(or Discussing Your Mama’s Unfortunate Weight Problem)
Everybody loves a good joke. It begins with the kids’ knock-knock jokes and leads to all sorts of bathroom humour in your teens. Later something walks into a bar, and then your grandpa spins a yarn about when he was your age. Laughter is as much a part of human life as breathing.
Not everyone has the same sense of humour, however. We absorb much of our tastes from our families and our communities. We are steeped in our national cultures. And we now participate in a growing global culture spawned from the Internet generation. That’s a lot of influences and they don’t always play well together.
With the new ideas, come the old prejudices, superstitions and outright lies. There is a direct line from misogynistic bronze age religions to dumb blonde jokes. Centuries of slavery and a resentment against immigrants give us our modern stereotypes. It can only be hatred and ignorance that turns a few lines of so-called sacred texts into an organized campaign of violence. There is nothing funny about people who are denied basic human rights.
Sometimes the humour is gross or blatantly hostile. This is the easiest kind to dismiss or rebuke. You can quickly rouse an army against an obvious racist or homophobe.
More often, however, the hurt is subtle and goes unchallenged. An ad for potatoes casts a man with an Irish accent. Why? Because people associate the Irish with potatoes and whiskey, not with literature or music. That excellent blog post couldn’t have been written by a mere teenager. A man asks, “Excuse me, ma’am. Where is the doctor?”
When we belittle a different race, we betray our latent xenophobia. When we demean a woman, it is because we fear her power and need to control her. When we lampoon the ill, we recognize our own vulnerability. When we mock our children, it is because we fear to grow old.
In its worst incarnations, humour can be derisive and intentionally harmful. Worse still, it can bond together groups with hateful ideologies. It can exclude, diminish, and bully.
So why does this joking persist, even among those who know they’re wrong?
Because it is wrong. That is the power and paradox of comedy. It is why you will take verbal abuse from your best friend. It is why the guy who slips on the banana peel is a figure of ridicule instead of concern. Humour is a tool we use to separate ourselves from our pain and fear.
So should we banish all humour from polite society? Of course not. Like with all tools, it is the intent of the user that defines whether it is to be a virtue or vice.
Laughter also has the power to heal. It can give you a new perspective on yourself and others. A fear shared with others will always make it less scary. Satire will open doors that a direct attack would slam shut. Humour binds us together to make friends out of strangers.
So whether you should be offended or not ultimately depends on how much you trust someone’s intent. We all make poor choices on occasion, so don’t be quick to judge another person’s off-colour remark.
It might be malice; or it might be poor social skills, a defense mechanism, or a simple mistake. To jump to conclusions is to fall into the trap of cynicism.
And remember; If you can’t take a joke, you are the joke.