A bad joke

I spend a fair amount of time hanging out with cops and corrections officers. I am well aware that there is a dark humor that surrounds those who are often dealign with crisis, viewing trauma, and encountering some of the most challenging and tragic circumstances of our society. I don’t fault officers for diffusing a tense situation with a joke that others might consider to be inappropriate. I know that they have a tough job and that there are times when you have to blow off a bit of steam. I understand that there are moments when if you can’t find a way to laugh, you might end up crying - or worse you might bottle up your emotions so deeply that they begin to destroy you.

So I’ve heard some of the worst jokes about tragedy.

But the dark humor of cops is shared in a guarded setting. If you hear those jokes, it is a sign that you are trusted. They don’t get told in public press conferences or in social settings. You don’t hear those kinds of jokes very much at all if you aren’t with the officers in the real moments of their service lives. They get told in the briefing room and the break room and the locker room. They don’t get told on the occasions where everyone is wearing their dress uniform.

And the cops I know don’t engage victims and potential victims in their jokes.

This week our Governor and other state officials announced a campaign that at first I thought was a joke - a joke of the worst taste. “Meth. We’re on it.” is now a trademarked slogan of our state. It is the core of a half-million dollar advertising campaign. And yesterday, I was reminded of another old joke as our governor went before the press to defend the campaign and its slogan.

The old joke is this one: “When they’re running you out of town, pick up a baton and pretend you’re leading the parade.”

Governor Noem clearly is leading the parade this week. She is defending the slogan and the campaign that has created an overwhelmingly negative reaction on social media and is being negatively covered by national media from television networks to the Washington Post. She dug out another old trope: “Any publicity is good publicity.”

It appears that they didn’t use any professional educators, teachers of teens, or adolescent psychologists in planning their ad campaign. They didn’t even use a South Dakota advertising firm. They went to Minnesota to find an ad agency that had the capacity to take a major crisis in our state and turn it into a giant dark joke for the nation to laugh at.

Here is the real problem: in our state the use of methamphetamines among 12 to 17 year olds is twice the national average. We - and that is the entire state - have a real crisis. I don’t need the Governor to explain to me the double meaning of the slogan. Everyone in South Dakota is affected by the meth crisis. Every community is impacted. The future of our state is at risk because of this highly addictive, highly dangerous substance.

At the same time, the adolescents in our state - including many who have never tried meth - are seeking to being taken seriously. You don’t connect with those who are feeling alienated and disconnected by making them think you are making fun of them. And if you are an adolescent who is experiencing the terrible lows that follow having consumed a dose of meth, watching television ads of people who clearly have never experienced what you have claiming to know what you are going through is a joke of the cruelest kind. “You say you understand, but you don’t have a clue!”

Our youth look to us for honesty and acceptance. When they think we’re making fun of them, the relationship is broken.

Every educator knows this. Every adult who works with youth should know this.

Extreme narcissism seems to be popular in government these days. And our Governor likes to associate with our very narcissistic President. But when the governor says to the teens of our state, “Your worst problems are really about me, not about you,” our problems are even deeper than the harmful chemicals that are sold for profit to unsuspecting preteen children.

But it is even worse.

The dark humor I hear from cops and corrections officers are an acknowledgment that they have encountered problems that cannot be solved. Part of the reason you joke off the terrible crime seen you’ve just been called to investigate, part of the reason that you make jokes about the smell of the recovery of a body that has been decomposing for weeks, is that you can’t reverse the tragedy. You’ve come face to face with something that can’t be “solved.” The joke is an admission that thee is real tragedy and pain and loss in the world and that you can’t stop it. You will have to go out to another tragic car accident. You will have to attend to another gunshot death. You will have to break devastating news to a family again and again. These things do not go away. The humor is a way of rising above the unsolvable problems of society.

Making our meth crisis into a joke is akin to saying that we don’t know how to solve our problem.

Here is the truth. South Dakota needs millions of dollars for methamphetamine treatment clinics. We need in-patient facilities and programs staffed with highly-trained addiction recovery professionals. The cost of those facilities and programs will be high. The half million dollars spent on advertising isn’t enough to provide what is needed. But a half million dollars would make a difference. Running the ad campaign before we have solutions in place is simply bad timing.

They might as well have made the slogan, “We know we’ve got a problem, and we don’t have a clue how to solve it.”

A half million dollars could have been invested in a site study and plans for a west river addiction treatment center. We would have gotten more value from it than an ad campaign that has made us, once again, the laughing stock of the nation.

I’m even getting into the dark humor. I saw a meme yesterday that I’ve been passing on.

South Dakota.
If we were any higher we’d be North Dakota.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!