If you’ve been living in the USA sometime for the past decade, most likely you’ve heard some disparaging judgement followed by an anxious smile and the blurting catchphrase “just kidding!” In IM and text lingo, this translates into “j/k, LOL.” More than likely, each time you are a target of this catchphrase, something gets under your skin, but you are not sure why. You become annoyed.
During a recent conversation with a friend, I think I’m finally able to articulate why this catchphrase nags me so much. But before I cut straight to the chase, it may be useful to examine the general motivations and effects of humor. I can think of six at the moment:
- being-with another (build familiarity and trust)
- mitigating social awkwardness and rejection
- producing an affect for one’s entertainment and power
- recognizing a profound absurdity in life
- sublimating moral and existential anxiety
- fleeing from accountability over one’s subconscious attitudes
The first set of three are social in nature. They have as their end or effect the practical and pleasurable aim of social integration and mutual understanding. The first is an organic and deeply comforting connection with another person, the second is a desperate defense against ostracism, and the third is a self-centered assertion over others. The second set of three are existential in nature. They have as their end or effect making sense of the difficulty of reality and the threatening lure of nihilism. The first is an exhilarating confrontation with nothingness, the second is a desperate defense against nothingness, and the third is the desperate hiding from nothingness. “Just kidding!” falls into this final category.
Rather than “just kidding!” being an attempt to deflect responsibility for a comment by casting it as a joke, it is actually a speech act to convince oneself and others that one deliberately cracked a joke. In other words, the tag line “just kidding!” is an anxious reaction to the regretful exposure of one’s subconcious attitudes. By adding “just kidding,” one claims responsibility for the comment, but recasts it within the fabricated context of benign or neutral intent. But one was never kidding. No. One did not even intend to say it. There was no premeditation, just prejudice. It’s a prejudice one refuses to accept as having sway over us, so one takes accountability not for the prejudice but the act of articulating it to others as if it were not prejudice.
“Just kidding” then is an inverted, “I don’t mean to be racist, but…” While the later anticipates and thus has already recognized the prejudice behind what one is about to say, the former is a reflection after the fact of a recognized prejudice. While one is prelude and the other a tag line, they both are disavowals of one’s own prejudice. While they sound like apologies, they are actually rhetorical devices to avoid apology. Neither takes seriously one’s own prejudice and the hurt it might cause others who hear it articulated. Both take responsibility for what is said but by deflecting any moral judgement of it and the speaker. All in all, they can be summarized as such: “I don’t mean anything by this comment, so don’t be upset with me, even though I recognize I’m being a total asshole.”
“Just Kidding” is bad faith. It’s one’s refusal to take responsibility for subconscious attitudes. It’s a lie to oneself and the other that one had reason and control over what was said. It’s a way to avoid responsibility for examining our prejudices, our insecurities about our values and identities. It closes off conversation and confrontation. It’s in short, a way out of thinking and feeling.