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Humor in the time of coronavirus

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I briefly considered making a vaguely ironic Facebook event instead of writing this article, before realizing that I don’t have the contextual knowledge or tonal sensitivity to pull off such a spicy meme with any finesse. The Stanford students who created Corona on the Quad apparently did not have this realization before they made the public event, scheduled for March 7, with the following text:

“Winter quarter have you dying? Check out this killer event. Just in time for dead week ;] Come get Corona on the Quad. Let’s make this party go viral!”

I can only assume this description was a tone-deaf attempt at humor, but I also had my doubts, since humor is usually funny. I fully embrace humor, especially the absurd kind — close friends can recall some truly morbid jokes in my company as I grieved my father’s death last year. Humor is a great tool for dealing with stressful experiences and existential dread, and it’s a powerful coping mechanism, as many of us know, when it’s done well. The original description has since been removed, but its tastelessness lingers.

Corona on the Quad was no doubt meant as a corny joke, but it brought me no levity, not even a cringing smile. For the past month, I’ve been constantly worried for the lives of my Chinese relatives, whom I’ve not been able to visit due to the U.S. travel bans, all while witnessing the increasing stigma cast on Asian bodies in Western countries. Stanford students have spoken about people in their lives who have died from the virus. Many of us witness distressing cries for help on platforms like WeChat, where updates to urgent posts are often along the lines of “We no longer need donations because my grandparent just passed away.”

Was I supposed to find words like “dying,” “killer,” “dead” and “viral” in obvious connection to the global crisis punny and somehow hilarious? Absolutely. We joke about anything and everything scary or frustrating, from our collapsing mental health to COVID-19. A glimpse at the Facebook group Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees (SMFET) reveals dozens of posts by students reacting to the latest news of the outbreak.

Many of the memes criticize the Stanford administration’s delayed response. Others ruefully lament the grim uncertainty faced by students. The line between humor and terror is thin. What these memes share, and what Corona on the Quad so sorely lacks, is a basic acknowledgement of the situation’s severity. Through a combination of tact, respect and empathy, these posts prove that there are plenty of ways to create funny, relatable and relevant content without making heartless jabs at widespread suffering. I am saddened even now as I read Corona on the Quad’s insensitive description. The smiley face winks from the text, daring me to laugh at some big inside joke about death.

Death is hilarious, and one only has to look to SMFET for confirmation: Dying from sleep deprivation, dying during midterms and p-sets and Dead Week are among the most popular topics. College students make extensive use of death as metaphor for labor and discomfort. However, people generally do not die during end-of-quarter exams. As of March 9, according to the World Health Organization, more than 3,800 people have died from the virus, the majority of them in China. We may be able to laugh at death from an abstracted distance, but up close, it’s a lot harder. 

Many SMFET members give the impression of never taking anything seriously. My own Facebook activities leave a trail of memes, shitposts, and general irreverence. While I wholeheartedly believe in the healing power of jokes even in dire times (especially in dire times), humor and satire only go so far without understanding and empathy. 

Some people might think I’m overreacting (It’s just a joke!). Others might wish for everything coronavirus-related to blow over (and believe me, so do I). I wish the event creators had turned their poorly phrased joke into a platform for productive discussion instead of cowering behind the comment-disabling feature. I can only accept the reality that jokes — insightful or crass, small or weighty, whimsical or resembling microaggression — will keep pouring from Stanford students as our surroundings threaten to turn hysterical. We will continue to channel our anxiety through humor, the cheapest antidepressant for kids with an internet connection, all while the greatest health risks fall on vulnerable community members and our custodial staff. 

When I last checked, attendees of Corona on the Quad numbered well below 150, but the event’s limited impact does not excuse its cruelty. I’m not here to attack the students who made the event. I’m not even here to talk about the historical and global complexities of an apathetic American gaze turned on foreign suffering. I don’t believe that the creators harbored any more malice than their event had humor, but I also want to acknowledge the real pain caused by their callous words, however carelessly crafted or well-intended. 

Many shared my reaction of anger and hurt, but we shouldn’t turn our anguish into personal attack. We have better things to do: taking care of ourselves, talking to loved ones and making memes that are actually good. I am not suggesting an end to jokes about coronavirus. If anything, we’ll need all the humor we can gather to face the stressful times ahead. Memes, when made with intention and care, provide an accessible medium for processing information and engaging in dialogue. For some of us, there is no better language than laughter. But as you carefully compose your next hot take on some combination of college life and current events, I urge you to look around and see for a second who can afford to laugh.

Contact Cathy Yang at cyang7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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