Not Even a Little Funny

A priest, a rabbi, and a nun walk into a bar. They sit down and the bartender tells them that the best joke gets a beer on the house.

The nun looks up, excited, and says, “Your mother is so old, her social security number is 1.”

The rabbi follows, “What do you call a fish with no eyes?” The others look around with anxious smiles on their faces, “A fsh.”

The priest blurts out, “I’ve got one that’s going to slay you. Tonight I’m having some women come to my room to dance and strip for me. I’m planning to kill them, mutilate their bodies, and be sexually satisfied by the whole thing.”

The nun gets her pint.

The priest’s joke, of course, doesn’t work; specifically because it’s not a joke, it’s a threat. And it would be read as even more of a threat if the priest had just come from a retreat where some members of the priest’s, shall we say, lacrosse team, had hurled racist epithets at a pair of women they paid to dance for them and brutally sexually assaulted one of them. In fact, if this was the case, no one in the bar would read the statement as a joke, but an unambiguous assertion of power. Seemingly, there isn’t a setting in the world, whether a barroom, a party, a street corner, a classroom, or a church, where this kind of statement could be understood as appropriate. It does nothing but dehumanize women and sex workers, encouraging violence.

Any bartender with integrity would kick the dude out and ask him to never come back. This type of inhumanity would not be tolerated for several reasons, and the bartender would realize that roughly half of the bar’s most loyal customers were women who could not feel safe in the continued presence of this individual.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to get that this would be the only right thing to do.

Apparently, however, having a Ph.D. might make this situation less clear.

In the last week, it has become public knowledge that Duke University, which apparently has neither integrity nor concern for the safety of its students, has readmitted Duke lacrosse player Ryan McFadyen to its “hallowed” halls without sanction. McFadyen, for those who don’t know, wrote an email less than an hour after leaving the now infamous March 13th Duke lacrosse party where he explicitly described plans to kill and mutilate “strippers” for his sexual satisfaction.

For this act, Duke sent him home at the end of the spring semester. In readmitting him, they have stated that he had been asked to leave campus as an act of “protection” against violence or harassment that he might face. No mandatory counseling, no public apology, no punishment, and he will play on the reinstated lacrosse team. Duke officials also stated that the sending of this email, while “given the context of the time” was inappropriate, was not, in fact, disorderly conduct. But here’s the kicker: the administration has affirmed McFadyen’s explanation of the email as a joke made in reference to a scene in a popular movie

A joke?

This raises some important questions. Who has the power to decide whether or not an unrestrained threat is explained away as a “joke”? On whose behalf do we allow such explanations? What would make a threat be so bad that someone in power might take it seriously?

Let’s keep it real: any culture with the ironic gall to call giving something and then taking it back “Indian giving,” not “white man giving,” has a pretty staggering inability to correctly name a phenomenon. A “white lie” is one that isn’t so bad, though we’ve seen the results (cough, weapons of mass destruction) of white men’s lies. So we shouldn’t be surprised that such a blatant threat can be renamed a “joke” as the ruling class welcomes one of its prodigal sons back into the fold.

This, in America, is the ultimate mulligan, a “do-over.” “Wait, wait, you must have misunderstood what I meant.” “You musn’t have gotten the context of my statement.” “Aren’t you are being a little sensitive?” “I mean, I have several Black friends.” “I treat all my employees fairly.” “Our school is very diverse.”

We spend our time focusing on the intent of one white man’s words or deeds, and not the terrorism that they represent for many, many women and sex workers. We talk about the lacrosse players and their ilk as “good guys” gone astray, not about women of color on Duke’s campus and in Durham who have felt accused, exploited, criminalized, and victimized as a result of this action. All of our energy is spent on folks terrorizing others, not those being terrorized.

This is not okay. As the folks with the power to define what is “real”, what is funny, what is terrorism, and who does and does not have the right to safety, wealthy white men wield tremendous power. This power means that Ryan McFadyen can be removed from school for his safety, like the lacrosse team being spirited off campus as this story broke, while women of color on campus faced regular harassment. This power means that the hurt, terror, and fear that his words and presence provoke in women on Duke’s campus does not matter.

Further, Duke students who perceive that they are under “attack” for making “jokes,” having reckless parties, and generally acting like they are the only people on the planet, get affirmed by this decision. Make a heinous threat; someone will re-name it a “joke” and take care of you. Here, “freedom of speech” means the freedom to terrorize, to sow fear. Meanwhile, women will see McFadyen on campus and have terrors of him mutilating them for sexual gratification, no one in power concerned for their safety. But hey, it was “just a joke.”

Ryan McFadyen should be held accountable. He should not get the privilege of representing Duke in the public. He should undergo counseling and face University sanctions. He should publicly apologize and seek to repair the damage he has done and the terror he has inspired. Anything less is an attack on students, faculty, staff, and community members who have ever participated in sex work, or are women of color, white women, identify as LGBQ or transgender, or believe that Duke University is a place that values safety and integrity.

Duke had a chance this time. The fact that it blew it just isn’t very funny.

UBUNTU is a Women of Color and Survivor led coalition in Durham, NC, committed to justice, supporting survivors of sexual assault, and transforming our communities until the day that sexual assault no longer occurs. Those who wish to read the text of McFadyen’s email can at http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0405061duke5.html.

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