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Blurred Lines

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Published, Times Union, April 17, 2022

When Will Smith impulsively launched himself to the stage at the recent Academy Awards, he wasn’t marching alone. In single file, invisible 7-year-olds, clad in Superman capes, a “Pow! Bam!” bubble over their heads, followed along, humming Mighty Mouse’s theme, “Here I come to save the day!” to every person ever made fun of or anyone who has witnessed violence against someone they love. The small hands of those silenced, powerless, bullied, bypassed, teased and taunted, fueled the slap that tore across Chris Rock’s reddened face.

I walked up there with him, too.

It was his Howard Beale tirade from Network; his, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!” moment. Pure pain and unexpressed rage stormed that stage.

Of course it was wrong. Reactions were mixed, but there was a rawness to that event and the aftermath. It hit a nerve. We know it isn’t nice to make fun of someone, so we pay comedians good money to do it for us. And that feels just right.

We watched in stunned silence and disbelief as the man who assaulted someone, smiled, accepted an award, and delivered a teary speech. And No One. Did. Anything.

That’s familiar to me, too. That disconnect between what we say and what we do; the dissonance between what we preach and what we practice; the way we condone sarcasm and teach our kids to Stand up to Bullying and then remain completely disengaged.

We’re taught when someone belittles us to take the high road and toughen up, that “they’re just kidding” – but “kidding” is code for tearing your heart out of your body without anesthesia. It hurts.

At a celebratory family meal, there are warm greetings and not-so-funny-comments from you-know-who. Everyone at the table laughs when you-know-who makes yet another obnoxious, sarcastic, unwelcome comment to me, or someone I love, and no one says anything.

I’m hurt and silenced by that raw nasty remark and bleeding through my pores and yet not surprised when everyone giggles and orders more bread. “Oh, he doesn’t mean it! That’s how he is! He’s just kidding!”

“Pow! Bam!” Another disparaging comment comes along with the side of bacon and another basket of bread. Everyone laughs. I smile and swallow my French toast and my feelings.

I swallow hard.

Sarcasm, from the Greek sarkazein, “to tear flesh like a dog,” isn’t just about being funny; it abets a tacit acceptance of verbal violence and the witnessing of weaponized words. It hurts us and others but is often richly rewarded. We laugh at the jokes, even when the joke is on us, and it’s not acceptable to say, “That hurt my feelings” or “Please stop” without looking like a crazy person or someone who just-can’t-take-a-joke.

In cartoons and comedy clubs, in school cafeterias and at family celebrations, bullying and sarcastic assaults often come with a side of bacon or a big paycheck.

But I don’t think it’s funny. No Mighty Mouse swoops in to save the day for me and even now, at 74, I often stay silent when someone “in the name of fun” hurts my feelings. I mean, what do you say? I tell myself he’s kidding. I smile, distract, and redirect. I let it go. It’s what we do.

On Saturday mornings, we devoured Frosted Flakes and laughed when Porky Pig stuttered, when Popeye punched Bluto, or Tom hit Jerry, or Abbott bullied Costello and as Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles digested us all. It was funny. We laughed. No one asked Costello how he felt.

Cartoon heroes don heroic tights and shiny capes but real-life verbal bullies are less conspicuously attired. We imagine they look like the Big Bad Wolf or that man over there with stinky breath and a toothpick jammed between broken teeth who’s sizing up the cashier and licking his lips while complaining loudly about his cold food.

But there’s no way to tell. Real life verbal assaulters are often our friends and family heroes, beloved uncles or grandpas, funny aunts and silly cousins. Generous and kind, charming and funny, but like Jekyll and Hyde, there are two of them. They take care of things, bring the best gifts to the party, tell great stories, order extra appetizers, then launch aggressive verbal asides and unkind jocular jabs between bites.

Emotional violence abounds. Why is it okay for us to publicly humiliate others under the guise that we’re just being funny? Is there no difference between disagreeing with someone’s ideology and making fun of how they look?

The Big Slap shouted it’s not okay to make fun of someone’s physical appearance, but is it? Trump was justifiably vilified for mocking a reporter with a disability but late-night comedians mock Trump’s physical appearance and we all laugh. I laugh, too. The duality gets murky. The pain and shame interspliced in that seven second silence after the Big Slap live in us all.

Shrouded in shame, many invisible-silent-others walked up to the stage right behind Will Smith and screamed their biggest, loudest, most silent screams.

I know it was wrong - but I walked up there with him, too.

Published, Times Union, April 17, 2022

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