And Geogie’s always on my my my my my my my my my mind

I worry that I take things too seriously. I am afraid I am losing my sense of humor. It is getting harder for me to take a joke.

This has nothing to do with Russia; I noticed it some time ago. It began with fraping. Not only do I find the name itself almost obscene, but in execution, it is both annoying and rude.

Not that it necessarily has to be so. Here is an example of what I would consider an acceptable frape: I leave my facebook open in a public location, and a stranger walking by leaves a funny note on my status. This not only has the potential to be genuinely funny, but it also sends a nice message: a) there are nice strangers in the world who won’t take advantage of your inattention, and b) it’s a nice way to remind me to be more attentive in the future.

Here is the not cool, not funny, and generally more common form: you’re at home or at a friend’s, and you get up from your computer to go do something. Your friends decide its open season because everyone knows that leaving your computer logged in is basically “asking for it” (and man, could I go on a rant about that!). Not only is this incredibly inconvenient, it also sends exactly the opposite message to the previous example: be paranoid.

Seriously, Internet: fraping is old. It is not funny. Cut it out.

I could spend paragraphs talking about that, but actually there is something else which has my ire up. A friend of mine shared a link on Facebook today of a message from the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in New York. The relevant bit is this:

“The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities – the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”

This is not a joke, but it is funny. It is both amusing and understandable that people get these two mixed up: their names sound similar, after all. It reminds me of when the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 broke out while I was in Germany. Not being in America at the time, I was originally under the impression that Russia was somehow invading the States. I remember thinking to myself that I must surely have something confused, because if there were armed tanks preparing to roll down the streets of Atlanta, I would surely be hearing more about it on Facebook.

Is the mistake funny? Yes. The incongruity of these juxtaposed Georgias tickles the mind. It is also understandable. We can all look back at stupid things we used to think. Then we learn better, and hopefully we have the honesty to acknowledge this before we start mocking another person’s ignorance. We learn everything we know at some point or another, and sometimes we learn it just a little earlier or later than other people.

So here’s what’s not funny: Chechnya. No one is making jokes about Chechnya as far as I know; it’s far too tragic. The same holds true for its nearby cousin, Armenia. When most of us think about Armenia, we think of the genocide of the early 20th century. Not really what most would consider rife with amusement.

Yet, for some reason, almost any country ending in -stan is an inherent joke. The really baffling thing is, they only seem funny because we don’t know anything about them (the obvious exceptions are Afghanistan and Pakistan: we are too well-informed). Azerbaijan is funny, though! Admit it: we all giggled when they won Eurovision last year. I mean, where the heck even is Azerbaijan? Is it even part of Europe? And how about Kyrgyzstan! Man, who can even spell that one, let alone tell you where it is!

Don’t believe me? What about Kazakhstan? Chances are, if you even know of Kazakhstan at all, you know of it because you watched Borat, and even then you may be under the impression that it’s a made-up country. Still, it’s funny, right? I mean, whatever happens there?

One of the students I am teaching English to is from Kazakhstan. She is Ethnically Russian, but her family moved there during the time of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., they stayed in Kazakhstan for a few years. She learned Kazakh in school, but was never very good at it. Over 60% of Kazakhs speak Russian, and it is a popular holiday destination for many Russians. Some of you may recall my post about persimmons: they were imported from Kazakhstan. All in all, it sounds like a rather beautiful place.

In spite of all this, there are many ethnic tensions between Russians and Kazakhs. I had a group of 17-year-old Russian students tell me one day that Kazakhs are like monkeys, that they come over the border to work a lot, but don’t get paid much, and that they are dangerous and I shouldn’t mess with them. Meanwhile, my student tells me that an uncle of her’s emigrated to Canada. He no longer tells anyone he’s from Kazakhstan, because everyone makes Borat jokes. Instead, he says he is from Russia.

Azerbaijan isn’t funny either, actually. It’s part of the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas which was long held in dispute between the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman empires. The region has been the subject of some of Russia’s greatest writers, including Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. It has been much romanticized, but it is just as well known for its violent, bloody history. I think it would not be unfair to compare the Caucasus to America’s Wild West, in much the same way that we could draw strong parallels between Russian-Kazakh relations and those of America to Mexico.

Ignorance is funny when it is self-deprecating, but for some reason, most ignorance-based humor is either used to mock the unenlightened, or as a justification for prolonging said ignorance. Steve Martin once joked that you should “criticize things you don’t know about”, but he could just as easily have said “mock”. It is comforting to make fun of, trivialize, and belittle things we don’t understand, but if you take the time to learn about them, the jokes begin to fall flat. You can’t learn everything all at once and mistakes are bound to happen, but mistakes are meant to be learned from, not justified. This is the age of the Internet: ignorance is forgivable, not excusable.

4 thoughts on “And Geogie’s always on my my my my my my my my my mind

  1. “We can all look back at stupid things we used to think. Then we learn better, and hopefully we have the honesty to acknowledge this before we start mocking another person’s ignorance. We learn everything we know at some point or another, and sometimes we learn it just a little earlier or later than other people.”

    Yes, we all have gaps in our education. Making fun of someone else's is always a mistake. I agree with your comments about self-deprecating humor, and as you know, I have always been quick to jump on and try to beat to death negative humor. I despise it and lose respect for people who insist on using it.

    I hope you are not losing your sense of humor. Perhaps it is just growing into a more mature taste! There are things I used to laugh at that I don't any more. The one that comes quickest to mind is any humor aimed at making fun of women's bodies. The humor is usually crude, lustful and degrades respect for women in general.

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  2. Ugh. I'd never heard of 'fraping' before this (I'm of course familiar with the practice, just not the term), and my instant reaction was revulsion. I really loathe the appropriation of words for heinous actions to describe minor or unrelated offences. I know the juxtaposition is supposed to be humorous, but I can't help but feel that it only serves to leach the shocking impact of words (and actions) that OUGHT to be shocking and abhorrent.

    As for humor – knowing a khazakstani actually on serves to make jokes about '__istan' more humorous for me. I feel like that IS a self-deprecating sort of humor, one that pokes fun at our (north american) ignorance of any nation not in the daily news. Perhaps you find it less funny now that you can no longer participate in it in a self-deprecating way?

    I like the perspective on ignorance I heard once from some geek-source – I believe it was Wil Wheaton, writing on his blog. He said that we shouldn't mock ignorance, but treat it as an opportunity and a privilege to be able to share something awesome or interesting with others. He challenged his (geeky) readers to stop reacting incredulously to ignorance, and start reacting enthusiastically.

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  3. Thanks Kate,

    On the one hand, I don't exactly want to speak FOR a group of people and claim that they should be offended by something they aren't. At the same time, I wonder if Borat wouldn't be funnier if the protagonist said he was from a completely fictional -stan country. Also, I find it strange that someone would routinely mock their own ignorance on a subject without seeking to erase said ignorance. Usually, I feel sheepish when some piece of general knowledge pops up and I don't know anything about it. Once I realize I don't know enough about a certain subject which seems relevant and useful, I either do a quick Wikipedia search, or feel a little apologetic.

    About mocking ignorance, I think I may have read the same source, and it probably influenced my attitude. At least, I remember reading something from someone criticizing the “fake geek girl” meme which had the same message you've described. It's hard not to laugh when you find out someone doesn't know something they should know (although “what someone should know” can be hard to define), and everyone should have enough humility and humor to laugh at themselves for the same thing. However, the end result should always be enlightenment, otherwise the informed have only succeeded in hoarding knowledge which they think it is ridiculous for others not to know.

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  4. I went from here to check one of my regular blogs, and came across this, which seems particularly relevant:

    “Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

    Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.”

    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/04/22/14-ways-to-acquire-knowledge-james-mangan-1936/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+brainpickings%2Frss+%28Brain+Pickings%29

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