Problematic

They had the perfect society, but there was just one problem: Someone told a joke.

I wrote this short story a number of years ago but never published it anywhere, but the whole brouhaha over Dave Chappelle made me think of it, so here it is. Hope you enjoy it… but if you don’t, whatever. Free story.


The attacker's name was Lake. Age sixteen. Lake wore a smug smirk like this was all a game. Teenagers were expected to rebel, but in safer ways, like listening to music that was objectively awful. Not by embracing the worst in humanity. It was horrible for someone so young to be so filled with hate, but even worse was that Caelan was certain Lake wasn't a lone wolf. More attacks were coming.

They held Lake in a very simple gray room, undecorated except for the diversity monitor on the wall that alerted them when diversity levels in the building were getting dangerously low. Lake sat in a metal chair at a metal table -- both gray as well. It was the same color as Caelan's tunic -- the color pretty much everyone wore. Gray was universally considered the least problematic color. Almost nothing offensive about it. While both white and black were certainly out of the question, the mix of them was very banal.

"I am a trained justice officer, so I'm disengaging the SSS," Caelan informed Lake as Caelen sat down at the table across from them. "Not that you care about the Safe Speech System, considering what you just did. Do you know that you sent four to the hospital?"

Lake shrugged. "I didn't do anything to anyone."

Lake was also in gray, but a lighter gray. In a way, Lake sort of reminded Caelan of someone they once knew, except for that evil smile. Caelan noted that Lake had adjusted their tunic to fit more tightly, so one could almost make out the outlines of their slender body -- another sort of rebellion. But Caelan wouldn't use that information to make assumptions about Lake's gender. To make such assumptions could be offensive, so Caelan never did. In fact, to make any assumptions on gender or use gendered pronouns had been illegal for over a decade.

Of course, someone like Lake did not care about the feelings of others. This was the modus operandi of those who wished to spread pain and terror: do great harm and then pretend it wasn't their fault.

"We have you on video," Caelan stated. "We know exactly what you did."

In defiance of all that was decent and civilized, Lake continued to smile. Joy was not illegal, but it certainly was problematic. While others were out there suffering from hate and discrimination, what sort of sociopath could smile for even a moment? "So you heard it, then?" Lake asked.

Caelan pushed the anger down, but some of it still bubbled into their voice. "I heard it. Everyone around you heard it. How dare you."

Lake shrugged. "It was just a joke."

Caelan slammed their fists on the metal table. "Just a joke?! How could anyone possibly think a joke is ever okay?" Caelan's heart was pounding. They were never more alive than when they were lecturing scum like Lake. "Jokes are about mocking. Jokes are about saying some standard is correct and tearing down with ridicule anything that doesn't match that standard. Jokes are violence used to castigate and destroy minorities and other vulnerable people. And you just unleashed it on everyone around you without the slightest warning!"

Caelan could see the horrendous footage in their mind. Lake just started speaking on a crowded street without even trying to engage the Safe Speech System. Before someone spoke, their SSS would transmit the content of the speech to the SSS on everyone nearby. Everyone’s SSS was programmed with all the topics that made them uncomfortable or could trigger bad memories or things they just generally found offensive. If there was any overlap with the content in the proposed speech, the intended speaker would have their speech denied and no one would get harmed.

But it only worked when people wanted to avoid harming others.

"I thought it was a funny joke," Lake said defensively as they twirled a lock of brown hair in their finger. Lake had a number of habits that less enlightened people might call "feminine." Perhaps they saw themselves as being a certain gender. Caelan personally rejected all gender stereotypes, and wasn't even certain of their own gender. It was better that way.

With trembling hands, Caelan set a piece of paper on the table on which they had transcribed the joke. Caelan braced themselves and read it aloud. "How many justice officers does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

"None!" Lake completed the joke, giggling. "Because if you point out that a light bulb needs changing, they'll tell you you're being offensive to blind people." Lake laughed some more having finished the appropriately named "punchline."

Caelan ripped the piece of paper in two. "How can you laugh at that?! How do you not understand how horrible it is?"

Lake's awful smile remained. "You didn't find it funny?"

Caelan had to make an effort to restrain themselves. They took a deep breath. "Of course you don't mention light bulbs in case a blind person might hear you. Everyone knows this, and no one -- other than a sociopath -- would think the suffering a blind person goes through is funny."

Lake rolled their eyes. "That's not what the joke is about. You just don't like it because it's making fun of you."

Caelan gripped the table so tight his hand hurt. "Mocking me mocks my mission which mocks all the suffering we try to prevent. Have you not heard about racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the damage it does? Do you not care about this? Do you not understand the carnage we are trying to hold back?"

It had been a daily battle. The outward appearance was of a loving, caring society. Out in the streets, no one ever spoke. Everyone, clad in gray, walked by each other not making eye contact but instead staring down at their feet. It warmed Caelan's heart to know that everyone was this studious about making sure they could do nothing offensive or threatening.

But it wasn't enough. Caelan had seen the stats. Despite all they had done to enforce basic decency, despite the sacrifices and lives lost, depression and other mental health problems were increasing. Suicide was climbing. People were somehow still getting offended. And if Caelan didn't stop those last few offenders like Lake, all of society could perish.

"We have been hearing more rumors of jokes being told, and people aren't just making them up independently. You have a source for these jokes, and it needs to be eradicated. This one joke of yours sent four people to the nearest psychiatric clinic."

Lake rolled their eyes again. "I still don't get what their problem was."

"You assaulted them with offensive speech they didn't expect!" Caelan shouted. "And they did what any sensitive human being would do: Thought of all the pain it could have caused and then curled into a ball and started crying."

Lake sighed. "They need to lighten up."

Caelan saw red -- a very offensive color. But there was nothing they could do to stop it. Suddenly Caelan was on their feet, their hand shooting out and striking Lake on the side of their face. The things Caelan wanted to do to her, but Caelan got a grip on themselves, as Lake finally started to look scared.

"How dare you!" Caelan growled, still standing over Lake. "For centuries people spat in the faces of minority groups or anyone different, laughed at all their pain, and you say, 'Lighten up'? How do you even live with your disgusting self? Now where did you hear the joke?"

Lake rubbed their red cheek. "I made it up."

Caelan slowly sat down, keeping their eyes on Lake, though now Lake was trying to avoid Caelan's gaze. "Are you really this suicidal? Do you think you'll survive sensitivity training?"

A tear glided down Lake's cheek. Tears were not problematic. "I just think it would be nice to once in a while hear some laughter."

"Not while I'm around," Caelan growled. "Last chance for mercy: Where did you hear that joke?"

* * * *

Caelan and the other justice officers approached the abandoned theater with guns in hand. Gunshots, of course, could be a scarring and traumatic trigger for many, but they couldn't send out a trigger alert without giving themselves away. Sometimes they had to ignore the sensitivity of others for the greater good.

As they came near the building, Caelan could hear it. That rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm producing the sound that had attacked the disadvantaged and subjugated throughout the ages. There was no excuse for laughter. It was always at someone's expense. It was nothing but pure violence. Caelan and the other officers readied their weapons to meet it in kind.

Caelan kicked in the door and burst into the room with the others following, and was immediately struck with something in the face. Caelan felt something soft and wet and then couldn't see. For a moment, Caelan thought they had been shot, but there was no pain. Caelan touched their face and felt something thin and metallic. They knocked it to the ground and wiped their eyes so they could see again. What lay at their feet was a pie pan.

Caelan looked to the others. They had all been hit with some sort of cream pie as well, struck in the chest or stomach. Only Caelan had caught it straight in the face.

The sound of laughter continued, but Caelan could see the source: a speaker on a table. And in front of the officers was some sort of metal catapult that had launched the pies upon their entering. This was all a setup, yet another joke, though Caelan couldn't comprehend what was funny about it. Caelan and the others were justice officers. They spent their whole lives protecting the feelings and well-being of all people. They were the lone sentinels protecting the world from chaos and violence. How would hitting them in the face with a pie be funny?

And then Caelan spotted it. A camera. This was being recorded. Lake had sacrificed themselves just for the sake of setting up Caelan and his fellow officers for this "joke." And the result was going to be shared and laughed at by hundreds. Maybe thousands if they didn't stop it right away.

Of course, the internet was monitored against offensive speech so there was no way the video could be posted online. But there was nothing to stop people from sharing it person to person. They would enjoy this sick prank, and more people would be emboldened to ignore the feelings of others and engage in mocking as well. And the laughter would spread, as would the targets of it. Once again, minorities would be mocked. Hatred would feed until all the horrors of the past returned, horrors such as lynching, genocide, and capitalism. And at the heart of it would be this video of Caelan getting hit in the face with a pie. Caelan could just imagine Lake's smug smirk as she learned of her success.

No. Caelan would not let that happen. Caelan saw a small antenna connected to the camera. Whoever had made the recording couldn't be far.

"Containment!" Caelan shrieked as they activated the thermos-sized device and placed it on the ground.

The other officers reacted in horror, scrambling to the device and desperately trying to deactivate it. But there was nothing that could stop a containment device once it was turned on. And if they were as devoted as Caelan to the cause of saving others, they wouldn't have tried.

The device sent out a signal to anyone nearby who found incineration offensive to not look out the window. Of course, many of those people would be in the one-kilometer blast radius, but their trauma would be brief. Caelan's own trigger warning system went off -- Caelan themselves had once lost someone they cared about to such a device. Still, they were not traumatized. All they felt was a great sense of pride and duty. The perpetrators of this prank and their illegal footage would in moments be destroyed, and the world would once again be safe.

Perhaps it seemed extreme, but Caelan knew it was the right choice. When the evil of offensive jokes was ended, the world would have its perfect society. Caelan wouldn't live to see it, but they knew it would exist one day. And though Caelan didn't believe in an afterlife, they felt that in a way this noble sacrifice was uniting them with others who had been lost in this same fight.

The last thing Caelan felt before the containment device erupted and burnt them to ashes was joy. And there was nothing problematic about it.