A friend of mine took me aside last year and asked me to stop using “kill me” as slang for “ugh.” My tail was between my legs, right where it belonged. She explained that someone she knew had taken his life, and suicide as a punchline was like salt in the wound. Her approach was respectful and empathetic; I was glad she educated me. I was also horrified and ashamed and made an immediate effort to cut it from rotation.
After a few days, I had questions. Was this phrase ever okay? When another friend used it, should I educate her to the possible pitfalls even if the expression didn’t bother me? The hyperbolic “kill me” — used as a brash reaction to something mildly annoying, like damp jeans — had always made me chuckle. It’s a privilege, I know, that for me those words aren’t tainted by personal tragedy. Same goes for asserting something should die in a fire, makes me want to gauge my eyes out, is the worst thing that’s ever happened, is literally crazy, etc.
In the case of hyperbole, the internet’s favorite form of sarcasm, we use it because exaggeration makes us laugh. “Jokes work because they defy expectations,” reports the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute. We experience humor in three phases: incongruity, surprise, recalibration. Dramatic language is incongruous and shocking. But jokes rooted in surprise are fraught with insensitivity warning signs. Where is the line? Does it move and change depending on context?
A lot of “edgy humor” is offensive full-stop — it punches down, has history, reinforces larger injustices — but what about the kind that tows a more abstract, contextual line?
For every person who calls for more sensitivity and awareness around the way we speak, there’s another who is wary of trigger warnings. In The Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” writer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (two white men, it should be pointed out) warn against the dangers of protecting words from students instead of the other way around. “It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression or worse.”
In a different Atlantic piece, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the virtues of political correctness. “It’s about practicing tolerance,” he writes. “It’s about attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process.”
Both makes sense; neither present a tidy solution. “Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds,” Lukianoff writes, “But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”
Communication is a complex, shared dance between speaker and listener. And to engage with broad audiences, as both communicators and consumers, is to subject ourselves to the trappings of inevitable ignorance. The line moves with us and around us.
Do you use these kinds of jokes? Are you offended by them? We have a lot of tangential conversations at Man Repeller, so I’m interested to hear how this particular topic makes you feel.
Photo by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.