The jokester brigade

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by Coranna Howard in Margins

I've increasingly noticed a bothersome pattern on Twitter. It usually goes.. well, exactly like this:

  1. Person of minority writes about threats to their personhood or their wellbeing in light of hate.

  2. Jokester comes along (bet you five fivers they're a dude) to regurgitate the rhetoric of the subject (e.g., a hateful individual), twisting it only slightly to highlight their absurd logic.

Before I get into the thick of it, I have a few other observations to note:

  • The jokester is frequently not alone. Apart from the multitude of other jokesters making their own regurgitations, in-groups tend to start a chain of regurgitation, harping off each-other in a vomit dance.

  • The poster they're responding to doesn't engage. No replies, no retweets, no likes. I read several things into this, depending on the context:

    1. The poster doesn't have the energy to engage with the jokester.

    2. The poster doesn't want to start an argument with every passing stranger.

    3. The poster has already muted the jokester for routinely doing this.

    From what I've seen, these have been plausible deductions — but so far I haven't confirmed any. Maybe it's just me (in which case I am completely off on a tangent!).

    Recognizing this possibility (and the points above.. and the obvious), I've avoided engaging to speak on behalf of the poster for fear of placing them in a situation they don't want to be in.

  • The jokester often responds to a retweet, including the retweeter in their reply. Due to the new user handles taking up precious space, engaging with the jokester is even less appealing as the friction is higher (in several mechanical ways). For those who intersect groups (i.e., retweeting to users outside the poster's group), this occurs more frequently.

  • The jokesters are not even remotely like the poster. They cannot relate to the pain of the poster.

  • The posters who do respond to tell them off enter a long argument wherein the jokester denies any wrongdoing ad infinitum. It's (so, so, soooo much) worse when the poster is responding not to a jokester, but to an explainer ("well, actually…") who doesn't acknowledge the poster's intelligence on the subject.

  • The more troublesome situations are not remotely joking matters. (At least in my eyes.)

As I'm not speaking about my pain in public, I haven't had any of the jokesters directed to me in this kind of context. I've only been witnessing it laid upon others due to the intersecting groups I follow on Twitter.

Thus I don't purport to speak on behalf of them. Though I share many of their feelings, I'm only speaking about what bothers me. It's possible I'm the odd one out. (Which would actually be a relief.. sort of.)

So what is my problem with this behavior? Put simply: the jokesters are utterly blind to the context and the pain of the poster. They reflect their harassers back to them and discard the poster's pain for laughs.

Considering the jokesters almost always cannot relate by nature of being tremendously privileged and suffering none of the pain of the poster, I wonder why they reply at all.

Perhaps the jokesters have met validation for this behavior at some point in the past (e.g., in-group vomit dance) or simply haven't met enough resistance to realize it's unwelcome. Worse still: validation probably never came from the demographic of the poster, and resistance may even have come before, just not diverse enough to clue them into thinking for once.

But, OK, before I cast them as irredeemable little devils, let's give the jokesters a moment to explain themselves. Or rather, for me to try to get into their heads. What if they do recognize the possibility of their words hurting the poster? What if they think, "is this helpful or harmful"?

… I'm finding this very difficult to believe, but I'll give it a shot:

  • Maybe they think they're being helpful by pointing out how ridiculous the subject's logic is!

  • Maybe they think they're expressing sympathy somehow? Maybe, since they can't directly relate, this is all they can think of to say to show their sympathy???

  • Maybe they think they're adding value by "lightening the mood"? A little jovial mood is enough to lift the spirits under the steel fist of systemic hate!!

Yeah, no, I give up. I've concluded they're irredeemable little devils.

But this would also make me, ignorant, blind, past teen-me, who did some of the same (in insular contexts, at least…), an irredeemable little devil. But I don't do it anymore, because, duh, I loathe it. So I suppose I can downgrade them merely to little devils, then — I suppose I can grant them some redemption.

I have poor memory of self, so I haven't managed to tap into that to get at their thought process (if there is one). I really.. don't remember what my thinking was. Or perhaps I can't suss it out because this dynamic wasn't part of my social group at the time. I was in an insular, homogenous social group, where there was no excursion into the pain of others as a context. Or, rather, it was detached from the person feeling it, if it ever came up at all.

I was part of the brigade and just saw it as the way you speak on the internet, I guess. I'm still sloughing it off.

On the contrary, the jokesters I've seen are adults, certainly conscious of what many minorities face in human society. I've even seen a few use jokes in reply, but post separately, without joking (well, mostly), in support of the minority. It's a strange two-tongue.

What gives?

I think it comes down to what I've kept unspoken (and likely assumed by most readers) so far: tech culture.

Most of the jokesters work in the tech industry and are predominately men, white, and relatively well-off. Their culture is what I grew out of. Joking is a native language in tech culture — especially so in open-source & hacker communities. To really fit in you have to be able to "take a joke", "stop being so insensitive", and, of course, make your own jokes.

It is perhaps this unfortunate bent that compels them to respond with garbage, which adds nothing of value unless the poster copes through their exact behavior. Which, as you can guess, I haven't witnessed.

Now that we have more context for the jokesters' behavior, what about the few who are bothering to support them separate from the poster's thread?

I suspect their main social group has members who intersect minority groups with the poster. So: they have friends (!) who are of the minority of the poster, and thus they have a reason to want to defend the minority group of those friends, or some such contrivance thereof.

Not to say they never care independently — they probably do to some degree! Just maybe not as in a feminist, intersectional kind of way.

It's actually maybe more disheartening to see this behavior in insular tech communities (ones without minorities), where the vomit dance is utterly pointless. What a space to live in!

Having unfollowed swaths of tech & gamedev dudes for it, I see a lot less. It must've accounted for half the fluff I used to scroll through on Twitter every day. Perhaps as a consequence of who I still follow (begrudgingly), I've become more acutely aware of the garbage that still reaches my timeline.

My unfollowing them hasn't caused them to stop; they're still exercising the same behavior. If I were to more actively delve into threads, the brigade would be glaringly obvious.

Which brings me to a critical point: this culture is the same one that just can't figure out why women and other minorities don't flock to work for them. They are so insular and mind-wrenched that they don't immediately recognize themselves as the root cause.

Their decades of behavior have excised and othered minorities. Tech dudes need to put in more effort to prove they're not going to revert back to the same garbage we've been dealing with in this space ever since, if they ever hope to improve diversity.

Many of the instances of tech dudes not getting it I've seen are astounding. It's always met with minorities, exhausted & exhaustively, giving them options and routes to getting women & PoC to apply — and how to change their culture so they stick around.

The conditions of their attempts up until that point are remarkably uniform:

  • They have no non-senior roles or roles offering guidance/teaching.

  • They haven't even remotely considered how the burden of qualification unevenly affects non-men.

  • Ableist, gendered, and appropriative language frequent their job ads.

  • Expecting people of minority to apply even when they've changed literally nothing to offset the disproportionate difficulty minorities face.

They complain about the dearth of minority applicants without examining why. They take it as granted, despite often not making any effort to prove their difference. It's so often a case of dudes not doing their due diligence. All of this they could have found out themselves by doing their own research: minorities have spoken at length on the subject.

Furthermore, their lack of engagement with minority groups shows they are more concerned with their image of diversity rather than actual diversity. The people who receive applicants are the ones who are already involved in outreach, most of whom are minorities! No heartless diversity quota will ever beat that.

If these tech dudes really care, they need to start showing it with action. Leverage that privilege.