The Immediacy of Disrespect
I am not a die hard Whitney Houston fan. I certainly did not dislike the woman and, I, like many, went out of my way to seek out some of my favorite songs by her after she died. But I also made this “Jess and BJ” video just hours after she passed away. So does that make me a terrible person?
My partner in crime, BJ, was not fully up to speed on what exactly had happened with Ms. Houston and how the world was reacting because he gets behind on Twitter during WPT events. He caught up after we finished taping and started to express some concerns that we were going to offend people.
The phrase you hear a lot when people pass these days and people turn to humor to cope is, “too soon.” I see their point, in that the person has not even been properly buried and people are cracking jokes. I got to thinking about it more though and this idea began to trouble me.
At no point while she was living did I feel remorse when making a crack about Houston’s behavior (oh, just did it again!). Why must it suddenly change because she is dead? And while we be alright with me making the same joke two weeks from now. Where did this concept of the immediacy of disrespect come from?
If I knew Houston, that would be another argument altogether. This “too soon” effect makes sense when it is someone you know personally. It also makes sense when someone does something they would never consider doing after a loved one passes away. I recall after my dad died that some of my family was keen to get my mother to date again. As the child of that marriage longing for their parent, I am pretty sure I invoked “too soon” for a good decade. My mother still invokes “too soon” even though she has now been a widow for nearly 20 years. However, I don’t think the funeral had even occurred before people in my family were quick to make fun of my dad’s penchant for puns.
It is the Chuckles the Clown phenomenon. When we reflect on a person’s contribution to society, the humor they brought to the world is part of the deal. It is also natural for a lot of people to turn to humor to cope with their emotions. Whitney Houston was not an uncomplicated celebrity. In the waning stages of her life, the humor ran so rampant about her behavior, in my opinion, because to seriously address a woman whose life seemed to have spiraled out of control with no recourse is just too tough.
I still don’t know if that makes our “crack is whack” reference in poor taste. Even after taking it through with BJ and with our boss, Jeff, I still don’t know what the “right” thing to do is. I could point out that plenty of people on Twitter were making these jokes before we even got around to Jess and BJ, but that doesn’t really change anything.
It did help me frame my thoughts on joking about Houston a little better though. The first joke that came through my feed was maybe an hour after news hit the wire. It wasn’t about Houston’s addiction problems, but it did make a crack about how they were so excited Whitney was dead until they realized it wasn’t the much-maligned Whitney Cummings sitcom. I cringed and thought “too soon” for a brief moment.
Ten minutes later, the next one rolled in and I shrugged. By the end of play that day, my feed was dominated with jokes. So much for “too soon”.
That is the beauty and the downside of Twitter though. The immediacy of thoughts reaching readers is rendering this whole “too soon” point moot. It is not that society is being more insensitive, it is just that with Twitter we notice it more. We’ve always joked about people after they are gone, that is nothing new. The privacy in which we did it continues to change.
What doesn’t change is that when one invokes “too soon” I think it should be less about the jokes that always persisted during this person’s life and more about people who suddenly change their tune about a person as soon as their heart stops beating. Frankly, I would rather hear the joke about her addiction than some manufactured, treacly sentiments about a singer from someone who never even owned a Whitney Houston album. To me, one of these is disrespectful, and it isn’t the one people cry “too soon” over. It is the one that tries to make the genuine grief of others their own without really meaning it.