Explaining the joke

There is a saying, “If you have to explain the joke, you already killed it,” or something to that effect. I think this describes recent, post-2021 society and discourse. We live in an era in which we’re constantly having to explain the joke, to avoid the repercussions of being misunderstood, either because the stakes have become so high, or a general unwillingness or incapability of people to understand each other.

It’s like you have to walk on eggshells to avoid offending powerful (but at the same time, easily offended) people or the wrong people, or just being wrong in general, whether it’s online or at work. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion, but whereas a criminal record can expunged and headlines fade from memory as the public moves on, screenshots and other evidence of social transgressions can be stored in perpetuity to be used against you when the need arises, forever. As it’s said, “the internet never forgets,” although it has gotten worse. Digital technology has a two-fold effect: first the permanence of such information on servers, as opposed to paper or other physical records which can be lost or destroyed. And second, the ease of accessing such information, often with only a Google search.

I find myself needing to do more explaining than usual. Or maybe it’s just a sign of more polarizing times, but it’s not like pre-2012 or so was less political, yet the stakes felt lower and or things were easier-going. Today it’s like either you must support ‘X-extreme position’ or else it means you implicitly support ‘Y-extreme opposite or unrelated position’. You have to explain, “No, not supporting X does not mean I condone Y. Sorry for the misunderstanding.”

Same for hedging or defensive language online. Someone will criticize a billionaire, and include somewhere in the comment a disclaimer to the effect of “Yes, it’s his money and he can do what he wants with it, but…”. This disclaimer is necessary because otherwise someone will misconstrue the mild criticism as a literal call for communism or wealth confiscation, completely missing the point (intentionally or not). “You know it’s his money, right? He can do what he likes with it!” Hence, the disclaimer. Or having to explain that talking about an ‘individual of group X’ does not mean you are generalizing to ‘all of X’. Or praising a controversial or polarizing person, like Elon Musk, for ‘X’ does not mean you support everything about said individual.

Another issue is general obtuseness. It’s like someone is trying to not get the point, no matter how hard you explain. An example is crime. Someone says ‘America should a zero-tolerance policy’ and then you explain that this is often decided by the states, such as three-strikes laws, as opposed to federal crime laws. This can vary a lot by state after controlling for the severity of crime. No amount of explaining suffices for the interlocutor to accept this distinction between federal and state. Or people asking questions in which the answer can obviously be answered with a Google search. In the early to mid 2000s such a request would have been met with a curt reply to “just fucking Google it,” but nowadays that will get you banned or warnings.

So it’s like there are two extremes: on one hand you have to cover all your bases by being extremely careful to ensure you explain yourself as well as possible so as to not be misunderstood or misconstrued by people who are looking for any reason not not get the point, but on the other extreme, helplessness and obtuseness are tolerated.

It’s also possible that people are literally not smart enough to understand each other. IQ scores have possibly been falling for decades now, undoing the Flynn effect (assuming it even existed). Same for falling standards in school. The SATs have gotten successively easier with each revision, and many colleges no longer even require them. Or schools and colleges are increasingly adopting a pass/fail system. Social media has possibly reduced people’s attention spans to nothing, and except for some holdouts, people don’t read much anymore either.