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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

On wit.


I'm a fencer.

... okay, I fence.

... okay, I'm learning to fence, and after two months away from fencing club because I fell down an escalator, the first thing I did was sprain my ankle in a bout. The point is that I am a person who does this thing, so I'm going to use it as a metaphor so just listen.

I also have a personal Facebook, and one of the 'types' you're definitely going to encounter on Facebook is The Wit. You know the ones. They have a line for everything. Sometimes they're funny. Sometimes you sit there rewording a post over and over like Stephen Fry during a QI taping to account for every predictable joke Joe McVoltaire will make and you're not in the mood. At the absolute worst, you will make a very serious post -- be it happy, sad, angry, heartfelt -- and, like clockwork, they will quip at you at a time when you're not feeling it.

The day may come when you finally speak up, tell them it wasn't the time or place. Inevitably they inform you that that's just How They Are. They 'try to find the humour in everything,' or they're 'just a cheerful person,' or they 'tease everyone equally.' You may get a token apology, but eventually the onus will land on you to understand that their ill-timed quippery was actually just a sign that they are a cheerful, friendly, clever person who got caught in the bear trap of your closed-mindedness.

I mean, that's bullshit.

I have plenty of clever, witty, funny, intelligent friends, many of whom subscribe to the whole 'nothing is sacred' mentality. And yet somehow, those people are also some of the most caring, kind, inoffensive, forward-thinking people I know. But how can that be the case if being a wit means you get to say absolutely anything?

Because being a wit doesn't mean you get to say Absolutely Anything.

It's time for my fencing metaphor. I know you guys have been waiting for this. I mean, fencing and wit are the ultimate pairing. Any Wit almost certainly sees themselves as some sort of verbal Errol Flynn. They're not wrong. The two have a lot in common. It's why they end up happening simultaneously in all the best movies.

Now, three times a week, I go to a place where a bunch of people dress up funny and hit each other with swords. It's fun, it's a workout, it's a way to make friends, and you are stabbing people with swords. It's perfect.

But here's the thing. I took three months of classes before I was allowed to join my club. I took two practical exams. Even now, as a new member, I am still in training. The longer-standing members of the club pair me with people at my skill level for sparring, give me pointers as I go, and do drills with me.

Why? Because there is a difference between being a fencer and being an asshole who slings swords around.

During my Level 1 class, there was a kid who kept interrupting the instructor trying to be cute with witty comebacks. When the time came for actual strip work (that means sparring, you fiends), I was paired up with him. He got in a few hits, sure. But the majority of what he was doing was stab-stab-stabbing me in the arms and legs (which are off-target in foil fencing). Did he score points? Yeah, when you flail wildly at a target you will eventually hit something. But at the end of the bout, I won with significantly less contact and all he did was cover me in pointless bruises and make me really really dislike him.

There's a reason they make you prove you know what you're doing before you can actually become a dues-paying member who fights with the big kids. That's because flailing with a sword does not make you a fencer. No one will want to fight you because it's uninteresting and potentially dangerous, and you'll probably end up poking someone's eye out and getting kicked out anyway.

Am I saying that people should have to pass a test before they get on Facebook? Yes Of course I'm not. However, when one wants to be a Wit -- when one wants to establish their personality as The Clever One Who Makes Jokes -- that requires situational awareness.

Just as flailing wildly at someone with a sword doesn't make you a fencer, flailing wildly at someone with silliness doesn't make you a wit. You may land a few, but you will annoy people, and you will eventually poke an eye out. Like fencing, wit requires more than just a vague aptitude for your weapon: it takes the ability to see when to strike and when to hold back, a knowledge of the person opposite you, and the willingness to stop what you're doing and apologize if you go off-target and cause genuine injury. My instructor told me once that you never stop fencing until the director yells 'halt' even if you're bleeding all over the strip, but in the real world, if someone is genuinely hurt, humanity wins out over the rulebook.

Most of all, it requires the knowledge that, at the end of the day, this is for fun. And if you are having fun and the person with whom you are engaging isn't, something about the engagement needs to be reexamined.

Yeah, you're gonna run into some really super-sensitive people day to day, and there's not a lot that can be done about that. But if you pride yourself on your wit and the fact that Everything Is an Opportunity For a Joke, stop. Take a look around you. See how people are reacting. Did your friend maybe not like it when you made a snide remark on something she was happy about, even though that's 'your way' of being friendly? Did your brother not seem to understand why you felt his bad day warranted levity?

If so, you may not be a wit. You may be an asshole who slings words around.