing what we have. You are the most compassionate, loving person I have ever met. How many people would do as much as you have to apologize? Not many. I have to say, reading this made me put myself in your shoes and try to see things from your point of view. It was the least I could try to do. I did some reading and understand better what you're saying when you tell me Obama scares you. My thoughts have always been that we need to make peace with the enemy, but NOT at the expense of another country. So for you, my dear, dear friend, although I will still support Obama as our president, I will also now stand by you in support of the fact that he is not handling Israel in a manner satisfying to our race and Jewish culture and I will be more verbal in speaking out that his interactions with and about Israel are inappropriate and dangerous for your country.
    That being said...I had NO idea about MJ. I love his music and always thought he was a nutjob, but anti-semitic?? He and how many others? Yup, still love his music, but won't look at him the same way ever again.

    Love ya girlfriend!

    PS...tell Bernie the Obama Kool-Aid is quite tasty!