Imagine you are offered the opportunity to run a business. You are welcome to sell whatever you want, so you think to yourself, “What do I want to sell?” You notice that a lot of businesses are selling matches and gasoline, so you think, “I’ll open up a Match and Gasoline store!” and business does really well (better than those other idiots who decided to open up cupcake shops). You’re making lots of money selling matches and gasoline, but over time, people start mentioning to you that some people who shop at your store burn down buildings.
You say, “That’s not really my problem.”
They say, “But you supply them with matches and gasoline. You are complicit in their arson!”
You say, “I AM A SMALL BUSINESS OWNER! YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! THIS IS AMERICA!”
They say, “We’re just trying to inform you that your actions might be responsible for certain people to burn down people’s homes.”
You say, “I hope someone burns down your home!”
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps inflammatory (pun intended!), this analogy is similar to a recent kerfuffle in the standup comedy community which arose from disagreements between two parties, standup comedians and female bloggers, on whether rape jokes promote a culture that normalizes rape.
I’ve been working on a project with Jono Zalay* on what makes things funny and why audiences laugh. We felt that what was lacking in this “rape joke” conversation is actual scientific evidence linking humor and the creation of rape culture. We (mostly me, but Jono helped out when he was awake) recently began an investigation into scientific studies regarding the impact of humor on rape culture, and were astonished to discover the wealth of literature supporting the notion that humor can be used to create social norms that justify prejudice. Not only is there a link between certain types of humor and rape culture, but it’s strong and supported by several independent research groups.
That being said, we’d like to make a case for comedians to re-assess what they are doing with their humor, particularly “rape jokes”, for the following reasons:
- Humor can be used to covertly deliver messages that can reinforce negative attitudes towards women
- Enhanced negative attitudes towards individuals can lead to aggressive behavior
- Jokes delivered by a comedian are perceived to reflect the views of the comedian
SECRET COMEDY MESSAGES
It’s pretty well known that advertisers use humor as a persuasion device to convince consumers to buy their product. Why does this work? It’s believed by many psychologists that the human brain operates in two forms: serious mode and humor mode. In serious mode, our brain takes incongruous notions and tries to rationalize them critically and logically, trying to find an explanation to strange events, sort of like figuring out a Rubik’s cube or becoming a conspiracy theorist. However, in humor mode, our brain takes the “leap of faith” on incongruity and basically says “Ahhh… Screw it! This is fun!” We throw away the Rubik’s cube and go off frolicking in the meadow. Why are we in a meadow? Doesn’t matter. We’re in humor mode now.
The decision to make the switch from serious mode to humor mode occurs through a series of events. What those are is poorly understood by scientists who do this research (i.e. Jono and myself). Typically, all of those priming events are present at a comedy show, which leads us to tell our brain, “Ok, switch off. Let the yuk-yuks just flow on through.” Having our brain shut off isn’t normally a big deal for the comedians who are joking about how disgusting Hot Pockets are or how dumb and chubby their cousin is. In fact, it can work to a comedian’s benefit. Shifts in culture are often ascribed to comedians such as Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce who, likely, were able to deliver cultural messages to audiences whose critical brains shut off to hear jokes. The use of humor essentially hypnotizes us to have our opinions “massaged” in one direction or another.
Where this can lead to problems is when comics do material on the topics of rape or sexism. We’ll get into the motivations of why comedians do this type of material later, but, because our brain is in humor mode, we’ll lap up whatever opinions a comedian proposes. For instance, if a comedian says a joke to the effect of: “Hispanics are lazy”, or “Black people are stupid”, or “Women are asking to be raped”, the response falls in one of three categories in the audience:
- CATEGORY 1: “HA! THAT’S SO TRUE!” (genuine laugh)
- CATEGORY 2: “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT, BUT SINCE MOST PEOPLE THINK IT’S FUNNY, IT MUST BE TRUE!” (genuine laugh, or feigned laugh to support genuine laugh of CATEGORY 1)
- CATEGORY 3: “WHAT THE F***? THAT’S NOT TRUE!” (no laugh, brain switches back on to serious mode)
It’s worth noting that every person we create in CATEGORY 3 is an indication of our failure to make a person laugh. So, that’s the first argument against doing rape-jokes – getting fewer laughs. Furthermore, based upon studies, people in Categories 1 & 2 would be described as hostile or benevolent sexists (which could also be applied to racism, so we’ll just use “bigots” instead). Hostile bigots are people who genuinely and aggressively believe in their individual superiority and inferiority of other, different groups. Benevolent bigots are people who believe that other groups are inferior but it is their job to help those inferior people because they’re so inferior (i.e. White Man’s Burden). Basically, the only groups laughing are people who believe in inequality (more on the issues with this later).
RAPE JOKES LEAD TO RAPE?
“Ok, big deal, so I laughed at an offensive joke. That doesn’t mean anything!”
That is the general response when you call a person out about laughing at a bigoted joke. The recent debate on Totally Biased focused on the notion of rape jokes leading to normalization of rape in society. So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape? Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape). However, several studies have shown that appreciation of sexist jokes and just being shown sexist jokes leads to:
- Increased blame attached to victims of rape
- Increased acceptance of desire to rape
- Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
- Decreased desire to punish rapists
So, all the evidence point to rape jokes promoting rape culture. Even still, that only reflects people’s attitudes towards rape after hearing sexist jokes; it doesn’t mean that jokes lead to actionable violence. One study provides evidence that humor affects behavior by using the Buss aggression machine technique to observe the relationship between disparaging humor and non-disparaging humor on people.
In the experiment, students who had received either derogatory criticism or positive criticism from a person were shown disparaging humor, non-disparaging humor, or no humor (pictures of furniture). They then had an opportunity to “shock” that person who gave criticism (the person wasn’t really shocked, just an actor who pretended he was shocked). If students received negative criticism and heard disparaging jokes, they generally gave a person a long, strong electric “shock”. However, if they received positive criticism, there was no difference between whether they heard disparaging jokes or non-disparaging jokes (which was overall a low, weak “shock”). Most interestingly, listening to non-disparaging jokes after hearing the derogatory criticism decreased the “shock” level BELOW what was administered if the person gave positive criticism.
In one study there was a clear action that resulted after hearing offensive humor compared to inoffensive humor. In another study, women who heard offensive humor (Don Rickles) made them more likely to aggressively reject female job applicants than when they heard inoffensive humor (George Carlin…apparently). Clearly, hearing certain types of humor can lead people to perform actions that ultimately hurt others (in the former, perceived physical pain, in the latter, discrimination).
Although there is no smoking gun that shows that rape jokes lead to rape, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that predispositions towards rape are enhanced by hearing rape jokes (or jokes that normalize rape). And if a potential rapist uses a joke as justification for raping someone, shouldn’t that be good enough reason to not want to perform that joke anymore?
WHAT IS THIS? JOKE CENSORSHIP?
Nobody wants to be portrayed as the “Joke Police”, and we don’t claim to either (as we lack the discipline and racial profiling techniques necessary to be policemen). Nevertheless, we view the purpose of comedy is two-fold: provide entertainment and promote the betterment of society. If you’re not doing one, you should be doing the other, and most great comedians do both. Based upon existing literature, it would seem clear that telling sexist or rape jokes doesn’t promote social welfare. In fact, the only people rape jokes entertain are those who are against the betterment of society (they are sexist).
Comedy by its nature is inclusive. The origins of laughter stem from social bonding among early primates. Despite this, rape jokes promote social division, as we described previously. Still, some comedians are OK being branded as a “controversial comic”, like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks. But there is a difference – controversial comedians lose fans because of the fans’ inherent prejudices, not because of the comedian’s prejudices.
One of the main arguments by comedians in this debate is the “it’s just a joke” argument. A study in 1990 showed that many people believed that when they told a joke that might be offensive, it did not reflect their attitudes towards a certain group; yet, when other people told offensive jokes, it reflected their attitudes towards that group. In essence, saying “it’s just a joke” allows comedians to de-commit from owning their opinion, and allows a person to hide their prejudices behind a “well-structured” joke.
For example, when a comedian makes an observation about a homeless man sleeping on a Central Park bench. Many comedians will likely make fun of the behavior of this man, calling him lazy, or making fun of his attire. The underlying message of his joke “homeless people are less than us”. Why not make fun of the rich people who pay millions of dollars to live around Central Park, while he gets to live in Central Park for free? As comedians, we have a choice about what we choose to laugh at. The point about this whole debate is let’s stop attacking victims, and start attacking oppressors.
On this point, we are not trying to attack comedians, who we feel have their heart in the right place (NOTE: Though most comedy clubs won’t tell you in a showcase, comedians are different from people who just do open mics for less than a year, and we recognize that). What if a comedian’s experience is that they don’t like women, or they don’t like Asians? That informs their hypothetical non-sexist/racist comedy, which is otherwise quite funny. Nevertheless, a comedian who is racist/sexist needs to limit prejudice in their audiences, as it will eventually limit their fanbase. Just ask the Republican Party.
Fortunately, it has been shown that when people are made aware that jokes are prejudiced, they are less likely to accept the prejudiced viewpoints. So, even if audiences’ brains are lapping up sexism in humor mode, a comedian can take a step back and say “Hey, that’s a messed up thing I just said, and you’re OK with it! WTF?” The good news is that though comedy promotes rape-normal attitudes in audiences, these attitudes are very labile. So, if a comedian decided to keep telling a rape joke, they can still prevent rape culture by saying, “Yeah, that’s a messed up joke.”
Finally, while this may seem a lot of white male-bashing, female comedians are not exempt from promotion of rape culture. In fact, sexist jokes delivered by women or from a genderless source [i.e. a joke book (in English, as joke book in French is masculine)] increase tolerance of sexism more than sex jokes delivered by men.
Ultimately, we can’t just open up a Match and Gasoline store and not imagine that some of our customers might be arsonists. Hopefully, this discussion will lead to more introspection among comedians on what we’re doing with the time that audiences yield their humor mode brains to us, and comedy will be better because of it.
*This post was originally intended for the NERHD blog, but we figured it made sense to explain what we were researching first before actually delving into “rape”. So, that’s why I’m writing in the first person plural.