“How can you tell if someone….”

There is a pretty common joke out there that has always kind of bothered me, but I never really sat down to think about why. Usually, the joke goes something like:

  • How can you tell if someone at a party is a vegan?
  • Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

Vegan can be, and is often, replaced with cross-fitter, paleo, Christian, atheist, libertarian, conservative, rescued a dog, volunteers, LGBT, parent, Dallas Cowboys fan, etc. Really, any group can be the butt of this joke. The point of the joke seems to be two-fold (neither of which is particularly funny).

First, it is (apparently) some sort of social faux pas to discuss things that are important to you with others. Whether it is how you achieve health, your ethical beliefs, or your lifestyle, these are things that shouldn’t be discussed with people who might disagree with them. How dare someone want to talk about things that are important to them? How dare they want to have a conversation with people who might disagree? These people are clearly fools and should be mocked behind their back (or to their face) for having a life that differs from the norm.

Which brings us to the second post, this type of joke seems to be meant as a tribal way to keep people on the outside, which is particularly harmful when that group is a minority in the culture. It dehumanizes them and ridicules them for trying to be part of society, it creates an unnecessary barrier to entry into social gatherings because it tells them that they aren’t welcome (or they must hide who they are and what is important to them). It also reduces people to a single-issue, it puts a label on them in a way that discourages us from seeing them as multi-faceted, intelligent, complex people.

Now, I don’t think that the joke itself is really oppressing anyone, but nothing lives in a vacuum. These types of jokes when repeated amongst an “in-group” build up in our subconscious to the point where we start to internalize the lessons: that people shouldn’t talk about things that are important and that people with views/lives that differ from the majority should be mocked. I think it is important to reflect on why we think certain things are funny (just like we should reflect on why we find certain things frightening or sexy or exciting) and to possibly make conscious corrections when we discover that the source of our emotions and response isn’t a good one.

These jokes are also a reflection of our culture that encourages tribalism unnecessarily. The fact that someone can tell the joke and nobody speaks up and says, “I don’t get it. Why is it funny that someone with a different point of view would talk about something they are passionate about?” Instead we all chuckles and think, “Yep! Those damn parents can’t stop talking about their kids.” When we should be thinking, “Wow, that’s cool that they have something they are passionate about, I wonder what made them decide to live their life that way. What life experiences have they had, what books have they read, what internal debates have they hosted in their mind that led them to shape part of their life around that activity or role? I wonder what else they are interested in, maybe we share some commonalities as well as these areas of disagreement where we can grow together.”

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