Shades of Gray: Joking ethically

I am a wholehearted believer in absurd, even morbid humor. As someone who’s experienced a fair amount of tragedy and death, I know as well as anyone that humor is perhaps the best antidepressant available to us, especially as college students — it is certainly far cheaper and more accessible than actual therapy — and is undeniably a powerful coping mechanism when done right. 

In today’s internet culture, however, with the prevalence of social media platforms for jokes and memes — dedicated Facebook groups, Instagram pages and TikToks — “done right” has become extremely subjective and the line between humorous and offensive is one with which social media users play a constant game of jump-rope. And while the question of what is and is not okay to joke or meme about is certainly an ever-present one, the spread of the coronavirus has given rise to an onslaught of jokes and memes that are seemingly spreading as fast as the virus itself. 

Like most of my peers, I have taken great comfort in laughing at these jokes, even feeling relieved at times to see my experience and feelings expressed in meme form and validated by others experiencing the same thing as me. In a time where social-distancing and self-isolation have given way to boredom, frustration and loneliness, these memes and jokes allow me and my peers an invaluable sense of companionship. Memes and jokes, such as some that can be found on Tufts Memes for Quirky Queens (TMQQ), criticize the Tufts administration’s lacking response and treatment of students, mock of Zoom lectures and make light of the challenges that uniquely affect Tufts or college students during this difficult time. But since not every corner of the internet resembles TMQQ, a platform where offensive content is moderated and all posts are subject to accountability by your peers, there are also a number of deeply offensive, xenophobic, racist and tone-deaf jokes that come at the expense of others specifically towards the Asian community right now. They undercut and disregard the severity of the situation and can have dire consequences for those affected. 

As the number of coronavirus cases has risen, so has the amount of hate against members of the Asian community; the anti-Chinese sentiment grows, conceivably borne from the false belief that Asians carry and spread the virus. Jokes along the lines of “my ____ is cancelled because someone in China decided to eat a bat” perpetuate this stereotype and fear of Asian-Americans — a stereotype that can have sometimes severe consequences

As proven by TMQQ, many jokes and memes related to the coronavirus do, in fact, demonstrate how, whether mundane, self-deprecating or just absurd, comedy, in all its forms, builds communities around laughter. And through a combination of tact, respect and empathy, there are plenty of ways to create funny, relatable and relevant content without making heartless jabs at widespread suffering and laughing at the expense of a vulnerable population.


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