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On a chatroom that I moderate, there is a regular user who is deaf (for simplicity, let's call him A), and recently someone (let's call him B) made a joke about deaf people, but he did not yet know that A is deaf. A was quite offended by this, and we already tried to explain that it was a joke and B already apologized, but A still feels offended.

The joke wasn't that offensive, and a reasonable person wouldn't say it is, but in his life, A has received a lot of jokes about deaf people, which were really meant as offensive, so he treated this joke as offensive too. And the people who made those jokes always 'apologized', without they really meant it. This has left its traces and A simply cannot believe that B really apologizes.

We don't want to lose A, as he is a very frequent user of our chatroom. What can I do to make sure that he doesn't feel offended anymore?

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Was the joke something that could reasonably be considered potentially offensive in your opinion? –  Martin Smith Aug 30 '14 at 14:27
@MartinSmith That's a difficult question, as this is actually a hypothetical question. But what I had in mind was that it is not really offensive (so no insult targeted to deaf people or something), but just a joke about them. –  ProgramFOX Aug 30 '14 at 14:27
Well if the joke was something like the Tommy Cooper line I went to the doctors with a jelly and custard stuck in my ears. He asked, 'what seems to be the problem?' so I said, 'I'm a trifle deaf.' I'd personally find it difficult to imagine anyone should really be offended by it. –  Martin Smith Aug 30 '14 at 14:31
@MartinSmith I didn't have a real joke in mind, but something like Why do deaf people ...? Because they ... Yes, you could find it difficult to imagine that someone could get offended by that, but some people actually get offended by jokes like this. –  ProgramFOX Aug 30 '14 at 14:33
I'd like to have a question like this, but I think we need a little more info about the severity/type of offense. Was it something that a reasonable person would find offensive, something that most people wouldn't notice but most people in the affected group would, or something that only that user is unhappy about? –  Monica Cellio Aug 31 '14 at 2:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Here's what you did wrong:

we already tried to explain that it was a joke

Saying "it was just a joke" is essentially saying that offensive language should be disregarded as long as it's couched in a "joking" form. It's how a five-year-old can tell their sandbox enemy "You're stupid! Just joking, can't you take a joke!"

The fact is that jokes are one of the ways that various -isms are transmitted socially. There is research showing a correlation between enjoying jokes based on stereotypes and actual sexist/racist behavior. Also, being the butt of a joke is hurtful!

In other words, the fact that it was intended as a joke is not and should not be part of any excuse. By saying this, you've unintentionally given A the impression that you don't take this problem seriously - which is also borne out by your question. You're asking

What can I do to make sure that he doesn't feel offended anymore?

A better (IMO) question would be

What can I do to make sure that people aren't being offensive?

Because that is most likely what A wants - not just to be sure that B won't make this particular kind of joke again, but to be sure that this community where he is spending his time and energy is a place where people don't get teased/bullied and where jokes against disabilities, race, sexual orientation etc are no more acceptable than "non-joking" racism/sexism/etc.

So, my suggestion is that you look over your community guidelines if you have any, or create them if you don't. Exactly what goes in them will depend on what you want from your community. A good example is the Dreamwidth IRC guide. Also, the Geek Feminism wiki page about online harassment has some good info - it's mainly focused on the specific abuse targeting women, but a lot of the information is useful for other marginalized groups as well.

If you do this and actually enforce the community standards, you risk losing some users. The ones you'll lose are the ones who feel that their right to say what they want regardless of how it affects others - like the five-year-old in the sandbox. But if you don't, the ones you'll lose are A and people like him.

For A specifically, I'd suggest that you involve him in creating and applying the guidelines. He's been a target for stuff like this his whole life, so he knows better than most people what needs to happen for him and others like him to feel welcome.

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@Styphon There is no such thing as a community that works for everyone. You have to choose who you'd rather retain - the people who enjoy being rude without consequences, or the ones who prefer not being the butt of various -isms. –  Jenny D Aug 30 '14 at 17:30
This answer is offensive, slanderously characterising me as a five-year-old in a sandbox who enjoys being rude with no regard for other people. Also, I find the notion that moderators would have to protect me from potentially hurtful jokes to insult my intelligence. I exaggerate, but to make a point: everyone is unconditionally free to take offence to anything, but then what? Nothing actually happens. Being offended is not a position that demands respect. In a community where people can speak candidly, I will occasionally be confronted with things I dislike. It's the price I gladly pay. –  Marcks Thomas Aug 31 '14 at 0:28
It's talking about your behaviour, not your person. There's the difference. But thanks for showing how a person who considers his right to say what he wants trumps the right of others to be treated with basic courtesy would respond to any form of request that they behave themselves. –  Jenny D Aug 31 '14 at 7:26
Can you please provide a source for your comment "There is research showing a correlation between enjoying jokes based on stereotypes and actual sexist/racist behavior"? –  Questioner Sep 1 '14 at 4:20
@DaveMG Link added in the post –  Jenny D Sep 1 '14 at 6:04

Your question title illustrates your biggest problem: You appear more concerned with "handling" the victim than dealing with the perpetrator.

in his life, A has received a lot of jokes about deaf people, which were really meant as offensive


The joke wasn't that offensive, and a reasonable person wouldn't say it is

You're blaming the victim. The implication in your statement above is that the victim, who is offended, must therefore be unreasonable.

... And you seriously want to know why the victim's upset. Are you beginning to get it yet? This is a similar problem to that discussed by the everyday sexism project. Regardless of whether or not a particular remark is intended as offensive or "wasn't that offensive", if it's part of a constant drip of small offences against a person it still feels offensive to them and having to deal with it constantly wears them down.

You need to show person A, the victim, that you take this seriously. You should probably start with an apology for not already having done so. You may wish to make the point to them that you don't wish to ban person B for something you believe was a genuine mistake, that's up to you, but you don't get to decide whether or not person A is going to live with that decision.

In any case, you should certainly make a point of stating that some "jokes" are simply not funny and will no longer be tolerated in your community. Then stand by that statement and take action if there are any further offences committed by anyone.

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So in your opinion any and all claims of offence should be taken at face value and there is no need to bother evaluating it at all? I much prefer the more nuanced question and answer here moderators.stackexchange.com/questions/587/… –  Martin Smith Aug 31 '14 at 13:46
@MartinSmith not at all, but it's pretty clear what happened here is it not? This seems to be a simple case of a joke being made against a minority in a 'public place' and someone of that minority seeing it and being offended. Beyond that, I'm not sure what you're trying to say when you talk about taking a claim of offence at face value. Who are you (or I, or anyone else here of course) to judge whether or not someone is truly offended by a joke made at the expense of a minority they are a member of? I know a good way to avoid the problem though: Don't allow jokes at the expense of minorities. –  RobM Aug 31 '14 at 13:53
No it isn't particularly clear at all. When described hypothetically. It is certainly possible that the joke was actually inoffensive to the vast majority of deaf people too. I see this site (surely geared to the deaf community) has a whole page of deaf jokes. –  Martin Smith Aug 31 '14 at 13:58
I would say not. The job of a moderator is to keep the site "on topic" - moving in the desired direction, deal with disputes when they arise, and prevent future disruption. Turns out that banning jokes about minorities and dealing strongly with people who breach that rule meets all those criteria unless you're a moderator for a site that actually collects jokes about minorities. –  RobM Aug 31 '14 at 14:04
@a20 your joke example doesn't really compare as the existence of those jokes (presumably in a forum for collecting jokes if there are many good jokes there) is not a direct attack on someone. If however a poster was following your hypothetical anti-knock knock religious person around the site posting knock knock jokes to every single thread they participated in, I would see that as a clear attempt to harass them and I would take action. –  RobM Sep 1 '14 at 7:13

The offended party knows it was a joke. It was still in bad taste. The proper thing to do is to acknowledge, apologize, and ask the community to prevent a repetition.

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You can do all of the following:

  • ban “B” from the chat room for one year to life
  • put a prominent notice on your site that “jokes” about disabilities will not be tolerated
  • ask “A” what else you can do other than the above, and whatever he says, do that also

And the reason I put “jokes” in quotes is that they’re not jokes. They’re a way to exclude people who “B” (or others) don’t think belong. Same with “jokes” about cultural heritage, sexuality, gender, etc. Calling them “jokes” is an excuse that is made because the people who are trying to exclude others are extremely cowardly.

Not a bad idea to take this opportunity to put a prominent notice that “jokes” about cultural heritage, sexuality, gender, etc. will also not be tolerated and that your site is a place of inclusion, not exclusion. You’re just stating the obvious because the Internet includes everybody, that is why the old joke: “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Unfortunately, “B” does not know the obvious and so he has to go. Otherwise, you’re an accomplice in his attempt to create a disability-free zone on your site.

And the title of this post should be “Handling user who made a ‘joke’ about a disability.” It’s “B” that needs to be handled, not “A.”

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First of all, you have to understand both sides of the story. On one side, "just joking" is ALWAYS used, even if they weren't "just joking." On the other side, people use disabilities in jokes all the time (blind, deaf, etc.) I have a cousin who is deaf, and I cringe when someone uses that word that way. It's actually shocking how much people use "deaf" in jokes; I've seen professionals use it five or six times in a short period of time.

What's basically happening here:

  • B was trying to be funny. On the computer, we often do things we wouldn't do in real life. We can't see expressions (of either party), so a joke to one person could be an insult to another. Also, the phrase he used in the joke is commonly used by many people not meaning harm.
  • A saw that 'joke' and was offended. (S)he stated that (s)he was offended.
  • B realized what (s)he did, and (s)he apologized.
  • A didn't think the apology was sincere.

Although I mention A being stubborn, it essentially isn't A's falt. (S)he was the victim. However, there is a certain point where you have to say that they're making a bigger deal out of a small thing. I understand it is a sensitive topic, but you can't just complain for years about one sentence, not intended to be hurtful.

If A is still mad about the incident (and it hasn't been a long time since the incident), I would ask B if they would be okay with a short suspension (1 day) so it makes A feel better. This might not be the best solution for this case, I don't know.

Going forward, you need a new policy. Some of the ones mentioned before were too long. All you need is something like this:

Use common sense. Don't discriminate, make fun of, or say anything that would be offensive to anyone. We're trying to make this a positive chatroom for all users; think twice before posting.

Simple, easy to remember, and it makes the user responsible for their actions.

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While I sympathise with your overall sentiment, the problem with a policy of "use common sense" is that some people don't appear to have any and those that do will have a different sense of what that means exactly to you. "Use common sense" can turn into "Read my mind. It'll be your fault if you get it wrong too", which isn't fair on the person who ends up getting banned for a marginal comment any more than doing nothing to stop bad behaviour isn't fair on the victims of that bad behaviour. –  RobM Sep 1 '14 at 12:56
@RobM rules are always going to be pretty subjective unless you hire a lawyer to make a 900 page book of rules. The "use common sense" is balanced by the second sentence. If it might be reasonably offensive to someone else, don't post it. The common sense is just to make sure people don't get mad when there's some odd situation (like mentioning 'cookies' right after someone's cookie shop went out of business). I might add to that something like: "a reasonable person might find offensive to them/another person." –  Annonomus Penguin Sep 1 '14 at 13:12
I agree with most of this, and especially "use common sense" instead of trying to enumerate a long set of rules. But I would never ask a user about accepting a suspension, for two reasons: (a) If a suspension is warranted I should do it; if it's not I shouldn't, period. (b) If it's not warranted then I should not tarnish the user's record with one even if he agrees. –  Monica Cellio Sep 1 '14 at 16:40
@Monica that's a good point, and I'm probably somewhat biased on this topic. I didn't see the 'joke', nor do I know what the community/platform is like so I can't really say how a suspension would affect a user. –  Annonomus Penguin Sep 1 '14 at 16:56

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