The Web Is Not a Post-Racial Utopia

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Rust, a 2013 indie survival game from Facepunch Studios, plays like a cross between Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto. Players find themselves “born” into a mysterious wilderness, naked and alone, forced to forage for resources and to craft clothing, supplies and shelter for themselves. They must contend with starvation, hypothermia and animal attacks, but by far the most dangerous threat comes from other players who roam the island.

When the game was first opened up, all players were given the same default avatar: a bald white man. With the most recent update, Rust’s lead developer, Garry Newman, introduced different avatars of different racial origins into the mix.  However, they did so with a twist — unlike typical massively multiplayer online role-playing games, Rust does not allow players to choose the race of their avatar. Instead, they are assigned one at random. Newman explained the change in a blog post…

The Worst Joke I Ever Heard

I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.

Children sweeping at Holme Slack playground.
The playground of Holme Slack Primary School, and the very wall that I was probably sitting on when I first heard this “joke”.

To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”

And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:

Child 1: Pack it in!

Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.

In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.

An opened food tin.
Unless the recent horsemeat scandal investigation takes a dramatic and unexpected twist, we can be pretty sure that this item contains no people from Pakistan.

In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.

It’s needlessly racist

Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:

The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.

The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”

The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.

The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”

“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”

The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.

"Bit it's asbestos it gets!" Click for full comic.
Among its other faults, the worst joke I ever heard relies upon an incredibly weak pun. It even makes this comic, by Completely Serious Comics, look good. [click for full comic]

It’s an incredibly weak pun

What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.

To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Yoodough.

Yoodough who?

Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?

You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):

Knock knock

Who’s there?

Yuri.

Yuri who?

Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?

It’s stupidly inaccurate

Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:

Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”

“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.

Then the lion came across a wildebeest.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.

Next the lion met an elephant.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.

“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”

Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.

A jungle containing no lions.
Count the lions in this picture. If you found no lions, then you counted correctly. If you got any other number, try again.

In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.

So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.

Here’s one last joke, for now:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”

“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Who’s Your Daddy?

This morning I took a cycle out to the post office to put in the mail redirection forms (which they wouldn’t let us fill in online, and – in fact – they rejected once I got to the post office because I’d used blue ink in one place on the form, rather than black… but that’s another story) in anticipation of the Earthlings‘ upcoming house move, and on my way out of the garage our neighbour came over.

“We’ll be sorry to see you go,” she said, gesturing at the “TO LET” sign at the end of the driveway.

“Hmm?” I responded. It took a while to sink in that she was talking to me: apart from an occasional “Hi” or “Bye” on the way in to or out of the house, we’ve never spoken to one another before.

To Let sign outside Old Earth.

“Oh yeah,” I said, after a pause, “We’re moving over to the other side of the city: we kind-of wanted a bigger place for the four of us.”

“Oh,” she continued, “I suppose it might be a little small in there for four. It’s a shame, though: you’re the best tenants we’ve ever had.”

Something in my head snapped, and unraveled, and it took a little time before I managed to re-assemble her sentence into something that made sense to me.

“You… own this building?” I asked, pointing back at our house. We’d never met our landlords (at least, I thought we hadn’t): everything had always been arranged through our letting agency.

There was another twang in my head as something else snapped. Then moments later, half way through my next thought, I realised how incredibly racist I was being. You see: our contract had stated that our landlord’s name was Mr. Patel, and that’s a name that in my mind had associated itself with a certain tone of skin colour. And it had, for a moment, seemed inconceivable that the plump white woman in front of me could possibly be part of the family of the imaginary Mr. Patel that had taken up residence in my head. As I worked to reprogram my brain with this new information (and perhaps a little less capacity for runaway assumptions), she continued:

“The previous tenants have all been awful,” she said, “The last lot broke all of the windows. The ones before that tried to burn the place down!”

This actually went some way to explaining the state of the building, with it’s various weakened and damaged parts.

“Well thank you,” I said,  “I hope you get some more great tenants next time.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “I was going to say that to your dad this morning when I saw him leaving.”

“My… dad?”

“Yeah: he left here earlier; just a bit before your girlfriend left. Sorry: is he not your father?”

Every string that still remaining intact in my brain snapped simultaneously. This woman had just blown my poor little mind. I investigated:

“Dark-haired chap, with a beard?” I queries, miming the shape of a beard because for some reason that made sense to me – you know, in case she’d never seen a beard before.

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Wow. No, that’s JTA. He’s… like four years younger than me.”

“Oh God!” she said, “You can’t tell him I said that…”

But it was too late: the blog post was already half-written in my mind, taking up the void that had been cleared during the earlier series of mental implosions. This one’s for you, pops.

My "father" updates the Earthlings' "Jump Track", a metaphor borrowed from the Battlestar Galactica board game to represent our readiness to "jump" to our new home. It looks like moving now has a 25% chance of us leaving 3 people behind. Also, it looks like the Galactica has put on weight since it's last step.

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #18:

Play drinking games and ‘dare’ in a pub on an Outward Bound weekend… with your lecturer. Laugh as he has to ask the bar staff if they’re virgins, announce he’s gay, and go into the ladies toilets with his trousers around his ankles. Laugh slightly less when you have to shout “the Welsh are all sheep shaggers” at the top of your voice, and subsequently get lynched. Ah well: you win some, you lose some.

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.