“I sometimes think”, writes Stephen Fry, “that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: ME AND MY BIG MOUTH.” Fry wrote this in apologising for remarks he made about an antisemitic and homophobic political party in Poland. His remarks themself are irrelevant here.
Fry writes further that, over the course of a week and a half, he declined every opportunity to apologise. Surely they must be “mischeviously misconstruing” his remarks. After all, nobody could possibly think he had meant what he said that way. I know exactly what Stephen Fry must have gone through. My brain is nowhere near as well exercised or popular as Fry’s mouth. If you asked me right now, not even I am a fan of my brain.
Before you read on, I ask that you take a look at this print from this t-shirt:
In the morning today, friends of mine gave me this t-shirt as a going-away present. I posted a picture on Facebook. We all had a hearty laugh.
There was a ‘Women in Science’ seminar held at NCBS in the evening. Rama, my professor, and Shobhana Narasimhan, a professor at JNC — scientists and women, both — would be speaking at the seminar. NCBS is about a 20-minute cycle ride away from JNCASR. I had to rush from JNC just after another talk I had to attend.
Here’s where my peabrain comes in. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I wore the t-shirt to the ‘Women in Science’ seminar? Think of all the laughs!” I would like to think that given enough time to think, I would’ve come to the conclusion that I can sometimes be a blithering insensitive idiot. Whether or not I give myself more credit than I am worth is moot. The fact is that I didn’t think about it. I changed into the t-shirt, got a cycle and left for NCBS.
Was I right? Would it be funny and nothing else? Friends of mine — people I know to be reasonable — had found the idea of a ‘stalker t-shirt’ funny. Does the context matter at all? Was this only a bad idea because I wore it to the ‘women in science’ seminar? Or is there something wrong with this humour to begin with?
After making a fool of myself in the eyes of people I like and admire, I’ve come to realise that context does matter. The late great Molly Ivins, a humourist and a political commentator of spectacular wit and more humanity than I can claim for myself at this moment, put it best:
Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, […] it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.
The reason rape-jokes aren’t funny, the reason this t-shirt isn’t funny (outside of my group of friends where the butt of the joke wasn’t the stalking so much as, well, me) is because the humour is directed not at somebody powerful who can defend themselves or laugh it off, but at somebody who is already a victim.
As is usually the case when somebody points out one is wrong, I dug my heels in when first Anjali, and then Shobhana, pointed out that the t-shirt was a bad idea. They’re just being overly sensitive, surely. “Would the t-shirt be okay if the man and the woman reversed roles?” I asked Shobhana. I am aware, now, of how stupid that sounds. Shobhana, of course, pointed out that stalking isn’t funny whoever does it.
Somebody else present added that it is also never going to happen that the woman is shown stalking the man. “Molestation shouldn’t be called eve-teasing,” she said as she walked away.
Of course it shouldn’t. Why is she telling me that? You know what popped into my head next: “I’m one of the good guys.”
Even somebody in my state of mind then should realise that appealing to the argument from one’s own personal integrity is a sure sign that one has fucked up somewhere along the way. And I did. This is me admitting to fucking up. I am sorry. Thank you for reading.