Joking Matters

One of my thesis students this year, Jen, is working in the area of humor and conflict resolution. It reminded me of an old post about jokes being forms of inclusion and exclusion:

Three jokes:
Question: Why was Helen Keller such a bad driver?

Answer: Because she was a woman.

Question: What is great about having Alzheimer's on Easter?

Answer: You can hide the eggs and look for them.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world.

Those who know binary and those who don't.
Why are jokes both wonderful and so potentially hurtful?

Ted Cohen in his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters sheds some light on the dual nature of jokes by examining the structural features of the joke. Specifically, Cohen notes that most jokes are highly compressed which demands that the listener fill in the background assumptions, values, and beliefs that make the joke work. If the listener cannot fill in this background he doesn’t “get it” and the joke fails to produce spontaneous laughter. Curiously, if you don’t “get” a joke no amount of post-joke explaining, filling in the background you were supposed to produce on your own, makes the joke suddenly funny to you. You can’t explain a joke into being funny. You either get it, or you don’t.

The point for Cohen is that this feature of a joke—its demand for you to supply the background information—makes jokes forms of community building. As Cohen notes:
…you need to begin with an implicit acknowledgment of a shared background, a background of awareness that you both are already in possession of and bring to the joke. This is the foundation of intimacy that will develop if your joke succeeds, and the hearer then also joins you in a shared response to the joke. And just what is this intimacy? It is the shared sense of those in a community. The members know that they are joined there by one another…When we laugh at the same thing, that is a very special occasion. It is already noteworthy that we laugh at all, at anything, and that we laugh all alone. That we do it together is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realization of a desperate hope. It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.
In short, when someone likes our jokes we’ve found a kindred spirit, someone who sees the world like we do. This is the joy of laughter and humor.

But there is a dark side here as well. This very feature of jokes makes them potentially harmful and forms of exclusion.

Take, for example, the three jokes given above. All three are compressed and require you to fill in backgrounds and stereotypes. For example, the Helen Keller joke works only if you share a stereotype about women drivers. The binary joke only works if you know that 10 in binary code is equal to 2 in our base ten system. Those shared stereotypes and knowledge make the jokes work.

But what if you don't know that 10 in binary is equal to 2 in base ten? Does my explaining this to you make you laugh? No. In fact, if you have to have a joke explained to you it only intensifies your feeling of exclusion. Getting it or not getting it immediately marks insiders and outsiders. No amount of post-joke explanation will offset that initial realization that you were "too stupid" to be on "the inside" of the joke's borders.

Further, if the inside of a joke is a stereotype then the joke doubles the wound. Many will have found the Helen Keller joke offensive for just this reason. You are excluded by the joke and offended by the negative stereotype that functions as the mechanism of exclusion.

How about the Alzheimer's joke? Is it funny? It all depends upon who makes the joke. If a person suffering from Alzheimer's tells the joke then we see the joke as funny, as a form of dark humor and self-deprecation. An Alzheimer's patient has a right to tell this joke because she is an insider to the world of the joke. Told by an outsider the joke can be cruel and mean. It's a matter of insiders versus outsiders.

In sum, jokes are boundaries. Jokes mark off a shared space. A space of shared attitudes and experiences. A joke is compressed because it functions as a kind of test. Do you share my view of the world? Are you with me? Are you an insider or an outsider? This facet of jokes--tests of inclusion--is why jokes are both wonderful and wounding. They are wonderful when they are shared. But jokes wound when they exclude people and when they deploy toxic stereotypes. Further, jokes become contested when outsiders attempt to enter the space (i.e., tell the joke) before gaining the consent of the insiders. This is why the ethnicity of a person telling an ethnic joke is vital to understanding the nature and function of the joke.

Jokes are complex and morally treacherous. They bring us together and force us apart. They embrace and exclude.

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7 thoughts on “Joking Matters”

  1. One of my Jewish friends in school was a collector of Jew jokes, pretty much all of which played on the stereotype of Jews as miserly or greedy.  Richard Pryor famously tried to reclaim "nigger" in his comic acts.  Both were trying to subvert the boundary-setting function of jokes.

    Pryor eventually relented because he realized that his being tough in standing up to the man in the USA probably hurt --- and not just emotionally --- his brothers and sisters in Africa.  Our ability to laugh at some jokes (such as the Hellen Keller and Alzheimer's jokes) often comes from insulation --- a comforting distance from the worst of the conflict that arises from the stereotype or that is inherent in the boundary-drawing.  Pryor couldn't maintain his comfort after being exposed to some of the sad realities of colonial exploitation in Africa.

  2. Readers may enjoy Tim Minchin's very funny, very clever and very catchy take on the language of exlcusion - well worth six minutes of your time, IMHO...

  3. Laughed at two out of three and that's pretty good. The fact that I don't know nothin 'bout birthing babies or the binary system certainly makes me an outsider and I'm really hurt by that except that math was never my favorite subject. However, binary 10 and I seem to have a natural affinity for some reason, but two be totally honest it's no joking matter.

  4. I love humor - I think without life is not worth living. That's my opinion.

    It's seriously hard to offend me with any humor but I do see how it is a dividing line for people. I am always pushing that line to get people to 'lighten up'...and laugh a little!


  5. "a comforting distance from the worst of the conflict..."
    So very true - I have a son who is mentally ill and within the family we sometimes use "dark humor" - our feeling is that without dark humor, sometimes it is just dark. But I am uncomfortable with those who joke about mental illness from their comfortable distance from its realities

  6. As one who has offended and entertained with humor for decades, this is enlightening.  I just posted a comment of a Facebook post that, if people didn't know I was half-Chinese, it would have been perceived as "racist" (as it was pointed out to me... sigh). 

  7. There is one type of humor that is all-inclusive. Yet it is seen as crude, childish and offensive to many.  It draws no distinctions from one class, race, gender or sexual preference from another, and to argue that it is divisive would be foolish.  I speak of the poop joke.  It is an outlier from all of your analysis and in fact is derided because of its 'lowest common denominator' status.  Why?

    Do people not want to be reminded of the fact that we are disgusting beings which produce things we find disgusting on a daily basis?  Bathroom habits aside, it is the nature of our spirit.  Defecation is a dust to dust moment and perhaps some people do not like to be reminded of that fact.

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