Hello My Imaginary Friends,
When I was in high school, I wanted to be funny. I looked through the school and public library for books on humour. I thought that there had to be a how-to book on stand-up comedy and jokes. If such a thing existed, I never found it. There are now countless youtube tutorials, psychological texts, and how-to blogs.
“So… if you put funny teeth in your mouth and jump around like an idiot, that is considered funny!”– Data (Star Trek The Next Generation “The Outrageous Okona”)
Let’s just say I understand where Data was coming from.
The most common way to make people laugh is to surprise them. This could be with a twist pun (How is a doctor like a rock? They’re both Sedimental.), an absurd ending (How is a doctor like a rock? You want neither to get stuck in your shoes.), or a shocking/macabre ending (How is a doctor like a rock? In Alabama, both will kill a pregnant girl.)
These rely on you understanding certain cultural and linguistic markers. If you didn’t know that sediment is often made of rocks and that it sounds like sentimental, or a rock hurts when it’s stuck in your shoe, or that Alabama is trying to pass draconic abortion laws, the jokes would be meaningless.
Dangers of a Joke
Here’s where things get uncomfortable and where I’ve gotten in trouble.
Jokes matter. They are not always frivolous fun. They are often tools used to reinforce and propagate stereotypes.
Stereotype: A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.– Oxford English Dictionary
When you share or make a joke that includes a negative stereotype, you are effectively approving it and introducing it to others.
Let’s be clear here, laughing at these jokes does not make you a bad person. We’ve all laughed at a dumb blonde joke or something like them. Sharing, telling, or otherwise disseminating this joke is the problem.
Often it’s not until you think about the joke and why it’s funny that you realize that it’s portraying someone in a negative way.
Think before you share.
Challenging a joke
This is the part that I haven’t figured out. When I mention the negative effects of jokes or point out the detrimental aspects, I usually get yelled at.
People are extremely defensive of their humour, going to great lengths to defend it and its premise. I once commented, on Facebook, about how horrifying a joke about a grandmother slipping birth control pills in her granddaughter’s food was and I was attacked for not having a sense of humour or understanding what it’s like to be young.
In person, I’ve called out jokes and gotten groans or “come on man, it’s just a joke.” I once almost got into a fist fight over someone using Jew as the punchline for a joke about being thrifty.
Recently, I commented on how I didn’t think a joke was funny because of the stereotype and was treated to a series of history lessons, personal stories about how the stereotype is true, and was then accused of being too sensitive.
I can’t give you a good way of dealing with it. If I find it, I’ll update this post, but for the moment know that people are extremely defensive about their jokes and humour. Be careful not to confront the wrong people in person and be warned it might lose you friends online.
Think critically about your humour, challenge your own preconceptions, and try to not encourage negative stereotypes.
If you confront people about their humour, be careful.
Remember, the kids of antivaxxers and jokes about Dorian Gray never get old.