Friday Flow #45

Behind every joke, there’s smoke

In today’s newsletter, I’m sharing this week’s essay in full, and the regular newsletter is back next week! Enjoy the weekend!


Behind every joke, there’s smoke

There are few things more tedious than someone acting in bad faith.

You see it all the time on social media. Person A posts and then some other Person B shows up in the replies attacking said tweet. Person A (or some other Person C) then points out how the attack is unfair, only for the attacker B to reply:

“But I was only joking! Can’t you take a joke?”

It’s very common in person too. In these situations, those who defend the “joke”-making person will often complain about how “people are such snowflakes these days” and “can’t even take a joke anymore”.

The thing though, is it’s not about the joke. In these kinds of situations, the people involved are often deliberately missing the point. It often brings to mind an ancient proverb:

Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, “I am only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18–19 ESV)

That metaphor has to represent one of the earliest references to speech as violence.

But think about it for a second. It’s equating a certain kind of “joking” with wanton violence, and in the strongest terms. And it frames such a person as one who can’t be reasoned with. You don’t try to engage someone who’s throwing dangerous things at you. I mean, maybe later, sure. But in that moment, you get out of there as fast as your legs can carry you.

So what about people like this is so dangerous?

It’s two things: their words don’t mean what you think they mean (“deceives his neighbour”) and you confront them they don’t take responsibility (“I was only joking!”). You see this in the example I gave at the start, of people saying mean things, only to claim humour when they’re called out on it.

But there’s smoke behind the joke. Even good-natured humour, after all, arises from some actual observation. The dishonesty of bad faith humour begins with the pretence that there’s no meaning at all to it.

And that’s why the proverb warns that these kinds of “pranksters” are incredibly dangerous. And not only because you can’t depend on them. It’s that to such people words are simply a way to get whatever it is they want, not a way to communicate real meaning. They say whatever “works” not what’s real. And when those words can be destructive they will not hesitate to wield them anyway.

We’ve all known people like that, haven’t we? Maybe we’ve even been such people.

It’s one thing to misunderstand someone, or to not express yourself well. And there’s a place for carefulness and tact in how we speak, especially with those we don’t know well and who don’t know us.

But there’s something in standing by your words, even when it’s hard to live up to them. In being able to admit, “Yes I said that” even if you’re struggling to say you live it.

And when you joke, to joke with pure fire.