Signs, Tragedies and Why We Tell Jokes

CHANGE: It Can Be for the GOOD!!

THIS SIGN NO LONGER EXISTS.

What went through your mind when you first looked at the above photo. If you have lived in California for many years, you might be familiar with this signage. I was not. THIS WAS A FIRST FOR ME.

Today in the LA TIMES it was reported that this last “immigrant crossing” sign next to the 5 Freeway near the Mexican/California border has become obsolete and thus has been taken down–by someone. They don’t know who. I believe that’s okay. The article stated that fences had been erected over the years to protect people from being hit if they decided to run across the freeway–another reason the signs were no longer needed. Also, the number of people crossing the border illegally has dropped dramatically in the 21st century, a 83% drop.

History Behind the Sign 

The sign has always been a source of controversy. That makes sense to me.

Many see it as an offensive caricature of people from Mexico fleeing to the US. Justin Akers Chacon, a professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego City College related that critics of the signage felt that the imagery dehumanized immigrants, likening them to animals. I agree.

Historically, the signs warning drivers had no image. Drivers had to quickly read: Caution watch for people crossing road. Then artist John Hood was asked to add the drawing. HIs take on what he created: “It doesn’t mean they are running across the freeway. It means they are running FROM something else as well. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of things–for opportunities, for freedom.” Thus even the artist who created the sign has a more open position on the immigration argument.

Different Views  

Everard Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute States: “The thing with these symbols is that the response is 50-50. Some people see that sign and think, ‘My god, this is a sign that represents how our immigration policy has failed, and we put people in vulnerable position such that we have to have a road sign so people don’t run them over on the highway.”

Pedro Rios, director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee advocates for migrant rights. He pointed out that Operation Gatekeeper pushed would-be-immigrants routes east over the mountains and through deserts. “Ironically, this pushed migrants into less-populated areas…it means that fewer migrants died crossing in the San Diego region, but more were in peril in the less-visible treacherous crossing routes.” Obviously, the arguments pertaining to border crossing continue.

My First Encounter

Being new to California and not living near the San Diego border, I had never seen one of these signs until today, in the newspaper. But when contemplating what to write about today–it communicated to me HOW OUR REACTION TO THINGS CHANGE. And often for the good.

Growing up in Chicago in the sixties there were a series of horrible murders--3 women at Starved Rock National Park, a teenage female found in Montrose Harbor and two sisters also found dead and frozen during the winter months. Jokes were actually told about these incidents. I won’t recount them, but they were gruesome. And people laughed. But comics often go to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to soften the horror and thus DEAL with the harsh realities of other peoples’ lives.

What did drivers say when they saw those signs along the Freeway? Maybe they were more alert to not hitting a human being, but maybe after a while the sign meant NEXT TO NOTHING, DID NOT TOUCH THEIR LIVES, just like the horrible jokes I remember DID NOT TOUCH MY LIFE. Maybe the signs even created some jokes. We use humor to push the tragic away.

So Why Do We Tell Sick Jokes About Tragedies? 

Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos worries that sick humour’s popularity is symptomatic of an unhealthy culture which has been desensitised to the suffering of others.

“One of the reasons we laugh at tragedy is that it makes the enormity of the issue easier to deal with,” she states. “But we do live in a society where tragedy has become something that we’ve become conditioned to laugh at.”

Sigmund Freud addressed this in his essay HUMOR. He argued that sick jokes were the mechanism by which the ego “insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world”.  

Comedian and writer Erma Bombeck once said: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

Psychologist Peter Mcgraw in an article tried to uncover the reasons as to why sometimes tragedy can result in laughter. The core of the theory? That the amount of time that elapses since the tragedy and how closely the tragedy hits home, and how severe it is affects the aspect of humor.

  • distance can be measured in both time and space so that small tragedies, or mishaps (what the authors call benign violations), are more likely to generate humor if they happened to you or to a close friend.
  • but large misfortunes are funnier when they are inflicted on other people–and not you.

Fences and Walls  

Maybe the sign in the photo above was looked upon by most drivers in the San Diego area as a necessity of that time period. Maybe some drivers were angered and upset by the image and touched by the humanity of the situation. Maybe the sign instigated joke-telling as people made their way north on the freeway without a care in the world. “Did you hear about the …etc etc. (I actually don’t know any of those jokes and if I did I would not print them.) And I am horrified that in my youth I laughed about someone’s misfortune. I’m glad the signs are gone and I hope we now think or people fleeing other countries as not that far from our own immigrant ancestors who came to this country for a better life. I’m sure once they got here there were jokes to tell: maybe jokes about sinking ships and nasty workers on Ellis Island. But then–they were here, they were free, they could begin a new life.

Found this Ellis Island Joke:

Yehudah Tzvi Windweher arrived at Ellis Island and asked his friend “What would be a good American name for me? I want it to be Jewish, but more American.”

His friend replied, “Sam Cohen, that’s a good American Jewish name.”

Yehudah Tzvi began his long walk up a massive flight of steps leading to the immigration office. With each step he said, “Sam Cohen, Sam Cohen,” in an earnest effort to learn his new name. When he finished carrying his luggage to the top of the flight, he was winded and tired.

A large immigration officer caught Yehuda Tzvi off guard when he said, “NAME?” in a booming voice. A flustered Yehudah Tzvi replied “Shoyn fargesin” (“I already forgot” in Yiddish).

The immigration officer replied “Sean Ferguson, welcome the United States of America!”