A friend of mine made a joke last week in an online discussion, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. It was a Katrina joke. I tried to play it off and make some jokes of my own, but ultimately I found, even after a couple days, that I was still ticked off. Finally I came clean with my feelings of frustration. He promptly apologized. I actually respect him more then ever for that; we kissed and made up, and as far as I can tell we’re buddies again.
But it has given me pause for reflection. Was this a simple case of misunderstanding by e-mail? It’s a famously “flat” medium where irony and nuance are lost. However, I don’t think that’s the case here.
Rather, I think that Katrina remains a sensitive topic for me, and probably lots of other people. Given the fact that it’s been four and half years, I don’t anticipate this changing any time soon. It’s beginning to look like a permanent condition.
The very word “Katrina” conjures up images of death and destruction in my mind. It conjures up the smell of mold. It reminds me of friends and neighbors who are no longer with us. It puts me back in an emotional roller coaster ride that is still not over.
As such, I’m not inclined to laugh at certain jokes.
It’s not that I have no sense of humor on the subject. To the contrary, I joke about Katrina all the time. Once, it was a coping mechanism. I laugh at such jokes when they come from certain quarters, from fellow travelers who have also had to cope with the bizarre circumstances of post-disaster reality. But when the jokes come from other quarters, my reaction may be very different. I’m liable to lose respect for the joker. I might even get a little angry.
To understand where I’m coming from, ask yourself the following:
What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? How do you feel when other people make jokes about it?
I’m guessing that, for most people, “the worst thing” is something private. Thus you might never hear anyone making jokes about it. So maybe it’s not such a good comparison.
But Katrina and its aftermath was a media phenomenon. Everybody saw it on TV. Everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody thinks they know what happened — especially those who don’t. Therefore it’s fair game for everyone to offer their opinions and crack their jokes.
For example, there were some Bears fans a few years ago threatening that their team would “finish what Katrina started.” There was some deranged Colts fan who thought it would be funny to superimpose the team logo on an image of Katrina.
Or a more personal example: I recently shared an article about how “New Orleans ranks eighth among the nation’s largest cities for the percentage of residents who walk and bike to work.” A friend on Facebook quipped, “Well all your cars washed away.”
A harmless comment, a little throwaway line, right? Sure. But I didn’t laugh. If anything, I find myself making excuses on his behalf — “He probably didn’t think much before tossing that off,” and so on. If the remark had come from someone who lived here — if “your cars” became “our cars” — it would read very differently to me.
But as it stands, that comment just evokes a lot of bad memories.
I’m sure he didn’t intend that.
This is not a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not a case of unresolved issues. Sure, my mental health took a hit from the stress of Katrina, but I think I’ve made a (pretty much) complete recovery. I know plenty of people who haven’t. I know a guy who gets choked up every time he speaks about Katrina. It’s sad to see a grown person cry in public, but I understand where that comes from. Still and all, that’s not where I’m at. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to rebound so fully.
It’s just that there are some thing which remain, for lack of a better word, serious. I’m not down with the mindset that everything’s fair game to be mocked and satirized. I don’t cotton to the perspective that we have to be cutting up all the time. To me that’s a form of mental totalitarianism.
All of this is a very long-winded way of saying, pardon me for not laughing at your joke. Only, really, I’m not sorry. Would you make a joke about my friend who was murdered? Would you make fun of my baby being lead-poisoned? Damn, I hope not; that would be in poor taste. To me Katrina is very much the same territory. So I’d advise steering away from such jokes unless 1) you really don’t care about what I think, or 2) you are really, really good at it. Comedy can be an art form. I can respect that. But for most people, you’re just making an ass of yourself.