Breadth, Humor Show Privilege

Imagine an old costume drama, showing servants interacting with those they serve. Think about what topics each side is allowed to mention, and how much humor would be tolerated from each. I say it is obvious that there are far fewer topics on which the servants may speak, or if they may speak, may joke. If there is a way of seeing what a servant said as purposely rude or malicious, they will be not be given much benefit of the doubt or chance to argue that they’ve been misunderstood. You must be very careful re first impressions when a second impression is unlikely to follow a bad first one.

Now imagine conversations centuries ago between English and French. Who is allowed to talk or joke about topics related to English-French conflicts, or ways in which the two groups are said to differ? If the conversation is taking place in an English context, with far more English than French present, then unless the French are especially high status or focal to the event, my guess is that the French will have to be more careful about what they say. The French are more at risk of harm here if they are accused of insulting the English, than vice versa.

Over the last few years, I’ve been told many times that there are many (and increasingly more) topics on which I, as a older white cis male presumed-conservative STEM-associated economist, must not speak. Often not even to directly quote others who may speak. And if I may speak, I must not joke. These categories of mine make me presumed evil, I am told. So if I say any combination of words where, taken out of context, it is possible to interpret them as “dog-whistling” an evil intent, observers are said to be free to treat that as my actual intent. Language being as ambiguous as it is, it is hard to talk long on any topic without such combinations appearing occasionally. And as humor relies much more on ambiguity and exaggeration, humor greatly increases their frequency.

When people separate the world into “us” and “them”, and try to explain why “we” are better, they often say that “we” are more honest, knowledgeable, and open-minded, and so are more willing and able to discuss a wider range of topics. And they often say that “they” are stupid dull humorless inhuman drones, lacking key sparks of life, such as humor, wit, curiosity, and spontaneity. But you can see from the above analysis that this impression is often misleading. In contexts where you hold the upper hand, they will more often have to limit their topics and humor, to avoid your wrath.

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