The Social Ecology of Humour: The good the bad and the ugly

Humour is good.  Humour is fun.  Humour helps bond people in groups to form relationships and friendships, and then to help each other out.

We do not want a world without humour.   Humour is a key ingredient of every Indigenous and ethnic kin-based group.

How does humour strengthen the bonds between people?

Analyses have not been done properly yet, although there is lots of good social anthropology of humour.  Some suggestions from those literatures:

  • Just engaging in common activities can bond people together better
  • Engaging in secret activities that others outside the group do not know can help bond people together
  • Engaging in common responses to things or events can bond people together better
  • But another very strong form of bonding is to engage in activities that are almost always punished in your society and then the group members collude and do not punish (and burst out laughing instead).  This can be a powerful way to bond people—by failing to criticize or censure, and instead respond in a colluding way.

What is wrong with humour?

Nothing is wrong with humour but, like any responses we make in life, it can sometimes hurt other people whether intentional or not.  And this is not good.

This includes, therefore, humour based on:

  • complaining
  • sexist remarks
  • racist remarks
  • ethnic slurs
  • making fun of people
  • etc.

In the way described above, these can be very funny and very good for bonding in groups but… innocent people get hurt and suffer.  We need to stop.

Who is doing wrong here?

From these brief analyses it should be clear that the problem lies not only with the person telling the joke but with all the others in the context who fail to punish and who also might laugh at such humour.  They are all colluding in this whether they know it or not, by failing to make the ‘proper’ social response—which is criticizing the joke-teller.

But wait, there’s worse!

Most of the groups telling hurtful humour without being punished are also being supported by the wider society.  This might be the patriarchal structuring of western society for sexist jokes, or the acquiescence of modern society to racist jokes.  While there might be only a few people present, the whole telling of such hurtful humour would not work in the first place if there was no compliance by the wider society that some groups are allowed get away with this stuff.

So… our patriarchal society is actually there in the room (context) when people tell sexist jokes and everyone laughs and no one punishes, by allowing the contingency structures for these behaviours to take place at all.  They could not happen otherwise.

The key current example is ‘locker room’ humour.  At fault here are not just the joke tellers but also the people present—both those who laugh at such jokes and those who do not criticize even when they do not laugh.  But at fault also is the wider society which allows some people to get away telling such jokes and their audiences to laugh and not criticize.  This therefore includes a large number of the men in society even if they are not in the locker room at that time.  They are all part of the moral context and they allow society to be structured along gendered lines so some are punished for such jokes and not others (men’s groups).

Why don’t people criticize?

First, they do not have to, since the wider society and the local joke-telling group condone not criticizing in the select groups.

Second, humour is good and is fun and we want to keep our groups working well because they are useful in life.  And so it seems to people that if they were to stop these ‘special in-group jokes’, then their group would diminish or disappear.  They don’t want that, which is reasonable.

Third, as mentioned above, these sorts of humour are particularly good ones for groups, because doing naughty or bad things together and not being punished is a superb way to bond your friends together.

The Good News

Like all forms of ritual and symbolic behaviours, the actual forms are not that important and historically they are often completely arbitrary.  So we can substitute other forms of humour if the real function of the humour is kept intact.  These particular types of hurtful humour are not necessary, only the function that there is humour and fun.

This means that we can (in principle) change the hurtful humour used by groups by substituting a lot of other forms of humour and still bond the people together.  We just need to change gradually the forms of humour away from those which hurt other people, to inoffensive forms.

The problems with this solution?

None of this is easy to do, since close groups will resent someone trying to change their (cultural) practices.

Also, many of these groups probably have nothing much else binding them together except for the constant complaining they do when together, or the offensive jokes they make together.  They might find there is little left in their friendship once these are gone.  (and maybe this will be a good thing…)

It is also difficult precisely because the humour-through-telling-bad-things-and-going-unpunished forms are so very good for groups, and so they will be resisted.

So to be realistic, it will be difficult but we can work towards replacing the hurtful sorts of humour with other forms of humour and stories while still allowing the groups to bond and form relationships.

We want to keep humour and we want to keep our groups. 

We can do these both these without hurting anyone.

Orangutans Laughing


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