Remember July’s controversy over an audience member’s report of Daniel Tosh “joking” that she should be gang-raped during his Laugh Factory comedy show? After reading way too much about it, Jessica Valenti’s response article “The Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke” stuck out in my mind and made me think about humor in and about social work.
I hope we can all agree that rape itself is not funny. No one (as far as I’ve read) responded to the Tosh situation by flat-out saying: Rape is funny. Period. In the same way, I don’t go around saying: Social work is funny. Period. Nor would I say I joined the field for the laughs. But I do think that making jokes and seeing/finding the humor in social work is useful and at times somewhat necessary for both my clients and for me.
I am sure the topic of using humor in social work will come up again in some of my future blog posts. And other blogging social workers have addressed it well (examples: socialjerk and whatashrinkthinks). But for awhile now, I have been thinking more about humor about social work instead of just within it. My thinking on the topic started late last year, when the SocialWorkProbs twitter and the first Shit Social Workers Say youtube video were created, amid a wide array of similarly themed memes (I just got really excited about writing “themed memes”).
Some (many?) may disagree, but I feel that even with the shield of anonymity, I have a responsibility while publicly blogging and tweeting to hold myself to a certain standard as a social worker. My legal name is not attached to what I write, but my Master’s degree, license and professional title are. That being said, I love sarcasm. You’ve probably noticed.
I suppose I see the distinction between “social work is funny” and “social work can be funny” as somewhat similar to the one between “rape is funny” and “rape can be funny.” For both, it has a lot to do with the content of the jokes and the question: at whose expense are we laughing?
In general, social service workers face a range of challenges each day. Within this range, I believe there is an imperative distinction that should be made between those challenges that are part of our work with clients and those that impede our ability to work with our clients. When we confront difficulties—however unusual, shocking, frustrating and/or heartbreaking—that come from our clients, that is social work. When we deal with obstacles that come from other sources such as our agencies, supervisors, coworkers, funding sources and/or policies, that is when there is a problem.
So if we make jokes about our clients’ problems, does that suggest that we think our clients are the problem? To mirror some of Jessica Valenti’s points about rape jokes, I’d argue that jokes purely at our clients’ expense that don’t draw attention to systemic issues are just the norm. Our clients face stigmatization every day. What’s so funny about that?
Early on, when I first started my anonymous social work twitter account and before I began publishing on this blog, I followed and subsequently unfollowed a parody social work twitter account. The unfollowing occurred the day I read a tweet where the “parody social worker” lamented having to work with a client despite their smell being so terrible that s/he thought s/he might vomit.
All I could think was: if this is what a social work parody looks like, it’s the last thing the profession needs. We have enough trouble promoting a more positive image of social workers without getting in our own way. Personally, I have had clients who a) have difficulty with hygiene and/or are paranoid about the way they smell b) would not understand the concept of an account being a “parody” or c) both of the above.
Something about the specificity and personal nature of the comment made it seem like it could be so much more hurtful than passing comments I’d seen about unreturned calls and missed appointments. Remarks about the latter topics seemed like a recognition of patterns and obstacles all social workers face, while the comments about a client’s smell seemed nasty and hurtful.
Obviously this is all about personal choices, values and beliefs. Everyone will have their own line. For me, I think it comes down to this question: If one of my clients came across this anonymous account, would it make them wonder ‘could that be about me?’ in a way that might discourage them from seeking help from me or another social worker in the future? If something I want to write would cause the answer to be yes, I keep those comments to myself.
Generally, I have to say that I like Daniel Tosh. And find him funny. I also enjoy a good parody. But the comments attributed to Tosh in response to the woman at the Laugh Factory seem about as funny as Todd Akin’s more recent not-meant-to-be-funny comments about what constitutes “legitimate rape” and Dr. John Willke’s absurd ideas about women’s reproductive health. Because the humor is lost when the powerless are the ones being mocked and targeted. And an exaggeration doesn’t quite hit the mark if the reality is difficult enough as is.