At work, I happen to sit next to one of the funniest people on the WiFi Planet, a guy I sometimes refer to as Hysidro. Hysidro takes no prisoners and, for some reason, none of us can help from laughing even though we know we’re going to hell for it. A few weeks back, he was going through his directory of “Mommy Mommy/Daddy Daddy Jokes” (i.e., “Mommy Mommy, I don’t want to meet grandpa / Shut up and keep digging”). This all reminded me of the old “Truly Tasteless” days before political correctness.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about political correctness. That isn’t to say that I was particularly politically incorrect. I actually believe that my primary school did a very good job of indoctrinating me with the idea that besides our forefathers and presidents, the long roster of heroes that formed my American experience included Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi, as well as others.
As a child in America, regardless of when your ancestors emigrated to the U.S., you imagine yourself right there in the history books on the May Flower, in the Revolutionary War, along the Underground Railroad, or marching on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At least, that was what elementary school was like for me. Maybe it was not my school but my parents who pushed me. My father always sided with the underdog, having grown up in an immigrant neighborhood of the Bronx, and my mother who had always been a champion of justice by working with those most in need. Regardless, I took advantage of our school’s library and read all of the biographies about U.S. presidents, the aforementioned historical figures, all of the explorers, and even about foreign countries.
In college (and since then), I had the great fortune of befriending people from almost every country and religion imaginable, and yet I had still never gave political correctness much of a thought. It was not until law school that I did, due to further indoctrination; this time both social and educational.
On a social level, two things important happened. First, I was living with a woman who was raised in apartheid South Africa where she was considered and treated as an inferior class of citizen. Secondly, one of my best friends “came out”. Learning from two people that I really cared about the horrifying and dehumanizing stories of racial classification, on the one hand, and the incredible hurtful language and rejection that a child has to endure when growing up “effeminate” on the other, forced me to change the way I chose which words to use when describing my surroundings.
On an education level, a law school education is itself very liberal. Through courses on Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Family Law, you gain a radically different view point on how society and economics affect the way different classes of people are defined and treated. A law school education also forces you to be more precise with language.
Furthermore, I have always been fascinated, as I have mentioned before, by grammar and the words we use to describe and define our surroundings. Language is vitally important to us because it gives us the power to express ourselves, but at the same time it also alienates us in that same creative process by confining us within the boundaries of our language’s grammar and vocabulary.
When I studied Buddhist philosophy in college, I was particular impressed by a book I had read by the Dalai Lama (I can’t remember its title now) where he discussed the importance of the “mindful” use of language. The use of expletives, for example, was considered conduct lacking in skill (or mindfulness) and mental cultivation. Cursing or insulting would be the sign of someone who is lazy and not using the mind to be more precise and constructive, and consequently binding that person to a world of suffering and misery. In a similar vein, “sensible” and reasonable political correctness is the conscious and deliberate attempt to steer the words we use away from that laziness and tactless speech described by the Dalai Lama. (And, yes, I do recognize the logical issue here, for as political correctness deals with language, it limits us as well.)
So when we tell our sons not to “cry like a little girl”, we are conditioning both them and our daughters. We are saying that girls are weak and inferior. “Don’t be a fag” or “don’t be such a pussy” would be similar conditioning. And I won’t go into further examples, as they are not needed.
And now here I am, living as an immigrant in Europe. I wait in the same long lines to get my residency papers alongside Latin Americans, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Asians, and Eastern Europeans. I have even had my papers denied and have received a deportation order. Yep, that’s right; there’s no special treatment for Americans. People don’t like the U.S. They generally don’t have problems with Americans per se, but when they see your U.S. passport, they associate you with what they perceive to be everything that is wrong with the world. So I am sensitive to discrimination, immigration, and how people are defining others. I like to be me and not defined tenderly as someone’s “amigo americano”, “amigo yanqui” or “amigo gringuito”.
Alright, now that I have given my little political correctness speech, I suppose that I have sufficiently justified myself before being politically incorrect. Back in the early 1980s, there was a very popular joke book that used to make everyone laugh called The Truly Tasteless Joke Book. At around the same time at school, we were all learning about another hero of adversity, Helen Keller. Helen Keller was a blind, deaf, and mute woman who, with the help of Anne Sullivan, had remarkably learned to read and write, and eventually went on to teach others. She is definitely an American hero in every sense.
Nevertheless, The Truly Tasteless Joke Book and others came up with a series of Helen Keller jokes. So the other day when listening to Hysidro’s “Mommy Mommy, how do I look in my new ballerina dress . . .”, I decided to do an Internet search for these jokes from a pre-politically correct world. Some of the ones I found made me laugh shamelessly. Am I now going to hell (or will I be going for other reasons)? Will I have bad karma? I am not sure. But why do these jokes make us laugh? Is it because sometimes we need to laugh at adversity, even in its more egregious forms, as comedic relief for that which we cannot control? How do we reconcile tasteless humor with political correctness or, if you aren’t convinced by political correctness, with mindfulness? Where do we draw the line?
In any event, I will let you decide for yourself with these sample jokes:
Q: How did Helen Keller drive?
A: One hand on the wheel, one hand one the road.
Q: How did Helen Keller’s maid punish her?
A1: Rearrange the furniture.
A2: Make her read a basketball.
A3: Leave the plunger in the toilet.
Q: How did Helen Keller burn her ear?
A: She answered the iron.
Q: How did Helen Keller burn her other ear?
A: They called back.
Q: Why did Helen Keller have holes in her face?
A: She tried eating with a fork.
Q: What did Helen Keller do when she fell of the cliff?
A: She screamed her hands off.
Q: If Helen Keller fell down in the woods, would she make a sound?
Q: How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?
A: They stuck doorknobs to all the walls.
Q: What did Helen Keller get for Christmas?
A: Polio. She already had everything else.
Q: How do you get Helen Keller to keep a secret?
A: Break her fingers
Q: Why was Helen Keller’s leg yellow?
A: Her dog was also blind
Q: Why can’t Helen Keller jump out of an airplane?
A: It would traumatize her dog.
Q: Why does Helen Keller masturbate with one hand?
A: So she can moan with the other.
Q: What did Helen Keller’s parents do to punish her for swearing?
A: They washed her hands with soap.