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]bga.com
To: Multiple recipients of list rehu-l[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]bgu.edu
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
(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
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
jsnyder[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]bga.com
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.
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