Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Statute of Limitations

Have you ever told a dirty joke?

I've told a million of 'em. My dad had a book back in the mid-eighties with the succinct (and very accurate!) title Gross Jokes. I think I had that book memorized at one point.

The gross jokes had quite the range. There were the simple, it-came-from-the-fifth-grade gross-outs...from the "Mommy, Mommy!" sub-genre, such dubious gems as:

Mommy, mommy, it's cold and wet down here! -- Shut up, kid, or I'll flush again!
Mommy, mommy, I don't like going around in circles! -- Shut up, kid, or I'll nail your other foot to the floor!

The book even helpfully offered definitions of gross:

...when you open the refrigerator door and the rump roast farts in your face!
...throwing your underwear up to the ceiling and they stick there!
and my personal favourite,
...a hickey on a hemorrhoid! 

Then there were the more...adult gross jokes, many of them highly sexual, not all of them easily understood by my eight or nine year old self. I still remember my mother giving me a swat for this one:

The doctor was giving a vasectomy when his scalpel slipped and he cut off one of the patient's balls. Thinking quickly, he replaced the missing testicle with an onion and sewed the man back up. 
A few weeks later the man came in for a checkup.
"How's your sex life?" the doctor asked.
"Oh, really good!" said the patient, to the doctor's great relief. But then he said "I'm having some odd side effects, though."
"Oh, really? Such as?"
Well, every time I piss, my eyes water. When my wife gives me a blowjob, she gets heartburn. And every time I pass a hamburger stand, I get a hard-on."

I know what you're thinking: what the hell were you thinking, Kenny? Yeah. I had no idea what a "blowjob" was, and I know I had only just then intuited the meaning of the word "hard-on".
I don't know what in the name of god possessed me to suddenly blurt that out from the backseat of the car. Seemed like a good idea when I started reciting. But as the punchline(s) got closer, I had a growing sense that I had just stepped off a cliff. But once I was committed, I was committed. The final lines came out hesitantly, and Mom's hand flashed from the front seat, clapping over my mouth with a fair bit of force. Then, the interrogation:

"Where did you hear this?" I hated when she asked questions to which she already knew the answer. Of course I'd heard it (read it, actually) at Dad's...there being no other place in my life where I could possibly subjected to anything that wasn't Clean and Wholesome. Long before this, I had learned this little ditty, not from a book, but from dad himself:

Two Irishmen, two Irishmen, sitting in a ditch,
One called the other one a dirty son of a 
Peter Murphy had a dog, a fine dog was he;
He sold him to a lady to keep her company,
She fed him, she fed him, the dirty little runt
Climbed up her petticoat and bit her on the
Country boy, country boy, sitting on a rock,
Along came a bumblebee and stung him on the
Cocktail, ginger ale, five cents a glass:
If you don't like my story, you can shove it up your
Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies,
If you ever get hit by a bucket of shit, be sure to close your eyes.

I think I was six when I learned that one. I loved the sing-song-y quality of it, and the repetition helped me learn it. I didn't "get" any of the dirty bits except the last line with its Bad Word. Saying (or singing) that word at six years old was actually kind of empowering...but I knew better not to sing it to anyone other than my father.

Speaking of knowing better....

Mom: "Do you know what a blowjob is?"

I wracked my mind. From the context of the joke, I could make a pretty fair guess. And I (correctly) assumed that if I even attempted to, I'd be in a WORLD of hurt.


"That's good. If you did, I'd be REALLY angry."

Sorry, Dad.

Dad was the source of all the dirty jokes. As I got older and (haha) "matured", he would often warn me to watch my mouth out in public. Time and place, right?

I absorbed the warning when it came to jokes. I can tell you some filthy jokes...and doing so is one of the strongest indicators of my trust in you that I can exhibit. Ever since that smack from mom, I've never gotten in trouble for telling a dirty joke.

I was, however, almost fired for sexual harassment. Yes, me, Mr. Walking Safe Space. I've referred to it before. I'll tell the story now.

It was at my first retail job away from home, and I was in the danger zone.

Do you know the danger zone? It's where you think you're friends with your supervisor.

In most cases, you're not, whatever you may think. In most cases, you're on one level and your supervisor is on another and it's very important not to forget that. I forgot that.

Before I tell you what I told her, I want to put in a bunch of disclaimers. I want to distance myself from what I said. I was eighteen. I was a YOUNG eighteen. Very, very naive, and without much of a filter. And what I said to her. showed all of that in spades.

We were talking about the kinds of people to whom we were attracted. I was explaining something I've had to explain dozens of times since: my almost total disregard for physical appearance. My supervisor had described her physical ideal; his name was, of course, Muscles O'Greasestain.

"C'mon, Ken," she said. "There must be SOME physical feature that attracts you."

"Okay,  -------," I said. "If anything, I'm attracted to fat women. They have appetites, not just for food, you know?"


Never mind that she had been MUCH more crude a moment before, describing the physical, shall we say, reproductive attributes of Mr. Muscles O'Greasestain. I was not, am not, will never be mistaken for anyone of the Greasestain family, much less Muscles. She, however, thought she was fat.

I sure didn't think she was fat. Then as now, I think most women are too damn skinny, and I have no idea why so many men are sexually attracted to skeletons.  But because SHE thought she was fat, she ALSO thought I was trying to hit on her.

I had no idea she thought that. Her jaw didn't drop, she didn't lash out at me, the conversation kept going for a bit and ended naturally. The next day I came in and the store manager was there with my supervisor and they confronted me in the back room and --

--and the bottom fell out of first my jaw, and then my gut.

What saved my bacon was the order. My jaw dropped first. I was utterly flabbergasted at the accusation. When it became very clear that they certainly weren't, THEN my gut dropped too.

It was my first adult lesson in what's called the intent-impact gap. I intended to match her friendly, and crude, banter. The impact was something altogether different.

I managed to talk my way out of anything worse than a written apology...and let me tell you I put far more effort into those three paragraphs than I did anything else in my university career. I remain convinced that the only reason I wasn't fired and probably charged was my utter astonishment at the chasm between what I'd said and what she'd heard.


I said all that to say this.

There needs to be a statute of limitations on prosecution for public expression of "unacceptable" thoughts.

There isn't right now. The instant someone is hired or attains any kind of fame, an army goes to work mining their digital past,  ferreting any unacceptable tweet/Facebook post/ Instagram photo they may EVER have put up. People from three lifetimes ago come out of the woodwork and tell the Powers That Be that once upon a time you said the N-word.  If anything is found -- and let's face it, most of us have said or done something that would currently be deemed wildly inappropriate -- that army goes to war.

You can't win against an anonymous army, especially since defending yourself is only seen as further proof of your guilt. It really fits the very definition of a witch hunt: "throw her in the river...if she drowns, she's innocent, but if she swims, she's a witch and is sentenced to death."

And the damnedest thing is that this does NOTHING to eliminate "hate speech". In fact, it encourages it.

How's that? Simple. Consider Victorian England. S-E-X was completely unmentionable in polite society, to the point that table legs had to be covered lest men catch a glimpse of them. But the streets teemed with prostitutes and brothels abounded, so that what couldn't be said in public could easily be done in private.
Now jump ahead to the 1980s and think about the War on Drugs. Did that work? Hell, no. It just drove drug use underground. Carl Jung said it most clearly:


The new s-e-x and d-r-u-g-s is hate speech, the boundaries of which are ever expanding. Try and repress it too harshly and you just drive it underground, where it occasionally bubbles up like sulphurous gas and produces a Donald Trump.

Now, let me be clear here. I'm not suggesting that hate speech should go unpunished. I AM, however, suggesting that there should be a clear and present pattern of it--not an isolated incident or two twenty years ago. Unless you're the sort of person who believes that a single sin damns you to hell (may I have a tour of your lovely glass house, please?)...you must concede that people can change. I know I have.

Do you remember this little bit of schoolyard doggerel?

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never harm me.

It dates from at least 1830, but it's fallen out of vogue as we've come to understand the long-term effects of hateful, hurtful words on people who lack self-confidence and self-esteem -- which applies to many kids of school age. The phrase which has supplanted "sticks and stones" is shorter, more direct, and carries the opposite meaning: "words are violence".

As someone who has suffered far more than his share of violent words hurled at him, let me tell you that while I appreciate the intent here, there is a difference between words and actions. 

I can forgive someone who habitually said the word "nigger" in the 1970s, but who no longer does so today. That word was never exactly acceptable, but its level of acceptability has plummeted well below zero as of now. Likewise words such as "faggot" or "tranny". (Hell, for a long time I thought 'tranny' was the proper term for transgendered people...because it was literally the only term I had ever heard.)

I CANNOT forgive someone who committed a sexual assault in the distant past, and that is the difference between words and actions. If you're wondering why many women wait years, sometimes decades, to report such things, the answer is very simple: until just recently, there was no point. (Often there still isn't.) The woman is either ignored or even worse, vilified. Look at Bill Cosby: the first woman to come forward against him had her name dragged through every kind of mud there is, while I'm sure Cosby was laughing his patented Cliff Huxtable laugh. Knowing what I know of that man now, I simply can't watch his material.

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