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Just a Joke: Confessions of a “Humorless Vegan”

By Visiting Animal — June 11, 2013

Today, we welcome Katrina Donovan Fleming back to Our Hen House. Katrina – a passionate third-grade teacher, animal advocate, vegan, and writer – is facing a quandary that anyone who speaks up for the underdog can relate to: When is it appropriate to fight back when everything we stand for is laughed off and turned into nothing more than a punch line?


Just a Joke: Confessions of a “Humorless Vegan”

by Katrina Donovan Fleming

Humor is a powerful force.

School Days - Fun in the ClassroomIn my third-grade classroom, well-placed humor relaxes students, changes brain chemistry, and enables kids to learn and retain information.

While humor has always come naturally to me in the classroom, jokes never have. And my students love them. With that in mind, I ordered a large joke book for our room. I skimmed the pages with a smile, anticipating how the kids would enjoy the silliness, and I was pleased to note that an entire section of the book was dedicated to animals. What an unexpected bonus!

But upon reading the first lines, my heart sank.

“How do you take a sick pig to the hospital?” (“In a hambulance!”)

“What do you call a cow with no legs?” (“Ground beef!”)

I placed the book on my teacher shelf away from malleable young minds, so that I could choose jokes that didn’t base the punch line on animal abuse. But even out of sight, the jokes haunted me, and I continued to turn them over in my head. Each masked the horror of what we do to animals with a cutesie play on words. But beyond the obvious violence behind them, what was it about these jokes that I found so unsettling?

In fact, they were classic examples of a type of humor that has always been popular, and has always done harm. They were exclusionary. They were meant to separate us from them. Someone is the loser, the one we laugh at. And to add insult to injury, they were aimed at kids – the people who tend to be the most empathetic toward animals.

In my mind, true humor is inclusive. Not in a goody-two-shoes way. But in a refreshing release that makes us laugh at our own shortcomings. Ellen DeGeneres is a whiz at this kind of humor. Nobody is put down or excluded. Instead, she light-heartedly pokes fun at herself, the silly little quirks we all share, or the odd things we encounter in our daily life. (In one of her popular sketches, she ponders, “Do we still need directions on the shampoo bottle? … And it’s not bad enough that there are directions – there’s a 1-800 number on the back. In case the directions are too vague for you.”) All the guests who come on her show look relaxed, knowing they are safe from cheap shots. Ellen’s success and popularity speak volumes on the type of humor that attracts people. Such humor is cohesive, reminding us that we are on this ride of life together.

Exclusionary humor and its acerbic aftertaste are nothing new, of course. Think of all the jokes that are based in racism. The dumb blond jokes. Anti-gay jokes. This type of humor is a not-so-subtle way of communicating to one’s companions: “We’re better.” It is still cohesive, but it relies on casting others out of the group in order to create that feeling. Inclusive humor doesn’t depend on such base tactics.

The real zinger of exclusionary humor, of course, is that no matter how diplomatically one speaks against it, the perpetrator can retort in a passive-aggressive way, “Jeez. Have a sense of humor. It’s just a joke!” The person questioning the hurtful nature of the jab has now committed the great sin of not having a sense of humor. It’s actually a genius ploy on the part of the jokester, however unintentional or subconscious it might be.

So what do you do? When your sister-in-law quips that she’d like her steak cooked so rare that “it’s still mooing” and then glances to observe your reaction? Or when your son gleefully asks, “How do you make a milk shake?” (“Give a cow a pogo stick!”) Sometimes the solution will be obvious. More often, though, you will feel like you are in a minefield where one wrong step will make your efforts to speak up for animals seem petty and humorless.

Perhaps, though, the famous words often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi can give us some perspective on where we stand in the big picture: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Even though I tucked it away on my shelf to shield my students (and myself) from its potential harm, I knew the joke book was proof that people still go along with the idea that it’s okay to laugh at animals and at those who care about them.

0000s_0018_2011_09_22_some_animals_can-293x180My mother, who worked in graphic design in the 1960s and 1970s, once remarked to me that the TV show Mad Men’s portrayal of businessmen making lewd jokes about women was alarmingly accurate. Women fumed at the injustice of such treatment and of being labeled as militant, humorless “women’s libbers” if they spoke out against it. As confident as they were in their convictions, many women wondered, “Will things ever change?” Now women can win lawsuits against such harassment. No laughing matter now, is it?

I used to wonder if my gay friends and family would ever escape the barbed jokes of society. It’s slow going in some areas of the country and world, but the change is startlingly rapid in others. Making homophobic jokes can now elicit disdainful reprimands. The power of the “it’s just a joke” line is quickly ebbing.

And, even though it seems like we – those of us who want animals to be treated with respect and compassion – have a long, long road ahead of us, things are changing for animals, just as things changed, and are still changing, for other victims of injustice. Our job now is to think about how to manage those uncomfortable situations when a distasteful joke is shared. Perhaps a shrug of the shoulders and a “Can you please pass the Field Roast?” is all that is needed to remind the jokester and other diners that your delicious vegan food is getting gobbled up much faster than that sad little plate of animal meat.

Maybe pulling someone aside to share our thoughts can be more effective. “Look, I know you meant no harm by that comment and you were just kidding around. But you are a sweet person and I feel strongly that if you saw that many cows are, in fact, still mooing when they are slaughtered, you’d be as upset as I am about what is done to them.” This kind of plea doesn’t state that the person is a schmuck, but focuses instead on how such a joke makes you feel, while educating them on the reality of what is happening to animals. It gives this person the benefit of the doubt that if she knew the truth, her thoughts on the matter would change. And whenever she hears that prevalent “mooing rare steak” comment in the future, the image of that slaughtered animal will be forever linked in her mind, much as she might wish it away.

In talking to children about a grisly animal joke, we must be sensitive to their newfound pride in developing a sense of humor. Humor is actually a very advanced aspect of learning language, and an integral part of brain maturation. I like sharing an animal-friendly joke with the child first: “Why do fish live in saltwater?” (“Because pepper makes them sneeze.”) Then I can casually follow up with, “Say, where do you think milkshakes (or beef, eggs, etc.) really do come from?” It’s a great way to allow a developmentally appropriate conversation on animal production to unfold. The child doesn’t feel chastised, but intrigued.

The key, it seems, is to remember that there is probably a kind soul behind the offending joke, and to then connect to the person on that level. Very few people would actually find animal abuse funny. If you can plug into that, share some food for thought, and give the person the benefit of the doubt, incredible things can result. It might just be a seed. But simply look at a forest or a thriving garden to see where a tiny seed can ultimately lead.

“It’s just a joke.” The truth is, if people have to state that tired line, then it’s not just a joke. There’s something lurking behind it, and deep down they know it.

Humor is powerful. It can be used to pull us together in a feel-good moment, or it can separate us in bully-versus-victim way. The former method, though, is the one that survives the test of time. And if we continue to participate in inclusive humor – as cartoonist Dan Piraro does so brilliantly – and politely turn our backs on the exclusive humor, then, to paraphrase that often-quoted wisdom, we ultimately win.

More importantly, the animals win.

Cartoon by Dan Piraro of Bizarro

Cartoon by Dan Piraro of Bizarro


Katrina Donovan Fleming

Katrina Donovan Fleming

Katrina Donovan Fleming is a writer, teacher, artist, gardener, and returned Peace Corps volunteer who became vegan almost two years ago at the tender age of 40. She lives just outside of Boston with her husband and two cats, and writes a blog called Suburban Snow White, where she muses on creating and enjoying an animal-friendly life. She is also a regular contributor to Vegbooks. A professionally trained flutist, Katrina now dabbles in banjo, a development likely inspired by Kermit.

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(29) Readers Comments

  1. Stephen Lukas
    June 11, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Inspiring, and beautifully written. What a fortunate bunch of kids to have a compassionate teacher like this.

  2. June 11, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I really enjoyed this article. My teenage sons, unfortunately, are into the joke-telling which is not the favorable one. I have been having an on-going "thing" with them about Ellen's style of humor as opposed to the "other" style of humor. Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. You seem to know how to walk that important fine line!

  3. June 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Wow, Katrina, that was so beautiful! You so eloquently put in to words exactly how I feel in those types of situations, and how I am working on being able to respond. This is one of those articles that I will keep and refer back to often. I'll check out your blog. Have a great day!

  4. June 12, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    This resonates so clearly with me. In fact, I used to follow Michael Symon, the Iron Chef from Food Network, on twitter, and he made a mean joke against vegetarians. I commented saying I respected him as a chef and asked him to respect vegan and vegetarians lifestyles too. He responded with "just a joke, no more no less." Ridiculous. I felt so infuriated! And then I showed my boyfriend and his response was that I shouldn't even have said anything, because it was "just a joke". It made me very sad and this article reminds me that all other vegans/animal activists are going through the same thing. Misery loves company I guess?

    • June 15, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks, Sandy, for sharing that. It can be so therapeutic to find others who are going through -- or who have gone through -- something similar as oneself, regardless of the situation. Sometimes it just feels good to be understood. Then you can pick yourself up again, knowing you're not alone.

  5. June 14, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Thank you for this post, Katrina. This is something I constantly battle with when getting together with family members or work colleagues. I've never known how to react or retort. You always end up sounding bitter and humorless, so then they poke more fun making you feel even worse. Lately I've been dealing with it by rolling my eyes in an exaggerated fashion and poking fun at their bad sense of humor or joke making abilities. A fake enthusiastic "OMG, I've never heard that joke before. Did you just come up with that?" will get the rest of the group to realize it's an old recycled joke (even if it isn't) and won't seem as funny to them anymore. Then I try to veer the conversation or joking at something more lighthearted. I hope the take-away is that taking cheap shots at the only vegan, or any "minority" at the table for that matter, doesn't make you funny or cool. It doesn't address the insensitivity directly but it clearly shows that I'm not amused in a non-angered and less awkward fashion.

    • June 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for sharing that, Lydia! I agree -- joking back in a light-hearted manner can often diffuse the situation and make one's point. A genuine smile goes such a long way! And phenomenal animal-friendly food served up afterward never hurts either. :)

  6. June 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing your compassion with your students. I had so many animal-hostile teachers growing up it's a refreshing thing to hear.

    • June 15, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Thank you, Peace! So sorry to hear your teachers were hostile. But it sounds like you are spreading pleasantness in the world, based on your name! :)

  7. June 18, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Thank you so very much for writing this, Katrina. I became a vegetarian in 6th grade, almost 17 years ago. My extremely carnivore family used to/still does make jokes at my expense in regards to my food choices. When we go out to eat, they always lament that they can't go to a steakhouse or something similar because I won't have anything to eat. I advise them time and time again that I am perfectly happy ordering a salad and sides for a meal. The worst is when we go to a Mexican restaurant and I order veggie tacos. My family's 'endearing' term for them are Air Tacos. It's always embarrassing for me when my father tries to pull the waiter into joking with him about his abnormal daughter that doesn't eat meat. I usually end up with an awkward smile on my face, trying not to make eye contact. Thank you again for your voice.

    • June 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      Katrina Reply → June 19, 2013 at 6:14 pm Hi Kaitlin, (love the spelling!) 17 years! Hats of to you! I'm still a relative newbie. (2+ years) Wish I had taken it upon myself to learn all this stuff in sixth grade, as you did. So sorry to hear about those moments. It's surprising that folks are still giving you a hard time after so long. That's why I love the internet, though. It gives you a place to realize there are other people who care about the same things you do. You're in good company! :) Have you had a chance to visit an animal sanctuary? It can be such a great reminder that what you do does indeed count.

      • September 25, 2013 at 1:14 pm

        Admittedly, I initially became a vegetarian because I did not like the taste of meat. I never liked hot dogs, steak, hamburgers when I did eat it. I simply declared I would no longer eat any more meat. Unfortunately, being such a young age when making the vegetarian decision made most people think it was a phase, I was being silly, I'd grow out of it, I was too picky, etc. etc. It was not until high school that I began to learn of the horrors of the industry. (Also, do you know how hard it is to find vegetarian meals at school??) The whole deal makes me sick. I have spent the past 3 years volunteering at a nonprofit horse rescue, where we take in abused, abandoned, and slaughter-bound horses. We also have chickens, sheep, and feral cat rescues. We spend a great deal of our time fighting for animals. ... Again, I thank you. It is pretty nice to have people who understand. :) Keep up the wonderful work. 2+ years and counting!

  8. June 18, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Isn't it possible to go too far in the other direction? Some women think that just being complimented on their looks is a form of sexual harassment. What about all of the "women's libbers" who spew hatred against men while not being much kinder or more selfless themselves? Yes, I realize that this post is about animal welfare, but since you brought it up... In my neighborhood, people give more consideration to their dogs than they do to their human neighbors. How are these people any better than those who laugh at the suffering of animals?

    • June 19, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Hi Kaitlin, (love the spelling!) 17 years! Hats of to you! I'm still a relative newbie. (2+ years) Wish I had taken it upon myself to learn all this stuff in sixth grade, as you did. So sorry to hear about those moments. It's surprising that folks are still giving you a hard time after so long. That's why I love the internet, though. It gives you a place to realize there are other people who care about the same things you do. You're in good company! :) Have you had a chance to visit an animal sanctuary? It can be such a great reminder that what you do does indeed count.

    • June 19, 2013 at 6:40 pm

      Hi MCH (sorry I accidentally sent you Kaitlin's message. Must have hit the wrong reply button.) I totally agree that it can go too far. Alienating people never helps anyone. I think just feeling the situation out works best. Do I jump down the throat of anyone who makes any jokes related to animals? (Which I know you weren't suggesting.) Nope. I'm actually pretty laidback because my own family and friends are pretty relaxed about the whole thing. (During my service in Peace Corps, I was affectionately dubbed by some fellow volunteers, "Most Easily Amused Female;" I laugh a lot!) I don't really get a lot of kickback from anyone. If a joke is made and I find it makes me a little sad, I'll usually find a way to indicate that the animals in question are actually quite dear to me. But I try to do it in a private-ish lighter way that doesn't attack or belittle the person. I imagine how I would like to be approached and go for that route. After all, I'm hanging with that person because I genuinely like him or her; the last thing I want to do is hurt anybody. And I'm not saying I'm perfect at all this. But I'm getting better, and the fact that the people I love seemed pretty relaxed around me gives me hope that I'm not bulldozing my way through people. That is such an interesting perspective about people treating their dog companions better than fellow humans. This may just be me, but I found that after I stopped eating animals, my compassion for people grew even greater. It's like my old friend once said to me about his kids: "People think that when you have more kids, you have to divide up your love and have less to give. But it just doubles. Then triples." (I'm paraphrasing there, but those were the gist of his words.) Again, I can only speak for myself, but I really do feel like my compassion for people grew tenfold, much like his love for his expanding family. Thanks for writing!

  9. June 18, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    How is this not exclusionary: "Perhaps a shrug of the shoulders and a “Can you please pass the Field Roast?” is all that is needed to remind the jokester and other diners that your delicious vegan food is getting gobbled up much faster than that sad little plate of animal meat." You're excluding those who chose the "sad little plate" and building yourself up with the comforting thought that your food choice is more popular. Why is the milkshake joke terrible but the saltwater joke is acceptable? No one is excluded by the comical thought of a cow on a Pogo stick. If that thought is offensive why isn't a sneezing fish offensive? "Poor fish. If you only knew how badly some fish were treated perhaps then you'd know that jokes including fish are terrible..." The "still mooing" observation I find quite relevant and something I hadn't thought of in that light before.

    • June 19, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      Hi Adam, I think my comment you quoted wasn't exclusionary because people who eat animals tend to be in the majority. Based on your comment, I'm guessing that you aren't vegan (though maybe I'm wrong?) Based on that, you can most likely sit at a typical meal and be comfortable with eating the majority of the things being offered. To go back to your point, the word "exclude" means to shut out. If I'm in the minority, how can I possibly shut out the majority? It doesn't make any sense. So I can't see how I'm excluding people if I'm in the minority and offering food that, hopefully everyone is able to eat. Regarding the sad little plate of animal meat -- well it IS sad if you care about animals. That animal did not want to die. So to me, someone who cares about animals, it is a sad little plate. That plate of food was a somebody, no different than a cat or dog. Yea-- maybe I could have come up with a better example of a joke than the milkshake pogostick one. But there is a point to it, and one I never picked up on until I did a little digging on animal agriculture. I won't go deep into it here, as an online search will provide you with more info that I have space for here, but the dairy industry is pretty brutal, both to the mothers and the babies. So even though it may seem as over-the-top-sensitive (as it did once seem to me too) to feel saddened by such seemingly harmless jokes, it makes me wish that people could actually see the things they do to those poor cows to procure that milk. If most people saw it, I don't think they could support it. I was a major cheese-lover and I dropped it like a hot potato and never looked back, once I found out how that cheese actually came about. The abuse went beyond anything I could have imagined. Does that help explain it a little better? Thanks for joining the conversation, Adam. I really appreciate your perspective.

      • June 20, 2013 at 8:35 pm

        Katrina - Thank you for the response! I appreciate your time and effort. It isn't easy putting your viewpoint out there for the scrutiny of anyone with an internet connection. I think my only exception has less to do with animals etc. and more with the thought that those in the minority cannot display exclusionary behavior. To answer your question "If I'm in the minority, how can I possibly shut out the majority?" I think if you looked more closely at the logic of that argument you would see it is flawed. A white guy making a joke about blacks isn't acceptable (or non-exclusionary) if he is in the middle of a black majority country. Carte blanche cannot be given to anyone, even those in the minority. Is an offensive gay joke acceptable in a gay bar when made by a straight bartender? If the majority became the minority for any given topic (sexual preference, race, religion, food choices, weight etc.) does it suddenly change what humor is acceptable? According to current statistics more than half of the US population is overweight. Since non-overweight people are no longer the majority by your logic they would be incapable of making exclusionary jokes about overweight folks. I doubt you think "fat jokes" are wholesome. That being said, while I am not vegetarian or Vegan I have spent quite a bit of time listening to and talking with those who are. The owner of a company I used to work for would pay for any employee's lunch every day as long as it was Vegan. I had not eaten a Garden burger before, but I did once that offer was on the table. Eye opening. =)

  10. June 19, 2013 at 12:38 am

    I know so many vegetarians and vegans that act "holier-than-thou" when it comes to their life style choice. That's why quotes like this: "This type of humor is a not-so-subtle way of communicating to one’s companions: ‘We’re better." make me laugh. A lot of vegetarians think they are better just because they don't eat meat so I find it ironic that you try to make this kind of argument. Please refrain from the predictable comment "I'm sorry that's your experience with vegetarians/vegans." It's quite widespread. I don't think there is any other lifestyle choice out there that those who practice try to shove down others throats more than vegetarianism/veganism. The fact that you try to compare anti-gay and racist jokes to vegetarian jokes is also appalling. You want to talk about crossing a line? There is your line. Comparing the plight of two groups who don't have a choice (being gay or being a minority) and have been historically repressed to vegetarians is ridiculous. Grow up.

    • June 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm

      Hello, I'd love to respond to your name, but you didn't give one. I'd like to address the holier-than-thou idea, but it sounds like your mind is made up, particularly given the last line. I will say that I don't think of vegetarians and other minority groups as being one and the same. Rather, the vegetarians and vegans are speaking up for the animals, who themselves literally have no voice. If people don't speak up for them, who will?

  11. June 19, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Ok...I am somewhat confused. I get how the ground beef joke could be upsetting. But what is wrong with the "hambulance" joke? Because it has the word "ham" in it? Also with the "give a cow a pogo stick"--how is that bad? Because we get milk from cows and that is bad? This blog comes off as being WAY overboard on sensitivity, to the point of absurdity.

    • June 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      Hey Kevin, I just wrote to Adam (above) about the same idea. Does that help shed any light?

  12. June 19, 2013 at 10:28 am

    I can understand trying to stop people from spreading jokes that you don't like, but every joke is at the expense of someone. You mention Ellen as an example of a good jokester because she pokes fun at herself instead of someone else, but this practically means that you either need to be humorless or you need to attack yourself. Is it all right for a 400 pound man to make jokes about fat people, or for a black person to spread stories from his life that promote stereotypes about black people? Making the joke about yourself does not change the fact that you are encouraging people to laugh at you. Laughter is often a reaction to something that is a bit sad or wrong or out of place because it makes us feel better to laugh about it than to cry about it. Every joke should be a little offensive to someone (if it isn't, it's as funny as a hambulance--which is not that funny even if you don't mind animals becoming meat). If ten people hear a joke, five laugh, four smile and don't like it, and one is offended, then it is likely that ten or eleven people learned something. While I think that your assessment of good humor is off, your response to humor that offends you is great. It is an educational opportunity. A lot of the time the joke itself was an attempt to educate or open a dialogue while giving a monologue--whether you are in agreement or disagreement with the jokester's view, a response and a little thought is what the comic is going for. Do you think Chris Rock made his old gun control joke because he really thought making bullets cost $1000 each would fix everything, or did he just want people to start thinking about how to stop gun violence without going directly to their already entrenched political view on the topic? The idea of someone being mad enough to kill a person but not mad enough to spend $1000 to do it made a lot of people laugh, even though everyone knows human life is worth much more than $1000.

    • June 19, 2013 at 7:29 pm

      Hi Mike, Hm. I don't know if I agree that every joke should be offensive to someone in order to be funny. (Is that what you were saying, or did I misunderstand?) I can make fun of myself without spreading stereotypes. As a personal example, I noted the other day on Facebook, "I am an idiot. I just realized I was wearing one brown sandal and one black sandal. All day. All DAY." I thought it was hysterical (and other people seemed to as well, but maybe they were just being nice) but I don't think I spread any stereotypes about women. Or Ellen's skit years ago about how when we trip over a crack in the sidewalk in public, we all look behind us kind of annoyed at the sidewalk. Nobody is excluded there -- many of us have done something like that that makes no sense. (I have at least. Way too often!) That's not to say that I'm not perfect at the whole don't-offend-joke thing. I'm not. I blunder and inadvertently hurt feelings. And I'm really really glad when the person shares with me that they found my joke inappropriate. The air is cleared and I learn something. And, in an interesting way, it brings us closer. Anyhow, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Adam. I really do love talking about this stuff! PS. I agree that the hambulance joke isn't that great, regardless of the implications. What can I say? The joke book was a wash. :)

  13. November 11, 2013 at 2:06 am

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