Date: Sun, 20 Nov 1994 19:54:27 -0800

From: Birrell Walsh birrell[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]WELL.SF.CA.US

Subject: stirring the fire

Given the recent debate about who can say what to whom, and in the spirit

of NOT letting sleeping dogs lie, here is a post that appeared in

religious humor (the list).

In this case, the ethnicity of honor is poor whites...

Reposted with the author's permission.


---------- Forwarded message ----------

Date: Wed, 16 Nov 1994 02:27:55 -0600

From: John R. Snyder jsnyder[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

To: Multiple recipients of list rehu-l[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

Subject: White Trash redux

"Thank you!" to Gregory, Jenny, and "PeggySue" for your thoughtful and

temperate responses to my initial posting. I'd like to summarize what I've

heard, and clarify my position now that there's more material to work with.

Here are the substantive arguments I've heard in favor of "redneck" and

"white trash" humor on this list. Some of the arguments were elliptical as

stated, so I've had to fill in the blanks as I understood them. I

apologize in advance if I'm putting words in anyone's mouth or caricaturing

their position.

(1) All humor is potentially offensive to someone, therefore it is

unreasonable to take as a test for acceptibility that a particular joke be

unoffensive to everyone ... in this case to John Snyder.

I completely agree. The farthest thing from my mind is to advocate

reconstructing social discourse along the lines of the Lawrence Welk show.

Like most sons of Southern mothers, I am a recovering Nice Boy and am

grateful for whatever therapeutic meanness I can get from this list. I

never objected to the "White Trash" humor on the grounds that it might

offend someone or that it wasn't "nice."

(2) We grew up in RN families, therefore when we poke fun at that culture,

we do so from within the culture. It's all right for people to poke fun at

themselves and their own culture.

I agree that being able to poke fun at oneself and one's culture is not

only OK but a sign of mental health. But I still have a hard time thinking

of middle class intellectuals as being able to speak from within "redneck"

culture, regardless of their origins. Intimately understand it? Empathize

with the plight of those still in it? Stand in solidarity with it? Sure,

sure, and sure. But "speak from within it?" I don't think so, and I think

most "rednecks" would agree with me. Since there are so many intellectuals

not of "redneck" origins who repeat the same jokes and use the same kind of

humor to dismiss or ridicule "redneck" culture, for us on this list to

repeat this humor seems to me to be *at best* a highly ambiguous activity

fraught with opportunities for misinterpretation.

(3) Humor (including humor at one's own expense) is often an important

coping mechanism for the oppressed, including us in our capacity as

"ex-rednecks." Our use of "redneck" humor is actually highly ironic, a

parody of stereotypes held by the dominant culture, not a parody of

"rednecks" themselves. As intellectuals of "redneck" origins, we are

living proof to the dominant culture that "redneck" culture isn't all bad

and that the stereotypes of it are inaccurate.

This seems to me the most forceful argument in favor of RN/WT humor on this

list. I certainly agree that this is, prima facie, an ethical use of such

humor. In this particular case I would have been more comfortable if the

original White Trash postings had followed some sort of virulent racist

attack on "rednecks." That would have made the ironic, stereotype-bashing

intent clear. As it is I'm left wondering whose stereotypes they were

meant to bash.

Pragmatically speaking, I also doubt that anyone here can function very

effectively in intellectual circles as "living proof" of the redeeming

qualities of RN culture. I think we're too far from RN culture to be seen

as credible representatives. Instead, the dominant culture would tend to

look at us and see remarkable exceptions to the stereotypical rule --

instead of changing the rule. This sort of thing is well documented in the

case of black intellectuals. Why would it be any different for "redneck

intellectuals?" If this is true, our use of RN humor would most frequently

be interpreted as a sanctioning of the dominant culture's stereotype, not

as a challenge of it.

(4) Lampooning "rednecks" is no different than lampooning religious

traditions, which is what this list is all about. So it's OK. (Or at

least it's inconsistent to object to the lampooning of only one group.)

I need to say what I think it means to tell a joke. Telling a joke (like

promising, lying, taking an oath) is a speech act; i.e., an act that has as

a necessary component the utterance of a certain "form of words." As a

*speech* act it is open to interpretation and takes its meaning from its

context: the identity of the speaker, whom it was spoken to, the time,

place, cultural/linguistic matrix, etc. As a speech *act* it has

consequences, can operate in a causal chain that ends in some change to the

world, etc.

This means that different tellings of any particular joke (as a "form of

words") can have radically different meanings and consequences.

Philosophical jargon aside, I think most of the time we have a strong

intuitive sense of this. For example I think we recognize that it's OK to

tell each other jokes about suicides suffering the torments of hell and

that it might not be OK to tell those same jokes to children whose parents

had just killed themselves.

IMHO, the difference between the standard REHU-L fare and jokes about

"white trash" (or certain other marginalized groups) is that we are not

currently living in a cultural context of religious persecution -- at least

not persecution of the Christian religious groups that tend to get the most

flak here. I believe we *are* living in a culture that still marginalizes

"rednecks," and that part of that marginalization is achieved through the

calculated, malicious use of humor to dehumanize them. That changes the

meaning and possible consequences of telling the jokes, regardless of the

intentions of the teller.

(5) We didn't intend any harm, therefore none was done.

I tried to make it explicit in my original post that I wasn't questioning

anyone's good intent. The crux of my objection to the White Trash thread

is that regardless of one's intent or sympathies, the cultural situation

that prevails almost guarantees that intellectuals' telling jokes to each

other about "rednecks" will have unintended negative consequences; namely,

to reinforce entrenched stereotypes and to give the appearance of a

sanctioning of the marginalization of poor whites.

Y'all be good now,

John Bob Snyder

Austin, TX


PS If you've read this far, you definitely deserve a joke. About the best

I can come up with is an old Sufi teaching story from Jelaluddin Rumi's

_Mathnawi_ as told by Coleman Barks. You could think of it as a story

about disputes between denominations as to apostolic succession and other

silly notions. Or you could think of the ram as the local Episcopal church

(my church), the ox as the local Catholic church, and the camel as the

"redneck" Victory In Jesus Full Gospel Bible Tabernacle across town that's

lured away half the members of the other two.

A ram, an ox, and a camel were walking down the road when they saw a nice

tuft of grass up ahead. The ram realized that there wasn't enough to go

around, so he said, "Friends, let's do as Mohammed commands and give the

better portion to the eldest among us. It turns out that I'm so old I

can't even remember my exact age. I do remember once being pastured with

the same ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac." The ox said,

"That's nothing! You remember how Adam had to till the ground after he was

driven out of Eden? Well, I was the ox that pulled his plow!" The camel

didn't say anything. He just reached his long neck over, bit off the tuft

of grass, and held it high above the others' heads as he ate it. Then he

said, "Dear ones, I don't know anything about history, but I do know that

I'm taller than you, and that has obvious spiritual advantages!"

PPS I'm off the 'Net for a few days. Anyone masochistic enough to want to

continue this discussion with me will have to wait.

--------End of Unsent Message