WAMC News
12:50 pm
Sat March 16, 2013

Humor in the media; hurftul or helpful?

Studies have shown that laughter is good for your health, but what about when it comes at the expense of others.

At the Academy Awards last month, host Seth MacFarlane tried to joke his way into Academy stardom. But some people found his humor, most of which targeted groups such as women and minorities, more offensive than funny.

Experts warn that while not everyone finds the same jokes funny, there are some jokes that shouldn’t be told at all. Not only can they be offensive; they can actually promote violence and hostile feelings. Professor of Sociology at Springfield College, Susan Joel, has studied the effects humor can have.

A reveler laughs at the annual Gay Pride Parade in 2011 on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, Canada.
Credit Wikimedia Commons/Zakir Suleman

“There’s been quite a few research projects recently that have found that one of the things that humor does, especially jokes against women, is that it increases the  tolerance for hostile feelings and discrimination against women."

"Humor that targets women is also used as kind of a bonding experience for men to make them feel connected to each other. Humor at the expense of women has also been shown to desensitize men to issues such as rape, so for example men are more likely to see sexist incidents as erotic, while women would see them as hostile, and that divergence increases after hearing or looking at humor that targets women in sexist ways."

But women aren’t the only ones who suffer at the expense of insensitive jokes; other minority groups are just as vulnerable. And the role they play in being the butt of a joke can reflect how society views minorities in general. Social Media Coordinator for the Media Education Foundation Bill Dwight has also studied the effects and reflections of humor in society.

“It’s more symptomatic, it’s not necessarily the cause of oppression, but it certainly is a reinforcement tool for oppression. So there are a lot of people who would say, you know, ‘Get over it, it’s just a joke,’ and you hear that a lot. ‘It’s just a joke, don’t be so PC.’ Nothing’s just a joke, and it’s certainly more than that. And it’s what I would ask people to do is just ask people to be consider of where this is coming from, ask yourselves ‘What is it about this particular joke that we find funny, and why do we find it funny? What does it say about us as a culture?’”

And Susan Joel thinks that one aspect of society that’s been around almost as long as humor is discrimination.

"One of the things that all of that kind of humor does is it decreases people’s sensitivity toward discrimination. It has been called a releaser of prejudice; it can give people a sense of permission to engage in that kind of behavior.”

But, humor can be acceptable and effective when used in the right context or aimed at the right people. Again, Bill Dwight.

“It is a leveler, if you’re making fun of someone who has power over you, it’s a way of making them, because jokes by and large are equalizers, or they’re meant to diminish whomever you’re talking about, right, so if someone’s empowered and you’re diminishing them, you’re bringing them more closer to you, and it makes it more accessible."

"It makes you feel that you’re not so completely disenfranchised. But when you’re making fun of somebody else, and somebody else is not in as good a position as you are, then you’re diminishing them even further and reinforcing your power.”

Dwight also says that context also has a lot to do with if and when making fun of someone is appropriate.

“I could make a joke about my mother, that’s fine. And I could be sitting in a crowd and make a joke about my mother, my mother may take offense, but she has power over me still. Nobody else can make a joke about my mother, ‘cause I won’t allow that. That I would take great offense with. And that’s what the context issue is.

While humor can be a negative influence, there is hope; Dwight believes humor always has been and always will be changing with society, for better or for worse.  

“Humor is a morphis, it moves and changes with the culture. 50 years ago, ethnic jokes were acceptable in every stratum socially. That’s not the case anymore, now it’s sort of more driven underground. But people will, some people will complain because we’re so PC, or politically correct. I actually don’t see anything wrong with that."

"I think it changes cultural attitudes, and it makes a big difference because suddenly, it’s starting to reflect change in attitudes, the way we regard other people of other cultures. But no, I’d say it’s more or less a continuum of humor, I’m sure humor has been in existence from the first time somebody had a coconut drop on their head in a cave or something and then somebody else thought that was funny. It’s been around since then."

"It’s just that it is a reflection of how we view ourselves culturally and how we behave culturally, and that’s something that’s always worth analyzing, even if you are considered to be the wet blanket as you’re watching the Academy Awards, and you’re the one person who goes ‘I don’t think that’s funny.’”

While humor directed at the wrong people may not always be so funny, experts say being aware of how humor affects us is an important thing to pay attention to.

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