Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes? I would like to think so, yes.
Is it ever OK for an academic to make jokes using phrases she tries to fight against in her work? I don’t know the answer to that. I want to say yes, that everything should be taken in its context, but I’m not sure. As I am not sure whether it is ever OK, or when it’s not OK, to make racist or sexist jokes.
I believe in the power of words and narratives. I don’t think words come out of a vacuum, I do think history and power dynamics are embedded in most words we use. And I also think choosing certain words over some others influence how we perceive the exact same thing those two different terms are meant to designate. This is why we are continuously cultivating a Politically Correct culture, and trying to change our perception from ‘less developed countries’ to ‘developing countries’ or from ‘queer’ to ‘gay’ and back to ‘queer’. Most of the time, there is a dominating group and an oppressed group represented in words we use, and almost all the time, we tend to follow the narrative of the dominating group. Unfortunately, we also focus so much on the PC culture that we forget about the bigger system that makes the PC culture necessary in the first place. But that’s for another discussion.
Yet the world and our lives are riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle expressions that betray the inherently unequal system we are living in, and which, as a person and as an academic, I try to speak up against, one way or the other. What I want to believe is that a word has power only as much as we intend to give it. And that this power changes over time and place. There was a time when the word ‘Oriental’ was used in both academic and daily settings to designate the ‘non-West’, and the word was not just a jumble of alphabet letters but also a betrayal of the different and the exotic the ‘non-West’ represented. Today, rare are the instances when that word is used to describe what it intended (or at least by the people I personally know – whether or not these people have had that word thrown at them by others, I can’t vouch for). Instead, I would be OK to use it to make fun of a system and time period that came up with that word and concept in the first place. Power was given. But I choose to take back that power and treat it as the nonsensical word it should have been. I think the same can be said for the word ‘queer’. Although I’m not an expert in Gender Studies and Sexuality, the word ‘queer’ in its dictionary sense, means ‘weird, strange, unusually different’, and was used to designate the LGBTQ population. Today, the power given to the word ‘queer’ is different. Because change happens. We change ourselves, our norms, our values. There are no rules as to how these things change and who has the authority to change them. But I would like to believe I have the power and perception to be part of these changes. To take back the power that the oppressing group gave and turn it as a joke against them and why not, against me, since I also have privileges others don’t. To make a joke without fearing the backlash from other ‘intellectuals’ and ‘academics’ who assume they have the monopoly on what is right or wrong, without realizing that by doing that, they are only giving back power to the word, power that I had taken away.
So yes, maybe, I’m allowed to make certain jokes using ‘offensive’ words. Or maybe not.
I would also like to think that as academics, we are first and foremost human beings. And as human beings, we live with other people. We learn how to be social. Do I, perhaps, feel a teeny tiny speck of discomfort when my friends make fun of Asians? Maybe. Sometimes. Do I stand up to them and tell them I’m offended and I’m the only one that is allowed to make these jokes? Certainly not. I love making ‘That’s what she said’ jokes. No, I pride in making them when they’re least expected. Does that make me less of a feminist because by making the joke, I do not question how it is based on a purely sexualized version of the woman? I don’t think so. Life would just be too sad without ‘that’s what she said’ jokes.
Academics are so engulfed in their perspective of what is right and wrong in the world that they often forget their complaint about ‘not reaching out to the rest of the population’ is on them. I mean, yes, our indignant cries about how climate change is real and how racism is real fall on deaf ears, and that may not be solely our fault – there are stupid and irrational people everywhere. But academics can take on the responsibility of ‘educating the world’ without necessarily being a jerk, using some humor and there appropriately. There is a reason so many people love Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and the likes, and so few people read our boring articles filled with jargon and fixations on less important things.
I believe in making this world a better place and in changing people’s minds, however little my contribution may be, all the while still managing to be somewhat ‘human’. The other day, I was talking to this very nice European woman who shares my Airbnb about intercultural experiences. When she mentioned about the ‘negative effects’ of colonization – which revealed that she also assumed there were ‘positive effects’, I didn’t express my indignation, although I firmly believe whatever so-called ‘positiveness’ there was through colonization, it all becomes meaningless in face of the destruction it left. Why? Because I knew her grandfather was in Africa and worked as a colonizer and I didn’t want to tell her that her grandfather was a horrible human being for complying with what was happening at the time. Because we were having a nice conversation and I knew we would be seeing each other fairly often, for quite some time during my stay. Because I didn’t think it was my place to stain her own experience and family history. I thought that I did enough by not reinforcing that, yes, there were indeed positive effects. Did that make me a bad academic? Maybe. But I would rather be a mediocre academic than a jerk of a human being.