Friday, September 08, 2006


The other day I was having a conversation with some people about “Snakes on a Plane” (what else?). Not really a notable conversation until one woman mentioned that she had seen SoaP in the same weekend that she saw “United 93,” and that it had obviosuly been a wierd contrast. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if those two movies were combined?” someone piped up.

Woah. Seriously?

Now I think we all know that my sense of humor is by no means politically correct, and I regularly laugh at jokes that cross the proverbial line, but I definitely do draw the line somewhere. “Um, no,” I replied. “That really wouldn’t be awesome.” “Oh, come on,” another person laughed, “not even if there were just a couple snakes on the United 93 plane?” “No, still not awesome,” I said, more blatantly aware than usual that I was the only American in the room. “Actually, kinda offensive.”

The conversation moved on, but I remained uneasy about what had happened. On one level, I was disturbed that the joke was even made. Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks were unquestionably horrific, and referencing them with the same flippancy as a crappy action flick comes across as just plain disrespectful. Maybe it’s just “too soon” to make 9/11 jokes, but I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. Holocaust jokes still aren’t funny, and I hope they never are.

On another level, I was sort of surprised by my reaction to the joke and how offended I was. Not because it was acceptable joke, but because, I have not been triggered so strongly by other anti-American jokes since I've been here (and there have been more than a few). I guess it makes me realize how ambivalent I still am about 9/11 in general. Of course, I absolutely condemn the actions of the terrorists and I mourn the lives that were lost that day. But I also condemn many of the American reactions to 9/11, both by individuals and by institutions (certainly including the US government) and I mourn those who have been killed by those reactions. It’s likely that the latter sentiment is what I’ve been most vocal about while travelling, especially because I feel the former should go without saying. Perhaps the person who made the joke doesn’t quite understand my position; despite what Bush would have the world believe, it’s not a “with us or against us” choice. Yes, I am “against” many of the actions that the US government has taken in the War on Terror, but I am also “with” them in my belief that terrorism is unacceptable.

Of course this is all further complicated by my identity as American, something I have never struggled with more until I moved overseas. I assume that the person who made the joke also condemns the 9/11 terrorist attacks because this person is an intelligent, rational human being. But this person’s feelings are coming, I assume, from general human compassion that understands that terrorism, no matter the perpetrator or the target, is wrong. Yes, my feelings are coming from the same compassion, but they are also coming from the fact that the attacks were against America, and I am an American. My nationality is a deep-seeded, fundamental part of who I am, so the fact that someone would want to kill me and others solely because of that identity is not an easy thing to come to terms with. A non-American doesn’t have to—and can’t—approach the situation from this perspective.

It was this added layer that made it so difficult to hear a joke about something so intensely personal. It’s the same way that you can make fun of or complain about your own family/friends, but will unconditionally defend those same people if someone else says something. It just happens that in this case my family includes 300 million other people. Not to mention that I tend to find myself on the margins of American society with respect to many other fundamental aspects of my identity, so I'm not used to identifying myself with the other 300 million of us. All of a sudden I have to remind myself that it's my identity as an American that's most salient and anything I say about the US—positive or negative—is interepreted by through this filter. Yes, I am quite critical of the US government and of many of my fellow citizens, but ctiricism doew not equate with rejection. In the end, despite my country’s many, many faults, I am proud to be an American.


Peter W said...

Geetha, part of the reason for your experience is a culture clash of Aussie/Kiwi sense of humor vs American sense of humor. I must admit that this particular joke was in bad taste but Aussie/Kiwi humor has its roots in British humor which has a heavy emphasis on the absurd and the ironic and can even verge on ridiculing the audience -- while the American kind has its roots in vaudeville ... *very* different styles. Americans can have trouble understanding what is funny to us antipodeans (this observation is based on first hand experience with my American-born wife).

Sandy from Adelaide said...

I agree with Peter and also agree that the joke was out of bounds. I have inadvertently offended Americans in the past due to the differences in our senses of humor. I wouldn't knowingly offend anyone since I'm a caring person - but this clash of cultures thing can get in the way at times.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes wonder how many people we all offend with jokes that seem totally inoffensive to us. You are right, Geetha, that we can say negative things about family (birth, extended, cultural, or natural) but feel a little queasy when someone else does. (Goodness knows, I have said enough negative things about my brother through the years but casual acquaintances better not.) It gets trickier when you become a citizen of the world. Ignorance of customs or feelings can lead to most unpleasant feelings. Look at how the nation (pick any nation, but especially these days the USA) deals with people who are different. People who live outside their home land encounter this all the time, I think. The more sensitive one is the harder it is, but we all have things that even we may not be able to explain that bring a rise of discomfort. Add to this religious sensitivities. Wow! How do we ever keep from treading on toes? What you are doing will help you understand others and them to understand you, thus cutting down on some of these things. Good luck.

teana said...

it's hard to make jokes about something that actually happened, regardless of the style of humor that's in question. trying to make a flimsy connection between something that's totally fiction with a historical incident where thousands of real people actually died is hard to laugh at or even reason as being funny. i don't think there's humor in those attacks like i don't find any in other events like the holoccaust or the continued civil unrest in many african countries. i don't think there will ever be enough time between us and the events of 9/11 and the resulting mass confusion.

Geetha said...

It definitely never occured to me to think about the differences in humor styles. Thank you Peter and Sandy--it's so helpful to have your insight on where people down here are coming from

jenny said...

I feel you Geetha, I had a lot of the same when I was in Japan. Not so much with the Japanese people but the other non-American English Teachers. There were days that just kind of feel like everyone is taking pot shots at the US and it would put me in a funk. They don't mean it to be hurtfull but that doesn't mean it isn't and that can make things even more confusing.