Here’s why you shouldn’t enjoy humour at the expense of others

It is important to understand the consequences of humour because of the burdens it places upon weaker social groups.

It is important to understand the consequences of humour because of the burdens it places upon weaker social groups.

“There is ice in their laughter.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

There are many times when laughter is more painful than tears. Laughter or a smile is a positive emotion which we seek out from infants to adults, however, when the laughter is mocking or vilifying an individual or group that humour becomes a negative force. Humour can be used as a veneer for diluting potent violence, racism and even sexism. Worst of all, the individual or group subject to such behaviour is expected to be an optimistic martyr despite feeling ice in their laughter. This emotion is experiential violence, faced by the minority group who possess a weaker social standing.


Humour can be violent. The violence is palatable to the majority for two reasons: reason one is that the humour does not target the majority; the second reason is because it is cleverly disguised in congeniality and is seen as a manifestation of violence. Indirect violence reflects the power dynamics in a society, and humour is a powerful ally that can be used to normalize violence towards an already marginalized community. For those with a monopoly of violence, it is one more tool in their arsenal to further permeate intellectual suppression and tear apart fragile systems of moral consciousness.

What lends it such power?

The marginalized group is suffering, but since this distress is emotional in nature, it is not interpreted as a visible casualty by the sufferer. A society that holds apathetic attitudes towards physical persecution and abuse, responds with hostility toward an ongoing genocide, where it is an uphill battle to make the loss of human lives significant, emotional casualties are brushed aside. It is quite possibly the bottom rung of the ladder of importance while combating such violence.

Jean Harvey termed this violence “civilized oppression”, and states this sort of oppression is tougher to tackle as opposed to direct violence, because it is disguised. The benefit of such malicious humour is that the intent of oppression is not only masked but it has what I would call flimsy ‘social defences’ ever ready to be presented. Most commonly used ones are:

  1. It’s just a joke
  2. It wasn’t intended to offend.

The first point makes it easy to distinguish the construct of power between the two groups. The social exclusion that follows is twofold; one with the brunt of the joke, the second with the disability to “tolerate” or bear the joke, making the oppressed community seem intolerant towards casual human interaction.

Tone Policing

Tone policing is when any response to direct violence is deemed unnecessarily exaggerated and the group or individual are told that they need to “calm down.” Tonal control or tone policing is frequently used to make it seem like the subject is incapable of rationality, therefore, there is an urgent need for them to divorce emotions in order to even continue the dialogue. The entire burden of acceptability is shifted and pivoted at the sufferer. The civilized oppressor transfers acceptability onto the marginalized group while distancing themselves. The sufferer now has to prove that they possess the intellectual capacity to not only withstand the joke but speak of it in a manner which is acceptable to the confines of civility created by the oppressor.

The second defence coupled with the first accuses the marginalized group of “intellectualizing” and “overthinking”, a comment which is deemed to be careless at best. The term ‘careless’ aptly describes the privilege afforded to the civilized oppressor of being free of care while the oppressed have to care. It is impossible to not care as long as even shreds of moral vitality exist. To not care of one’s own suffering is the success of dehumanization brought about by subtle processes of derision.

Humor in marginalized communities

The next question tackles the sense of humour in marginalized communities. What of when humour is used by the oppressed community to make light of what they are going through? There could be several reasons for this.

Self-disparaging humour is a way to counter the aggression and indirect violence used by the group in the stronger social position. Humor’s social function can also be used constructively. It can be an empathetic response “to arouse a wish to help and encourage the person” as stated by Ziv Avner. The humour that targeted the minority once adopted by them undergoes a reversal and undoes the intended social exclusion. It becomes a support system for others in the targeted group. Such humour creates a platform to resist the aggressor thereby encouraging social inclusion within the group. Humor’s socioemotional connection acts as a reassurance to other members of the group to find their voice in a collective manner. This can counter the erosion of esteem and attempt to halt the dehumanization faced by the minority group.

Galgenhumor is a German term which means “gallows humour.” It is defined by Merriam Webster as “humour that makes fun of a life-threatening or terrifying situation.” This cynical humour is a reactive attitude adopted as a method of self-defence for weaker groups and can also be a coping mechanism.

There is a plethora of evidence indicating that different minority groups use gallows humour as a survival tool. Humour, as stated earlier, is a powerful ally. Used for the right purposes, it can help people navigate extreme adversity and traumas. An in-depth study of the sense of humour of holocaust survivors found that 60% used humour as a self-defence mechanism while in Nazi concentration camps. The findings of the study revealed that survivors particularly satisfied the requirement of gallows humour. The jokes survivors recalled were aimed at everything from their situation to the Nazi soldiers to Hitler himself. The survivors joked about getting haircuts for free when their heads were shaved in concentration camps, made light of their situation and joked that they envied those who weren’t born but then concluded that not many had such luck. The survivors in the study said gallows humour not only allowed them to cope but alleviated stress levels. This phenomenon of gallows humour replaces the out-group as the in-group and can, therefore, become a unifying force.


It is important to understand the consequences of humour because of the burdens it places upon weaker social groups. The threshold of tolerance expected by minorities to withstand such violence keeps increasing. Alarmingly this puts the well being and negatively impacts the development of individuals within minority groups.

It may have been more convenient to be violent and whine about the loss of days when one didn’t have to be politically correct, but it is imperative that we do so. While not all humour needs to be educative or corrective, we must admit that absolutely none of it needs to be violent.

by Alizeh Khaleeli

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