That ‘joke’ about violence isn’t funny

If you saw someone being punched black and blue, or beaten to death in the middle of the street, you'd never hesitate to say it was violence. The perpetrators should be locked up and made to pay for their crime. Any bystanders cheering on the murder, we'd also hold to account for their depravity.

Yet if we take violence out of the public space and into the domestic sphere, it becomes a joke about who rules the roost, and how gender wars should be played out.

As a teenager, I overheard the following “joke” being shared between men and women. “What should you do if your dishwasher stops working?” The answer: “Slap her, and she'll start washing again.” Did you laugh?

The punchline fulfils the comic's rule of subverting our expectations: we were thinking about the dishwasher as a machine.

It also plays on the gender stereotype that if women aren't working in the kitchen, then a bit of violence is fine. After all, that's a woman's job, and if she's not doing her job then what should she expect but a whack in the face?

In case you laughed, let me help you: this was not funny, because the idea that women should be beaten is not funny. We're duped into accepting that it's funny because it plays into the gender war stereotypes. This doesn't mean those who laugh are all bad people. But if you do laugh you should be keenly aware of how “jokes” can transmit the idea that violence is acceptable and by telling the joke or just laughing at it you are condoning its acceptability. Violence is never acceptable under any circumstances. Not even as a joke.

Such jokes are so rooted in our psyches as “just a bit of fun” that if we do challenge them we are accused of not being “chilled out” or that we can't see “the funny side”. But we're all familiar with the adage “never a truer word than said in jest”.

Just as problematic are jokes about violence against men. The Times of India is showing a photo taken at a fancy dress competition. A little boy is dressed up with bandages and blood stains on his head and arms. He's got a big black eye and wears a sign saying “I argued with my wife”> He won first prize. I've seen women posting up the picture indicating how funny they think it is. LOL! They exclaim.

That's a funny costume, right? Don't mess with your wife! We should take the funny side of it and chill out, right?

Wrong. It's worth repeating: violence is never funny.

We wouldn't laugh if a black child wore a sign saying “I picked a fight with a white boy” and there would be righteous outrage if a beaten girl wore a sign saying “I argued with my husband”.

If women think it's funny because it gets back at men who commit domestic abuse, think again: it simply reinforces the idea that beating women in the home is fine. Besides, men can be victims of domestic violence too.

We must all – both men and women – be vigilant in stamping out “jokes” that perpetuate gender stereotypes and violence. Telling jokes might seem harmless, or just a bit of fun. But every implicit acceptance of abuse helps it to flourish.

To tell the joke is to be the bystander who cheers on the public brawl. It creates the environment for violence, and in the end someone will always get hurt. Don't be the cheerleader. And definitely don't be the one who thought it was funny.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

Published: March 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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