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Are You Kidding, or Are You Being Mean?


 I taught tenth grade for decades, and one of the things I tried to make my students aware of is the difference between joking, kidding, being funny, (whatever we call it) and being cruel. One of the lamest excuses we offer for cruel behavior is "I was kidding." I asked them to consider the following things, but people on social media might take the same lessons to heart.

Is it necessary to point out differences? The other day I was sitting with several people when a woman we all know came along wearing, for the first time since I've known her, a wide-brimmed sunhat. The day was hot. She has lots of skin damage from years in the sun, and I happen to know she sees a dermatologist regularly. As she approached, the comments started. "Are you going out to pick cotton?" "Where in the world did you find that hat?" "You look like a dork."

She took it well, but come on. Was it necessary? Might they have figured out why she'd chosen a hat that provided more shade? Are baseball caps the only allowable headgear these days?

Can the person change the thing you're "joking" about? Mitch McConnell's neck draws far more comments on social media than his behavior as a political leader. Why not focus on his decisions, his comments, his actions? Are we in kindergarten, making fun of a person's looks? Not cool.

Would I like it if someone said something similar to/about me?  As a kid I was thin, but "skinny" was the predominant descriptor. I started asking people who said, "You're so skinny!" if they'd be okay with me saying, "You're so fat!" Often, they didn't realize that I took the word as criticism, and some claimed they considered it a compliment. No, it's not. Especially among adolescents, words like skinny and fat are never useful.

Now come the comments about political correctness and cancel culture. "We can't say anything!" some complain. They might add, "We're expected to actually think about what we say before we say it!" Gee, what a concept! 

I agree that those things can be taken too far, and terms that started out as "okay" get branded as wrong, wrong, wrong. Take retarded as an example. It simply means "slow," so originally, when it referred to those whose learning is delayed, it was descriptive. But people began using it as an insult. (This is not uncommon. It happens in language all the time, and is called lowering. For example, stink was once any smell, but over time it lowered in meaning and now is used only for bad smells.) 

When a word is used as a pejorative, it's time to find other, less offensive, words to replace it. That can be difficult. With words like retarded or crippled, replacement terms can be cumbersome, like "differently abled," and many go the same route as the originals because people use them to "joke" (meaning point out in a mean way) about differences between people.

We can all be less hurtful if we considering the three points made above. Even if we're "joking" or "kidding," we're adults. It's time to leave the playground taunts behind.


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