(HOST) Humor can be tricky business. Commentator David Moats has been thinking about what’s funny – and what’s not.
(MOATS) You’ve probably heard about that controversial teddy bear. It’s the one wrapped in a straitjacket with the words “Crazy for you.”
The reason you’ve probably heard about it is that mental health advocates have objected to it, saying it makes fun of the mentally ill. A lot of people hear that and roll their eyes. Oh, brother, lighten up: That’s the response of some people – even tolerant, compassionate people. It’s just a joke, they’re thinking. It’s just a teddy bear, this is crazy.
Oops. Mental health advocates are even sensitive about the word crazy. So the Vermont Teddy Bear Company has been informed that Straitjacket Bear is tasteless and insensitive in the way it makes fun of mental illness. What the bear is really making fun of is something like an illness – the dazed and confused state of being in love.
But there is an issue of political correctness here. The term politically correct has become a pejorative, used to silence people who complain. People accused of being sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise insensitive like to accuse their accusers of imposing a code of political correctness. The issue becomes, not the sexism or racism, but the sensitivities of the accuser.
Of course, it would be bad to impose a code of correctness. Our language is rich and varied. It allows us to be serious and respectful, and it allows us to be funny, satirical, ironic and profane. But people who lodge complaints about insensitive language or inappropriate teddy bears are not seeking to impose correctness. They are only seeking a bit of respect – and understanding. It is like American Indians who object to school mascots depicting Indians as warriors.
Most of us have grown up with certain ideas about Indians or straitjackets, and in our experience there is nothing wrong with an Indian mascot or a straitjacketed teddy bear. Until someone comes along who has had a different experience. Then it is up to us to listen to the other, or not, to decide whether we want to be open minded, or close minded.
After we finish rolling our eyes at the complaints about the teddy bear, then we can think for a minute about the difficult place in which some people find themselves. They’re battling mental illness. Or they have a son or husband or mother who is struggling, who might have been restrained at a difficult time in a straitjacket.
People complain about the racist language in Huckleberry Finn, but Twain could get away with it because he had crossed over – from ignorance to understanding. He knew racism inside out, and his book was an attack on racism. He used racist language to make fun of racism. He made racists look like idiots.
Once we really understand mental illness…then we might be able to joke about it without being offensive. That’s all the advocates are asking for: understanding.
Of course, irreverent humor is essential to mental health, too, and there are ways to make fun of just about everybody. It’s a good sign if you can laugh at yourself. But let’s not ever laugh at someone else’s expense.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.