First, a preface: The title phrase was said to me in a recent exchange on another blog, in the typical context of denying that an obviously antagonistic comment couched as a joke was in fact antagonistic. I don’t want to exaggerate it, or imply that I’m holding a grudge: The individual in question may be a very nice and likeable person, all in all. But the phrase has always struck me as being disingenuous, and disingenuous in an instructive way, so I decided to write a post about it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that almost anytime anyone says “it was just a joke,” they’re wrong. The purpose of saying it is to discredit someone who was offended by the “joke,” and whether taking offense was justified or not, the fact that the statement giving offense was couched as a joke tells us nothing. There are many kinds of jokes that few would deny are offensive: racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes, to name a few. So there is nothing about something being a joke which implies that it can’t be offensive.

There are many things the jokester can say that are perfectly legitimate (if not always perfectly kind), such as “I really didn’t mean to offend you,” or “I think you misinterpeted what I’m saying,” or “at least I was trying to insult you in an entertaining way,” or “get used to being the butt of my jokes.” But “it was just a joke” means “I won’t even acknowledge your right to be offended,” and is at least as often used to try to compound an essentially intentional offense as to express sincere and innocent surprise that anyone could have been offended.

It’s the fact that it’s such a common phrase, so normal, so ubiquitous, and so representative of a prevailing attitude, that I find striking. We don’t engage in discourse so much as we engage in verbal and emotional warfare. We don’t seek to learn together, to edify one another, to challenge one another and grow in response to it, so much as we try to smite our enemies and fortify our positions. The title phrase is a verbal military maneuver, a way of check-mating an opponent, saying, “I not only just discredited you in an insulting manner disguised as humor, but if you try to parry, the fact that you do so is the basis for further insult and delegitimation.”

The speaker may win the battle by doing so, but we all lose the war, because “the good fight” is against mutual antagonism, and against ideological entrenchment. Next time someone says “it was just a joke,” tell them the joke’s on them.

(I have also noticed a slightly different use of the phrase, or some variation of it: To insulate a snide or ideological remark not directed at anyone in particular from criticism. So, one FB commenter who voiced appreciation for a post saying we should leave warning labels off dangerous items in order to weed out the “stupid” people by saying that it would be “natural selection” at work, responded to my comment that such uses of the concept of natural selection have long been reviled by declaiming, “it was said in jest…good grief.” In other words, as long as it was said in jest, no matter how much also in earnest, it is insulated from any criticism on the basis of the substance of what has been said. I’ve discussed other methods of insulating one’s ideological declarations from criticism in other essays as well: e.g.,  Un-Jamming the Signal and Scholarship v. Ideology.)

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