Humor or Bullying?

Posted on 2019 January 6

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humor or bullying noclowns-modern

I was chatting with a friend who was a bit tense over a possible love interest. Trying to get him to laugh, I made a raunchy comment about the woman — couched in terms that made fun of me, not her, but still risqué — and he got upset. Oops.

Later he told me he didn’t like jokes that were at someone else’s expense. I thought about that, and it struck me that all jokes are at someone’s expense. He also suggested that jokes such as mine might be akin to bullying. I thought about that, too.

Nearly all jokes make fun of someone with the power to harm us. A stuffy bureaucrat who slips on a banana peel; a criminal who tries to light an explosive but instead gives himself a hot foot; a mean boss who berates his subordinates, then makes a grand exit … into the closet. The point of these gags is to deflate the power, and sometimes the pretensions, of threatening people. Our laughter amounts to a burst of released tension.

Don’t believe me? Think of any joke, and if you look carefully, you’ll find there’s someone in there who gets put down.

“I found one! It’s a joke about a snail!” Yes, I know that gag: One day, a guy steps outside and finds a snail on the front porch. He picks it up and throws it into the garden. Two years later, the guy steps outside and finds the snail again on the porch. The snail says, “What the hell was that about?!?”

The snail speaks like a person; for purposes of the joke, it is a person. In this case, the snail is someone who can’t be stopped (scary). Except it took the snail two years to do it (funny).

So the trick sometimes is to find the “person” in the joke, even if it’s an animal or inanimate. The joke gets a laugh because it pulls the rug out from under that “person” at the punch line.

Sometimes we make fun of ourselves to reassure others that we don’t think we’re above them: “Yes, I won the Mega-Millions lottery — finally I can buy new tires!”

But can a joke be used as a bullying tactic? A schoolyard tough will make fun of the weak kids, and his buddies might laugh, but everyone else squirms. How can a joke be amusing to them and not to the rest of us? Most people don’t find it funny to torment those with no power. The bully, on the other hand, privately doubts he has any status — even compared to the weakest kids — so he aims his dark humor at nobodies in a warped attempt to pull them down to his self-perceived position at the bottom of the heap. Thus, only the bully thinks it’s funny.

How can we tell when someone is using humor to bully another? The key is power: if the object of ridicule has more than we do, the humorist pulls the powerful one down to our level. If the ridiculed has no power, the joker is “piling it on”, adding insult to injury, and that qualifies as bullying.

It’s not bullying if the joke merely offends someone. Humor is speech, and speech — even annoying speech — is and ought to be protected, as it often raises a protest against unbridled power. The offended person may simply be the wrong audience, perhaps even the target of the quip. He or she would be wise to take the joke in stride, to show humility: “Yeah, I might have done that,” grinning sheepishly. (Well played, target!)

However you find it, nearly all humor sets someone up for deflation. This is the dark truth behind our giggles: we’re all being cruel when we tell jokes. But it’s cruelty that evens out social relationships. Audiences laugh because they share the humorist’s uneasiness with those who loom over us.

The only jokes that don’t make fun of people are puns. They make fun of language. And nobody laughs — they groan.

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