Can we talk?

by Phyllis Zagano

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Show business aristocrats and New York sophisticates filled New York's Temple Emanu-El to pay tribute to comedian Joan Rivers the other day. Rabbi Joshua Davidson read from Ecclesiastes. Radio "shock jock" Howard Stern made vulgar remarks. Many other speakers had, shall we say, limited vocabularies.

So it goes. Rivers was unquestionably a generous woman and talented performer whose career offers a road map for overcoming setbacks. Her humor was what it was. It served her audiences.

But I wonder if any of the debonair attendees, primped and powdered, laughing at bad words said in temple, would connect the dots between foul language and violence. We know that humor often depends on an inversion of facts. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde made great use of the surprise of stating what no one expected. Joan Rivers certainly surprised audiences with both her antics and her comments.

Beyond off-color remarks, sometimes what passes for comedy is actually violence. The so-called comedic comment often shames, hurts, embarrasses and damages. The soul on the other end of the "joke" is targeted and wounded because of who he is, who she is: One race or another, one ethnic background or another, one way of being, believing, thinking or another is fodder for the comment made "in jest."

When targeted comments become common parlance, entire sectors of humanity suffer. For example, we know women are subordinate to men because they came from Adam's rib. The pope made that "joke." We know the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its prefect are not misogynists because they do not want to "gobble up a woman a day." The prefect made that hilarious remark

Can't stop laughing, can you, boys?

Listen up. Yours is violent speech, and violent speech is not that far from physical violence. Your words help fuel emotional and physical violence against women. Your words add to the world's inability to see that women are made in the image and likeness of God. Your words are deafening the world's ears to the problem of sexism. Your words are blinding the world's eyes to the violence done to women -- and men -- in the name of some twisted idea of religion.

It is not all your fault, but your words have not disappeared with the morning's dewfall. Your words land with a thud in a world already rife with anger, fear and pain and help numb psyches to evil. That the world is increasingly numbed to rape, murder and torture is due in large part to loosening standards of major and minor media, the same media that push your comments around the news cycle. 

Network television does not always show the raped woman's bloodied clothing, the severed head on the pole, the broken body tossed into a street in Syria or Somalia. But network television increasingly shows and narrates such scenes with sickening detail, just before cutting away from the actual atrocity. 

No one needs to depend on Reuters or The Associated Press to move the story and the video, anyway. Websites such as LiveLeak, which has thankfully taken down the latest beheading videos, can be the go-to places for the atrocity du jour. And if a real beheading or rape is not readily available, there are tons of online games and movies that depict the same, many more gruesome than the shaky, grainy cellphone video or the professionally produced terrorist propaganda piece.

Too many people watch violence on the Web, and they watch it for odd and complex reasons. Violence punches other buttons, but it is not unlike put-down humor. Violence, from a distance, can be similarly and very strangely satisfying for many people, who are as relieved when the latest beheading video ends as when the disparaging punchline lands. It wasn't them. 

Few of us can get away from seeing violence -- like the elevator video of a football player knocking out his girlfriend -- over and over and over again. Fewer of us can get away from the sly side comments of the powerful made at the expense of the powerless. But silly girl jokes are not that far from knockout punches.

Words and pictures magnify what they represent, and this world's violent words and pictures loom large in people's minds and memories. We do not need any more demeaning, plainly unfunny comments. Violence is not a laughing matter. To salve a hurt with another hurt only creates a deeper wound.

The world for sure needs laughter, and many people join professional comedians in bringing that laughter. But it is laughter with love.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak Sept. 18 at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.; Oct. 14 at the Church of the Assumption in Fairport, N.Y.; and Nov. 9 at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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