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« The state of ClimateGate today, Dec 9 2009. [krakatoa] | Main | Overnight Open Thread (Mætenloch) »
December 09, 2009

Okay, Let's Go for Another 2000 Posts

Actually, I hope this only goes for like 200. Hopefully this will make some sense, smooth over ruffled feathers, and end all the arguing.

Long story short, if you want to skip completely: Just include a working email address you check every once in a while in you off-color comments so I can privately address you if warranted.

This is like the longest thing I've ever written -- Good Lord, but I do go on and on -- but I think it's kind of good. I'd appreciate a full reading, at least if you were one of the people upset by yesterday's post.

First of all, what I detected from a couple of commenters -- hobgoblin and kdabear -- was an anger that they didn't like my scolding tone, and didn't like that I was scolding the site generally. And that the coded message of the last post was "You're all a bunch of racists."

Taking them backwards:

1) I don't think "You're all a bunch of racists." I didn't say that in the post and I didn't intend to imply it. Whether I did imply it is up to you, but I didn't intend to. If I really wanted to call you racists, I could have; I've done it with different people before. I assure you I am not sitting here chewing my fingernails and tearing out my hair at all the haters I am forded to associate with.

I was talking about one thing -- jokes that go too far, and I did mean that. It's about jokes that go too far (and, more often: jokes that don't really go too far, individually, but so many of them that the cumulative effect is sort of off-putting).

2) I was scolding the site generally, and as Cuffy and Entropy suggested, that's a stupid thing to do. Why scold everybody when obviously I have in mind 10 guys?

That's completely true. Here's the problem, though: I don't know who is who on this site. I don't have emails for most of you, and people are always sockpuppeting, so when I see something I don't like, it's usually under the name "Barney Frank" or something. So who do I write to?

That's the frustrating thing, here: I have a complaint, but I have no earthly idea how to actually contact the person I want to caution. And very often I only get to this stuff when the threads are long dead, so what's the point including a caution in post 348 of a post that died out 12 hours ago? What are the odds the guy I'm talking to decided to revisit that post at 1:00 am?

So here's the solution: If you're one of the people who does edgy jokes, please include an email address in your posts. Doesn't have to be your real email -- could just be a hotmail account you just opened. But check it, you know, twice a week or something when you're actively posting, and actively posting edgy stuff. That way, if I have a problem with something you wrote, I can write to you specifically, and avoid all this drama.

And, on top of that, when these things are done privately, there is almost no drama at all, because no one feels called out, and I don't cop this sanctimonious attitude a lot of you were displeased with. I remember one exchange a year ago with one of the few commenters whose email I actually know. He said something either on the line or very close to it, and this, pretty much, was the entirety of the exchange:

Me: "Come on, man. You're killing me here with this."

Him: "Oh ok. I'll watch it."

That was it. Done and done. Not really a problem since. (In fact, I think he's overly restrained, because he never says anything even close to the line anymore.)

But I can't do that if I don't know who the heck you are because you've never emailed me, or you have emailed me, but your email is completely different from your screenname, and on top of that you're sockpuppeting Barney Frank.

So: New rule. Create some free email account and enter the address in your comment box if you're a frequent commenter who does edgy stuff. (Yes, you can still sockpuppet -- sockpuppeting is fun, just let me know a working email address for you in case I need to talk to you about it.)

Check every few days, twice a week. Once a week is fine, actually. Most of this stuff -- as I'l explain in a moment -- isn't really so bad that I need you to stop what you are doing and make amends immediately. It's more like: Chill on it a little, okay? And if it is so bad I have to do something right away, I can delete the post and call you out in the thread.

That way all this can be done in private and no one gets called out and I'm not sitting here scolding 10,000 people as if they're all unreconstructed racists.

I think that will solve the problem, by and large. There will be non-regulars, people who come over from other sites, who don't know about this and so I won't be able to get in touch with them; but hopefully they'll be few enough in number and can be dealt with in the thread, if need be.

So, that's it, that's all you have to read. If you want to read more (and I know how much you love being scolded!), I can try to explain what I'm talking about more. I think my explanation is pretty good -- and will go down a lot easier than yesterday's post -- but if you don't want to read it, skip it, just make that hotmail address and include it in your comment box.

Apology: I'm not a Professor of Comedy. Howard Stern used to make fun of Chevy Chase for discoursing on comedy, like a genius, like an asshole. "Professor of Comedy," he called him, and I laughed and laughed at that fitting monickers.

Obviously, here, I became the Professor of Comedy, and I'm hardly even in Chevy Chase's league. (Well, I'm in his league now, because my fucking mailman's in his league now.) But at least Chevy Chase was at one time one of the funniest people on the face of the earth. But even he can't get away with being The Professor of Comedy.

So my "This isn't funny and I know what's funny" gambit did not pay off. Some things are funny to some people and not to others. I do think I have a pretty sharp sense of humor, but that is hardly something I can claim is a universal comprehension of what's funny. Asshole move on my part.

But Here Is What I Meant: Part One. Rote Jokes are a Waste of the Precious Resource of Giving Offense. You know how many times you can say the f-word in a PG-13 movie? Once. (You may think it's zero, but it's not: You can say it once, so long as it's not used in the literal sense, and so long as the rest of the movie isn't already bucking for an R rating as it is.)

If I'm a director aiming for a PG-13 movie, and I have a bunch of actors who keep improvising the f-word into their lines, I'm going to get frustrated. I can pull each of them aside and say "Look, you can't all say the f-word," and each will tell me, "I'm not 'you all.' I'm one guy. You can say it once."

And I insist, "Well, yeah, but you can't all say it," and the actor says, "Eh, I felt it was what my character would say at this point. It's a choice. Talk to the other guys."

I sort of feel that this is part of my problem here. I keep giving this vague sort of rule that you can go there if it's justified, because, seriously, I don't like categorical bans. For one thing, I'm not abiding by a categorical ban; I, in some circumstances, want to reserve the right to go into edgy/offensive territory if I think -- think; guess, really -- it's "worth it" in terms of a joke.

And if I can't live by a categorical, bright-line ban, it's stupid to impose it on anyone else, and on top of that, I don't really want to play babysitter enforcing these dumb over-inclusive categorical bans.

But what I'm trying to say is: Offensive material is like the f-bomb when you're shooting for a PG-13 movie. Yeah, there is some amount of tolerance for it; you can get away with it a little. But if there's too much of it....

I just sort of feel like what I consider the limited amount of offensive material that I think is permissible is often being squandered on frankly lame jokes, and, well, I'm selfish. I want to use some of those precious resources. But I usually feel like I can't, because when I go into a thread I often see, in my head, what looks like already too much of that stuff. And I don't want to add to it and pile on, and I don't want to start a whole new chain of riffing on that particular subject, so I self-censor.

Look, I cannot tell you exactly what is funny, and what is not funny. I also cannot tell you what is "worth it," what is funny enough to justify giving some offense.

I can't. It's stupid of me to suggest I can.

But I can suggest something along these lines: You know, of course, that not every joke you yourself right is a gem. Not every joke I write is a gem, of course. A lot of my jokes are clappers or just plain suck.

You can decide for yourself if you've constructed a gem. But please -- let's avoid the truly rote jokes when it comes to sensitive areas. Because what is happening isn't that this or that joke is so bad my innate liberal PC urbanized blue-state antenna goes all aflutter. What the problem usually is is that it's not this or that one joke; it's that there are now six or seven jokes making the same basic point. It's the cumulative effect of a series of cheap jokes -- none of which, on it's own, so offensive that I need to start shrieking -- but in totality, as string of kind of pointlessly rote jokes looks like a bunch of people who just sort of don't like queers, and are willing to toss out any old lame joke to make that clear.

Note I say "looks like that," not is like that. I don't think most people intend any offense with any of these. It's just that when you go into a thread and see a string of them, and none seem particularly inspired, it looks like the value of these jokes is not in their actual humorous content, but in the simple declaration that gay is bad.

So, re: jokes, again. Not all jokes are gems. You know that. Barney Frank showing up in every third thread to say he's just gotten done going down on a dude? Pretty rote. Same thing with Andrew Sullivan popping up all over the place to tell us the sort of stuff he enjoys doing with his weekend.

Some of these are funny. Some of them really are. But a lot of them are just rote, and are just making the point that these guys are gay, which is.... obvious.

Here's a funny one. Not sure why this is funny. I think I know who wrote this, but I'm not sure, so I won't assign credit that could be a false attribution. I'll let him take credit if it's his. Regarding Andrew Sullivan's odd assertion that he is beyond-expert in matters of human reproduction...

"Someone needs to explain to Andrew Sullivan that is favorite beverage is sometimes used to make babies."

Offensive? Yup, and not just due to the gay thing; it's a very graphic sexual image. This is not the sort of joke your Mom will send you amidst the cute-cat pictures.

Homophobic? Eh, you can make that case.

Funny? Yup.

I don't know why I think it's funny, really, except that it is so deadpan and dry and ridiculous it makes me laugh. I would note, though, that the target here is not just Sullivan's sexuality; it's not just "ha-ha, Sullivan does gay stuff." It's also the funny understatement of trying to explain to Sullivan -- who fancies himself as Robert Langdon, freelance gynecologist to the stars, in The DaVinci DNA Code -- the most elementary stuff about "his favorite beverage."

Another gag that got me recently -- I forget how it went, exactly -- was that Andrew Sullivan knew all about giving birth, because he'd just given birth, via his intestinal tract, to "the twins," a gerbil and a hamster.

Again, I can't say why this is funny and therefore a gem. I have no idea. It's so childish. Maybe it's the childishness of it that gets me. But I think it's that it includes a novel and unexpected element -- "The twins." That's new. I've seen a lot of gerbil jokes, but to me, "the twins" was new, and novel, and also sort of funny.

So rather than put this down as "decide if it's funny or worth it," how about this as rule? Don't go there unless there's something new or novel about it. I mean, there just is very little point in doing the ten billionth Barney Frank has sex with guys joke. It's not going to make anyone laugh. It's almost a pure repetition, with one or two minor word changes.

Again, it's not that any particular gag is usually so awful and offensive I cringe and start calling up Nancy Pelosi for advice on how to combat homophobia. It's that there's often kind of an indiscriminate spray-and-pray attitude with jokes that really should be used with more care and more judgment, and when that care and judgment isn't exercised, we've got a thread where 10 of the first 40 comments are about Barney Frank's or Andrew Sullivan's sexual proclivities and little more than that.

Does that make sense? If you've genuinely got something that might be new or surprising, hey, go for it. If it's purely rote, or almost purely rote, try to understand you are consuming the precious resource of being occasionally offensive, using that up, and using it up to no particular effect. You're not "picking your spots," you're just tossing it out there randomly.

Blitzing, as it were, on every down. You don't blitz on every down You blitz when you think you can catch your target unaware.

Again, if you're tossing the rote put-downs out there. I don't mean "you" as in everybody. I mean "you" as in "if you specifically are doing this."

Plus, then I can't toss out my own occasional gay jokes. And I guess I kind of resent that. I kind of resent having to be the Good Boy on the site because too many people are too frequently playing the Bad Boy. I want to be the Bad Boy too on occasion.

Here's What I Meant: Part Two. Riffing Can Get Out of Hand. The best thing about this site is the riffing. That's what I love about it, that's what most people love about it. Riffing. Playing the game of can-you-top-this with jokes.

I forget which thread it was, but I think either Warden or AndrewR commented on a particularly great riffing thread, "That thread was better than sex."

When I was a kid I riffed all the time. Your Mama jokes. In college I did it still. Not Joe Mama jokes, but some other topic where we just kept playing can-you-top-this or pick-up-the-premise-and-go-even-further-with-it. As they said in the Zoolander dance-off: Duplicate, and elaborate.

I didn't have that, for a long time, until I started this site. Okay, every once in a while with friends. But not nearly as much as I'd had in high school or college. I missed it. I missed sitting around with a bunch of funny people just tossing out jokes, one trying to top the other, one going a little further than the other.

I think that's what a lot of people like about this site, and what they're afraid of losing, if I'm too much of a martinet about joking around.

But here's the thing. When you're riffing, it being a game of can-you-top-this, you can either top it by 1) being funnier or wittier or 2) being more extreme.

My "Your mama is so loose..." jokes usually wound up with claiming "your mama" uses an aircraft carrier as a gynecologist's chair and gets probed by landing F-15's. Or that she uses the Chrysler Building as a marital aid.

Funny? Well, no; I was in 9th grade. Was funny to a 9th grader. But certainly hard to top in terms of explaining how oversized your mama's generative organs were. I mean, I'm saying your mama douches with the Exxon Valdez. You really can't top me in terms of pure scale.

Since it's hard to just "be funnier or wittier" -- at some point, after all, someone has the "thread winner," which really cannot be topped -- "be more extreme" becomes the primary method of topping a joke.

And the problem, in this context, is that when you're already dealing with an edgy subject matter, "Be more extreme" rapidly hits the point of very sharply diminishing returns, because we all were already kind of pushing the edge from the outset, and now the only place to go is... over the edge.

And what does the next guy do as an encore?

This is a dynamic which I'd like to see people keep an eye on. Yes, I undertand the whole point of this is to top the next guy. That's the object of the game. And I understand that going more and more hyperbolic, more and more extreme, is usually how the game is played.

But this is how I think that it happens sometimes that a bunch of people start out in a sort of innocent, inoffensive (or at least not that offensive) place but wind up being over the line.

No one meant to give offense or go over the line. No single party really intended to jump ugly. But the rules of the game say you have to go further and further and then, with no one actually meaning for it to happen, now we've got some ugly stuff going on here.

So keep an eye on this. In this area, we don't have full freedom as we might have with, say, Cool Facts About Dick Cheney, to just keep getting progressively more extreme and offensive. The nuclear button we can hit in other riffs -- "I will now go so hyperbolic and offensive and extreme that no one can possibly top me" -- really shouldn't be hit in this situation, because it's just not worth it it. It winds up not provoking laughs but cringes.

I mean, I know, sometimes, why we wind up here: Because the only thing left is shock humor, forbidden humor. It's the only card left to play.

I get that. But it's just not worth it to win the point in this particular riff by going that route. Anyone can kind of "win" this by going to that forbidden place at any time; winning is, then, kind of easy, if you really want to "win," so it's really not much of a game if that's the button that winds up getting pushed.

This sort of implicates another pet-peeve: The extreme death-wish thing, or the extreme genocide thing. These aren't jokes at all. Instead, they are cries of frustration. I don't like this guy, and I want people to know how much I don't like him, so I'm going to go extreme and toss out a death-wish on him. Or Muslims are pissing me off, and I am very frustrated, so I'm going to go to the "nuke them all from orbit" route.

Again, this stuff is kind of obvious. Anyone, really, could say this at any time. It's hardly as if this is the first time someone's gotten the brilliant idea that it would be sort of novel to wish death on one's opponents.

Worth it? No. What's the point? You win the "extreme" lottery here, but, really, anyone could have "won" this dubious honor any time they chose. So save the extreme comments borne out of anger and frustration. We all know that such thoughts are lurking out there in the ether. It's not like anyone's going to praise your death-wish comment. No one's going to say Well finally someone ad the balls to say it! It's not a question of balls. It's just a question of losing your shit, which anyone can do any time.

Which brings me to:

What I Really Meant To Say. Part Three: "Jokes" Born of Anger. How many times have you really made a funny joke when you were hot-angry? Like, zero? Maybe once?

When I'm angry I don't tell funny jokes; I know that. I know when I'm angry I don't say humorous or witty things. I say angry things. Often ugly things.

I really want to caution against "jokes" made not in good humor but in ill humor. Because they're not jokes. They're angry statements, pure and simple -- but you have plausible deniabity with a "joke."

"Hey, I didn't really mean that." Well, what did you mean?

If you're going to say something sort of angry and extreme, at least recognize that's what you're doing, and say it seriously, so everyone knows exactly what you mean -- and you know exactly what you mean.

"Jokes" are fast and cheap and easy -- we can dash one off before we even have time to think about what we're saying, which is the danger. They take one second of writing and zero seconds of actual thought. Now, if you really want to say something that might be considered over the line, at least put more thought into it than a One Second Wonder joke demands.

One thing that bothered me recently -- Kemp said this, about the judge who released the Seattle Cop Killer -- was "I bet you he's black," or something. This wasn't a joke, really, but it has the same element of one-second thoughtlessness that bothers me about some jokes.

What does the statement "I bet you he's black" mean? What is the point? Is there a suggestion that blacks shouldn't be judges? Someone might say, "Of course I didn't mean that!" but the follow-up question is: "Okay, you didn't mean that; but what did you mean?"

I am guessing (I haven't asked) that Kemp's answer would be, "Well, to be perfectly hones, I don't know what I meant, really. I was just sort of generally frustrated, I guess by PC attitudes about criminal justice and how that infects society and leads to death and mayhem..."

And etc. And note there that there is nothing at all wrong with that statement. The trouble is that the hastily written expression of pure frustration didn't say that. It could have meant any of a dozen things, half of those meanings being objectionable, or at least eyebrow-raising. And yet if Kemp had compose his thoughts, taken more than one second to vent, he probably would have just ended up saying something perfectly sensible, and no one would have been wondering, "What's he trying to say with that?"

Anyway, that is my problem with a lot of "jokes" that are coming, it seems, not from a humorous place but an angry place. I keep seeing these not-really-jokes and wondering, "What is this guy trying to say here?"

Which is again why I keep urging: Say it seriously. If you have a serious point to make, especially if a serious point born of anger, at least let people know precisely what you do mean, and don't mean.

A "joke" is a particularly poor vehicle for such expressions because it's so sloppy and thoughtless and vague. Fingers tap the keys much faster than the engaged mind works through implications. The "joke" could mean everything; it could mean nothing. Who knows. But a lot of such jokes are pregnant with bad implications, and really, if you don't mean the bad implication, take care not to imply the bad implication in the first place.

When you're treading on treacherous ground, don't make people guess at where you really intend to stand. Be clear about it.

Old Dirty B/tard said something like, "I allow myself to go ugly when I'm talking about Andrew Sullivan, because I hate Andrew Sullivan."

To which I can only say: Join the club. I hate that guy. I have the exact same impulse ODB has: I want to say something as vicious and nasty as possible, because I despise him so much.

But that's a problem, because a lot of the vicious, ugly things I can say about Sullivan are also insulting for hundreds (?) of readers I don't wish to insult. I want to insult Sullivan specifically; I don't want a lot of collateral damage as I basically impugn dozens of readers for sharing Sullivan's sexuality. "MilkyLoads/RawPowerGlutes"? Good, vicious stuff that implicates Sullivan specifically. Just noting he's a homosexual and laughing at it? Hits far more targets than I intend, doesn't it? Instead of going in with a scalpel, I'm swinging wildly around with a hammer in big circles.

I really do have this urge, every single time. I wind up editing these posts a lot as a I scrub out my first nasty words and try to clean them up. (An advantage I acknowledge I have and you don't.)

I want to say the most awful things about Sullivan because he deserves it. He does deserve it. He deserves any damn thing I can throw at him.

The problem is, a lot of gay readers don't deserve to be collateral damage in the mockery. And when you'e "joking" from a place of pure anger, you usually fail to make that distinction, because, well, let's face it: No one's exactly thinking clearly when they're hot-blooded. No one's really sitting there carefully calibrating possible responses, like the Terminator, carefully choosing "Fuck you, asshole" from his menu of options, only after calculating a 94% probability that this is the correct response that will yield the desired outcome.

So, really: Watch it with alleged "jokes" when you'e really in no joking mood at all. These "jokes" don't read like jokes. Because they're not jokes. They are brief and ill-considered expressions of anger, and that's precisely how they read. And if you want to be angry -- do so. There's a lot to be angry about. But please at least take the time to compose your angry thoughts carefully, and not just use a "joke" because it's quick and dirty and you don't have to give it much thought. In these cases, that's exactly when you probably should be giving more thought to your posts than a quickie "joke" demands.

I really want to stress: I have an edit button that you don't have. I'm aware of that. You may or may not notice, but a lot of my uglier rants get scrubbed within minutes to be more passable and more PG-13. I know that I have this advantage that you don't; I'm not saying I'm better than you.

I just have better functionality in my posting features.

But, you know, you not having that golden Undo Button that I do, you're only going to get one chance to say what you mean. Just keep that in mind. And the angrier you are, the better idea it is to count to ten and consider how you want to express that anger, and not just dash it off without thought.

It's like cooking: You can always add more spice. What you can't do is take out spice that's already been put in the pot. Once it's there, it's there. Too much of that and the meal turns sour and unpalatable.

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posted by Ace at 05:30 PM

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