The more you think about humour, the more complex it becomes. Humour can be both insulting and complimentary, both escalating and de-escalating, both relaxed and tense. It exploits stereotypes and sweeps them aside. Is humour a potential threat to society?
Humour is especially humorous for insiders. He who laughs last… didn’t understand the joke. According to Carty and Musharbash a sense of humour is the “nebulous heart of understanding, and belonging, within social relationships.” Laughing together about a joke reinforces in-group relations. Differences with others are demarcated, and likeness is emphasised.
Differences are often demarcated by setting up a stereotype of the Other and subsequently ridiculing that stereotype. In this way, groups define and redefine themselves, emphasising who belongs and who doesn’t. Jokes thus can be (and often are) derogatory and stereotyping for the Other. The example that probably resonates the most these days is the controversy around jokes about religion, especially about Islam.
The Daily Show, a U.S. television show that revolves around joking about politics, especially Republican politicians, has its part in stereotype building and exploitation. These days the show often targets Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate and famous businessman. Like, for instance, when host Trevor Noah emphasises Trump’s qualities as an African president by comparing Trump’s words with those of (notorious) African presidents.
Noah draws on common stereotypes of African presidents and shows that Trump’s speeches show several similarities with those of such presidents: bragging about personal qualities, ideas on health issues, an exaggerated sense of self-importance... He shows videos of Trump and African presidents that highlight these similarities. What is highlighted at the same time is Noah’s and the public’s take on the issues in question. Their shared laughter reflects a feeling of ‘we know better, and we won’t fall for this type of rhetoric.’ The difference between this in-group and Trump and his followers is made clear.
Breaking down stereotypes
Humour not only exploits stereotypes; it may equally sweep them away. Another example from the Daily Show is the game ‘Spot the Africa’. Trevor Noah, the South African successor of former host Jon Stewart, asks Stewart to compare two pictures, one taken in Africa, the other in the U.S., and decide which was taken where.
The whole take is full of stereotypes; they all show the absurdity of some of prevailing ideas about both Africa and the U.S.. Noah and Stewart crush the stereotypes one by one by ‘switching roles’ and showing the ‘Third World U.S.’ and ‘First-World Africa’. The idea that ebola is a danger throughout the continent of Africa, that the U.S. is safe, that kids in the U.S. always have a better or wealthier life than kids in Africa, or that the African infrastructure is always worse than the American are just a few of the stereotypes that are brought tumbling down.
Humour as a valuable research tool
Humour proves a valuable lens for anthropologists to look at stereotypes, group formation, and the social structures that facilitate them. Humour is important in strengthening in-group relations, and a valuable tool for obtaining insight into intergroup relations and existing stereotypes. It opens the door to questioning one’s own or others’ views on the world and to sparking a discussion.
Here’s one more example to illustrate humour’s power to break down stereotypes, this time from the Netherlands. Dutch comedian Herman Finkers invited the public to rethink the common line of thinking that all terrorists are religious, therefore religion is dangerous and the world would be better off without it. Finkers added: “It’s the same with teaspoons, they’re a perfect tool for extracting eyeballs. The world would be better off without teaspoons.” Message clear: it’s all about how you use it.
Humour as a threat to society?
Humour can be (and often is) insulting, belittling, or criminalising. But it can also be used to break down stereotypes or to spark fruitful and necessary discussions. In other words, whether or not humour is a threat to society is all about how we use it. Humour in itself is not dangerous; it is what people do with it that makes it a potential threat.