You know those types of jokes.
In a multi-ethnic society like Nigeria, such jokes are almost unavoidable. Humour is after all, one of the more definite, if subtle, marks of our humanity.
But sometimes, problems ensue. Like when someone takes the joke personally. To which a common response is to insist that they lighten up and share the funny side with you. “We are all Nigerians, after all!” Yes, but the joke (the kind in the example) is not on Nigerians — it’s on on Igbo people. Or on Yoruba or Hausa people.
Now imagine telling that joke to a member of whichever ethnicity is the butt of the joke who has recently experienced ethnic discrimination. Let’s just say they might not find it funny. Where anyone else hears a joke, that person will probably be hearing another example of mockery, a fresh instance of marginalisation.
(That, by the way, is why we Nigerians laugh at ourselves without difficulty, but are very quickly offended when other nationalities dare to join in the joke — it’s our joke, not theirs. When they attempt to join in, it stops being us laughing at ourselves — it becomes them laughing at us. And that is never really funny.)
Basically, when the person who’s the butt of a joke knows that you ordinarily don’t think so highly of them, it’s not always so easy to convince them your joke is just a joke. You can’t just insist that they “lighten up,” any more than you would lighten up yourself if someone took a crack at a loved one you just lost.
We all know that awkward moment when you poke fun at someone, and instead of laughter you get side eye and a straight face. And only later do you discover that your intended audience is related to the person you were joking about!
Sometimes, people simply cannot share in your joke. What to you is mere fun, is personal to your intended audience. And it’s hard to joke about the things that are personal.
You probably see by now where I’m going with this, because it’s got everything to do with mental illness, for the very simple reason that mental illness is perhaps the most joked about area of medicine.
Did you hear the one about the psychiatric patient…?
Maybe because it’s one of those areas we’re uncomfortable with, like death and sex. The problem is, unlike death and sex, it’s not something we all share in, and therefore not something we can all joke about.
The problem is, it might not only be offensive to someone grappling with the reality of what to you is a joke — it’s excluding. Because a joke you cannot share in can easily become a reminder that you do not belong.
That’s why, every time I hear another joke about mental illness, I cringe. Because I’m thinking, given that mental disorders affect one in four people, only God knows who in the audience is living with the reality of that “joke.”
For the person with mental illness, and for those who care about them, it’s not a joke. It’s personal, and it’s too real. And we simply can’t insist that they laugh.
And anyway, aren’t there enough other things to laugh at?
Photo Credit: Phartisan | Dreamstime.com