Jokes Aside

By Payton Aper, Blog Staff

TW/CW: TW/CW: Sexual assault, sexual predation, institutional violence against survivors

Disclaimer: Opinions and ideas shared are representative of the author unless otherwise stated. The sources cited at the bottom of this page helped to inform the author and are highly recommended reading.  

If you’re anything like me, reader, you’ve by now pored over 118 pages of sordid emails from former U of M President Mark Schlissel that feel like a massive intrusion of privacy with one hand continually flying over your mouth. Twitter user @hayz950 mentioned that they’ll “always remember” where they were when they learned former President Schlissel’s Pizza House order, and for me, that was in the Starbucks on State Street. My night of what was supposed to be homework suddenly got interrupted by a way more important issue: Mark Schlissel got fired over sending some inappropriate emails. 

My friend and I spent the rest of the night essentially on a deep dive of Umich subreddit, Twitter, and YikYak finding the best memes, theories, and reactions to the news. And yet what neither of us did, as I realized when I read a tweet by activist Jonathan Vaughn Saturday night, was consider its actual implications. Vaughn’s tweet is attached below: 

The fact that the president of our university has just been ousted as complicit in the very issue he has claimed to oppose seems like yet another blight in the University of Michigan administrative garbage fire. More importantly, it’s another reminder of just how deep rape culture, sexual harassment, and abuse of power runs at this institution. But by the time I showed up at Schlissel’s property on the night of January 15, what may very well have been an angry crowd of students had dissipated into stragglers taking selfies in front of the President’s house and someone gleefully playing taps on the tuba. As of today, however, survivors are still camping outside of Schlissel’s house. Mary Sue Coleman has taken over as interim president, but her career as president was also shrouded in controversy. So why is the vast majority of student responses right now not horror or outrage, but a response like mine- to try and find the humor in it instead? How many of us are able to look past our apathetic humor to examine other emotional reactions we may be having to this event?

Much of the University of Michigan community is using a similar response to the one it’s used for countless COVID-19 mishandlings, shutdowns, and coverups: We just joke about it, because we seriously do not want to think about what has actually happened. And there is something genuinely hilarious about reading a 64-year-old man’s proclamations of Internet love, especially when that man has continually ignored the dignity of Anderson and Philbert survivors, University affiliates, and members of the Ann Arbor community. It feels karmatic, it feels refreshing, it feels like a collaborative playlist with over 600 likes on Spotify. For me, Twitter was a safe haven for the sociopolitical events of 2020 and 2021. I could almost always count on the replies under a disturbing headline to make me laugh, retweet, and forget the feeling in my stomach just moments before. But at the end of the day, when I shut my laptop and go to bed, all the niche memes in the world cannot push back the realization that this actually happened.

According to Andrew Boyd, an activist who spoke with Teen Vogue, the difference between activist humor and dismissive humor is whether one is punching down or up (Upton-Clark). The distinction depends on whether jokes are made at the expense of those who “perpetuate oppression” or individuals being oppressed (Prussak). However, the context of our jokes in this situation is more than just the individual they are directed at. Almost all of the commentary (at least that I’ve seen) on this situation is a punch up to Schlissel’s near-million-dollar yearly salary and massive university influence, but that doesn’t mean our messages are the same. There are users on YikYak and other social media trying to unmask Individual 1, who, due to their subordinate position below the President, is in all senses a victim here. I can see the “missed connections” Tinder puns coming already.

It’s embarrassing–not just for Schlissel, but for all of us. However much humor we use, we’re still enrolled in classes here, we still went to the hockey games and football games. The University brand is starting to look like a burning pyre, and I’m not sure that humor alone is enough to distance ourselves from it. We need to take actual, collective action to protect ourselves, the things that matter, and future University students. We need to stay informed beyond our own inbox and support those, such as Jonathan Vaughn, who are already doing what needs to be done. We need to vote, and vote carefully, for the regents of University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State. Because the University of Michigan administration can say whatever they want about how they have our interests in mind, and how they “feel personally responsible for the safety of students at [sic] the University”, but their emails are speaking for themselves. 


Acker, Jordan B, et al. “Board Announces Removal of President, Appointment of Interim.” The Seal of the University of Michigan, The University of Michigan, 15 Jan. 2022, 

Acker, Jordan B, et al. “Letter to Dr. Schlissel.” Received by Dr. Schlissel, 15 Jan. 2022. 

“Communications.” The Regents of The University of Michigan, The University of Michigan, 15 Jan. 2022, 

Prussak, Micah. “Punching down: Navigating Jokes at Someone’s Expense.” GLAAD, GLAAD, 2 May 2018, 

Schreier, Haley. [@hazy950]. “I’ll always remember where I was when I learned Mark Schlissel’s Pizza House order”. Twitter, January 15 2022.

Upton-Clark, Eve. “A Brief History of Pranks as Political Activism.” Teen Vogue, Condé Nast, 29 July 2020, 

Vaughn, Jonathan. [@JVRuntoo]. “This news is fuel for my mission…” Twitter, January 15 2022.

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