“Can your relationship survive the removal of racist, sexist and other jokes which hurt people?”

“Can your relationship survive the removal of racist, sexist, complaining and other jokes which hurt people?”  This is all very general but meant to help rethinking how we can improve the world.

As part of developing and maintaining relationships (attachment, bonding?), every relationship develops little things which the people do together, and these can be made even more special if they are the only ones who do this.   In general we can call these rituals, but they include many different sorts of activities because there are so many different types of relationships and situations.  Some couples have their special songs, special places or special things they say.  Kin-based communities and families have many community rituals that others do not do the same, and doing these helps maintain the relationships (Rappaport, 1984).  Over time these get seen as ‘cultural practices’ by outsiders who often do not realize their importance for maintaining good relationships, as we will see later in the book.  Even with modern strangers/ contractual relationships we develop rituals such as dress codes, handshaking, ritual joking, greetings, etc., to maintain these sorts of relationships.

  • rituals are ubiquitous to facilitate relationships and are therefore important
  • ruining a ritual can wreck the relationship (one reason rituals are often kept secret)
  • some rituals, however, hurt people and lead to suffering
  • rituals can hurt people not involved in that particular relationship
  • the actual forms of almost all rituals are arbitrary
  • we can in principle, therefore, change or substitute new rituals for those which are hurting the doers or others not involved in the relationship
  • but in practice we must be careful how we change the ritual if the relationship is worthwhile and is not to be destroyed in the process

A quick example just for racism (but the same applies for any ritual which is hurting someone else).  Many groups around the world use racist jokes and comments to strengthen their relationship, and the implicit “us/them” probably helps in this.  However, racist jokes and comments seriously hurt a lot of people who are not part of those relationships but get to hear such things.  That needs to stop.

If we merely prohibit racist jokes, two things can happen, neither good.  First, the prohibition means that secrecy will surround such jokes and make them even better for relationship bonding so they will not actually stop and might get worse.  Second, the relationships can weaken if one of the entertaining rituals is stopped and this is not usually a good thing.  Although in practice, if racist jokes were the main part of these relationships (as often happens in stranger relationships) then such relationships are probably not worth keeping anyway—if there was nothing else nicer to build upon.

The point then is to try and stop the racist comments while developing other ritual jokes and events which do not cause suffering to people and which can maintain in the post-racist relationships if they are still worthwhile.  Not easy, but the challenge is there.

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