To start and be absolutely clear – I agree there is no place for a rape joke or a racist joke, but I also have no problem rewriting a joke to laugh at the systems or people that think these things are okay. There is something powerful in a joke that makes people question why the old version was considered funny. I also believe that challenging someone when they retell a yuck joke with “why is that funny?” is a good thing. And…content warnings can prevent triggers. The only content warning for this post is a really nasty conservative character named Bronwin Budget-Slap, but feel free to laugh at her.
So here’s Bronwin below. She’s started a training package that will be available on a playlist (one a week), but here’s the first one out today. And my public servant friends were my test audience and they cracked up and didn’t feel I was attacking them, but the woefully inadequate training regimes in government for public servants.
So part of my research in my other me (the serious side of me), involves a close look at the language of conservatism and censorship, thought policing etc. One of the techniques I am interested in, involves mocking political positions so closely, that the laughter it can extract is equal parts discomfort and equal parts release. Strangely I’ve found some thought policing about this from the left, which I was not that surprised at, to be honest. We have all had our circular firing squad experiences it seems.
Laughter isn’t some singular experience. People who think it is, and that what they think is funny is the only funny, are edging towards a kind of book burning mentality.
Overidentification humour/satire or Stiob harnesses and flips language that is used by conservatism to demonise others or hold high negative opinions of others without much evidence or empathy. Repeat use of a shared language so that it’s meaning is considered relatively constant is called hypernormalised. So when a politician uses the same words and people assume a meaning, they can in fact do the opposite and it can almost go unnoticed. People can begin to believe that if you say it’s democratic, it is democratic, because someone in a democracy said so – even if what they are describing is very undemocratic. If you want to read more, there is a reference at the bottom of this post (shock, horror!).
It’s like when people talk about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) like an expert, but when you ask them what exactly that measures, they can’t rattle off a list of how GDP measurement has changed over time, yet an expert can do exactly that. I like to call this BBQ conversation chest puffing “Gross Doofus Personality“: loveable, but lackluster.
So overidentification, or humour/parody with critical intent that talks about an experience very closely to reality, but stills makes you laugh, uses hypernormalised language in the same way conservatism does but with a significant twist.
Shining a light on a stereotype with a different, transgressive take on the same stereotype for example. This shows the stereotype for what it is – a reduction of something complex into rote retellings of thin descriptive language. Sometimes people get it, sometimes they don’t, but they often end up thinking about it differently (even if just perplexed).
Performers are not always going to get it right, but IMHO they are thinking about this more than those intent on yelling at people who are misinformed and need education (not a scolding). Sure, that can work too, but people seem to lose their whole identity to fighting with people online and try to call it education. Strangely, they’ve lost sight of the evidence (or never read it) that shame and education are not entirely compatible, and limited fleeting exposure to an alternative discourse through shame might not do much. Shame that is gradual and in a supportive context (like one where you can laugh) might be useful. But, my confession here is if you are going to have some fun with those that are clearly haters and bigots trolling online (using humour), just for sport or to keep them away from those they can hurt, well that’s somethin’ different again. I applaud you, however, I still think that it’s not for me.
The fact is we often laugh at uncomfortable experiences. It’s one of the reasons laughter exists. It is the reason that one half of my cultural roots have celebratory wakes instead of somber mourning rituals. Chaplin and Taiki Waititi both did this well by mocking Hitler.
Each to their own, somber mourning rituals work to allow us release and work with grief as well, however I’ll take a wake (and not fighting with people on the internet) over somber mourning rituals anytime.
Boyer, D., & Yurchak, A. (2010). AMERICAN STIOB: Or, what late-socialist aesthetics of parody reveal about contemporary political culture in the west. Cultural Anthropology, 25(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01056.x