One of my first blog posts here is titled "Cameron Diaz and Other Reasons People Hate Chicago Teachers." After seeing the video where the Chicago Teachers' Union President makes questionable comments during a keynote speech, I reworded the title for this post.
Humor can entertain, challenge, and unite. But Karen Lewis ended up turning many people against her--and CPS teachers--because she failed to be funny.
We know satire is the humor that connects all three parts of the rhetorical triangle: speaker, subject, and audience. This is why we can joke about sensitive topics such as race and gender with close friends. But we still have to be careful. Some jokes will always be offensive.
Sarcasm, on the other hand, is the humor that damages relationships because the rhetorical triangle does not connect. In the case of Karen Lewis's speech at a recent social justice conference, the the line between speaker and subject did not connect. Now that more people have seen the video, fewer are laughing and the disconnect with the audience is growing each day.
Because comedy happens in 3s, I'll offer three examples of why Lewis's humor was sarcasm--not satire.
Lewis made fun of Arne Duncan's lisp: "Ethucation ith the thivil righths movement of our time." Maybe the lisp could have been funny. Maybe. But Lewis's attempt at humor failed because of what she said with the lisp. Education IS a civil rights movement of our time. To devalue this devalues the hard work that educators--that classroom teachers--are doing to improve educational opportunities to under-served youth. And, yes, the fact that an African American is devaluing a civil rights movement makes this joke more inappropriate.
A comic who does use speech pattens effectively--and humorously--is Margaret Cho. This Asian American comic jokes about the ridiculous messages her mother leaves on the answering machine: "Don't marry a white man!" There's probably some exaggeration there, but the verbal comment is complemented by the extreme facial expressions of a disapproving Asian mother.
Cho emphasizes the stereotypes in her mother's views and facial expressions to make us reconsider our perspective of race relations. When Cho jokes, what is said and how it's said combine to make us laugh and think. Lewis's unfunny mockery, however, is an insensitive personal attack combined with a serious statement. Not funny.
In another statement, Lewis makes fun of her own weight by saying she is too fat to go to jail. Self-deprecation has been used successfully, hilariously by Chris Rock--especially when he makes fun of the fact that he spent $15,000 to get veneers on his messed up teeth. Self-deprecation is most effectively used by people who hold a higher status economically, socially, or culturally than the audience. Chris Rock is a millionaire. He is a world-recognized political comic. Karen Lewis is not superior to the audience of educators at that conference.
She is the union president but if she's not re-elected, she'll probably become a classroom teacher again. The union also makes it a point to emphasize everyone's "rank-and-file" status. We're supposed to consider her one of us. Her poor attempt at self-deprecation actually made her sound arrogant, as if she were not too fat but to important, too valuable, too powerful to go to jail. She came off as untouchable.
Finally, Karen Lewis jokes that her husband wants to beat up people who say mean things about her. John Leguizamo has gotten a great deal of criticism by some of his family members because he pokes fun at them in his comedy concerts. His father was especially upset about one joke, I remember Leguizamo saying in an interview. To make his family situations humorous, Leguizamo must exaggerate what they do. Lewis's ineffective attempt to make us chuckle at her husband's comment does not sound like an exaggeration. It came off as a matter-of-fact statement. Not funny.
At the Chicago Tribune event in September where I expressed my concerns about the CTU to Karen Lewis, she slipped in other failed attempts to be funny. She flaunted the fact that her public education taught her French. She call Brizard a liar in French. She snapped her fingers at him at one point. From what we hear on the audio recording, not everyone in the audience laughed.
Lewis needs to leave the comedy to the professionals. Just like she does not want business people to mess with education, she should not mess with comedy. She needs to be a professional CTU president that focuses on leading policy conversations--not on using playground put downs.
Now she must devote hours and hours and CTU resources (paid for by our union dues) to fix this situation instead of leading the conversation about the new contract.
She wanted the self-deprecation to lighten the mood at the conference. But education reform is serious matter to many of us. What she ended up doing is making Chicago Public Schools teachers look bad.