The Abuse of Laughter

People laugh at anything and everything these days, and they expect you to laugh along. In this age of utter cynicism, little is sacred, little is off-limits from humor, little is safe from the cultural tide of callous abuse. What’s worse: you laugh along. You may not want to, but you do.

Laughter is a beautiful thing—until it meets abuse. Like a spoonful of sugar with a stab in the back, it attempts to cover for abuse. Or like pouring salt in the wound, it can be the abuse itself. “Come on, it’s just a joke,” say abusers, as they mock you to the core, as they target any trace of sensitivity—read: humanity—for utter ridicule.

As a friend says, “cruel humor is the humor of sociopaths.” Any boundary set by another, any boundary placed on humor, will be broken. And to them, that’s what makes it funny.

Far from “just jokes,” this is a serious social problem. As psychologist Lundy Bancroft writes, “[H]umor is . . . . one of the powerful ways a culture passes on its values.” What does this say about a culture in which, from the most personal level to the mass one, abuse is merited funny; in which there exists so-called “gay jokes” and “rape jokes” and “race jokes”; in which humor is rated congruently with the scale of oppression or atrocity it invokes?

Not laughing is an act of protest. Some things are funny, of course, and some things are absolutelynot. Boundaries do exist and they must be respected. Abusers live to breach them, using humor as one vehicle, one excuse. They want us to laugh along. With most everyone else joining in, it can be hard not to. But we mustn’t; we can’t give in. We may feel alone as the tide washes over us, but we’re not: we share the turbulence with all those whom the jokes are made at the expense of, the ones whose boundaries are under siege.

I can hear the chorus of apologists now, red-faced and shouting their mantra: “politically correct, politically correct, politically correct.”

This sentiment is not new to me. For my first group of so-called radical friends, “P.C.” was enemy number one. They were against the state, the authorities, and, above all, anyone who put a damper on their fun.

These friends just wanted a laugh. So they called African-Americans “niggers” and tattooed swastikas on their arms. So they called women “sluts” and watched torture porn. So they called lesbians and gays “faggots” and formed a punk band specifically to mock the suicide of a local 15-year-old gay boy.

All this was done in the name of irony and shock value, which is, as one of these friends put it, the point of being radical.

If it makes me politically correct to say out loud that this is just wrong, that this is in fact fucking sick, so be it. But I’m not concerned with being “correct.” I care about stopping injustice, whatever form it comes in. I am politically opposed, never mind correct, to these heartless attacks on the physical and emotional boundaries of others.

Those so quick to make accusations of “P.C.” rarely bother to learn what it is they’re saying. It has a history, notes Sheila Jeffreys: In the 1980s and ‘90s, “the feminist and anti-racist policies that had been adopted by education authorities and universities in the UK and the USA were being denounced as ‘political correctness’. The term ‘politically correct’ was a term of abuse used automatically and unthinkingly by many, whenever challenges were raised to practices which entrenched the rights and interests of rich white men.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? All pretenses of joke aside, abusers have one basic aim: to preserve the existing hierarchy which allows them to abuse in the first place. With iron boots already pressing down on the necks of the oppressed, humor serves as but one tool to that end.

The pursuit of irony makes for sad, miserable, ugly lives. Those who grasp for it do so in the absence of any real human emotion and human relationship. This is the ultimate irony: their hearts and minds are too dull to participate in the world without pretending it is one long joke.

“Lighten up,” they say. We all want to think of ourselves as good people, even if we have to convince ourselves that being abusive is not a disqualifier. As social beings, it hurts to be told we’ve done wrong, that we’ve acted unacceptably, even though we may know deep in our bones that it is true: the joke went too far.

In his book, The Heart of Whiteness, Robert Jensen recounts the story of a friend looking for some sympathy after being called out for a racist joke. The friend is wary to accept responsibility and seems to ask for advice only in the hope of strokes to his bruised ego. Writes Jensen: “Before he even tells me the joke, the answer is obvious: of course the joke is racist. He understands that because he knows enough to form the question. Though he is struggling to understand why, his gut tells him it is a racist joke. At some level he knows that he told a racist joke to a group of white people. Why is he asking me? Is it the hope that I’ll tell him it wasn’t so bad after all? Or does he need someone to confirm what he knows in his gut and tell him that he is still a good person?”

Humor is worthless without an audience. Like children testing their parents, one person can crack jokes all day long, but unless there others around, and unless these others are willing to laugh, he’ll soon bore of talking to himself.

There would be no audience to abusive humor if our culture as a whole wasn’t based on abuse. But it is; it manufactures and encourages sociopathy. To protect the boundaries of individuals, we need to dismantle the dominant culture. We need to dismantle the oppressions that become the fare of laughter.

Let us now deprive the cruel of an audience and deprive the culture that supports them of its capacity to exist. Let us insist that, yes, it is so bad after all and, no, they are not good people. Let us laugh when it is right to do so and stand firmly when it is wrong.

When abuse is eradicated, when the sacred is defended, when boundaries are protected absolutely, when justice is wrought, we can look to the abusers writhing in their lack of joke material and ask: Who’s laughing now?