Laughter vs. Outrage – The Science of Racist Jokes

If you’ve been milling around social media at all the last couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the #CancelColbert campaign being spread on Twitter, followed by immediate backlash of Colbert fans using the hashtag to issue threats to the creator of the hashtag. Then the successful cancelling of Colbert (by promotion to Late Show host), followed by a continuation of the #CancelColbert movement.

The usefulness of hashtags in activism is to bring about unity, assembling disparate groups of people through social media to identify behind a single cause. This has been observed to be effective for popular uprisings in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and now the Ukraine. This hashtagtivism promoted by people such as Suey Park is intended to bring fringe/minority communities together into an inclusive space.

A theory of laughter I’ve proposed with my research group, NERHD, proposes that laughter serves the same function as a hashtagtivism. Groups are brought together based upon shared laughter tastes. Conversely, groups are also segregated based upon laughter tastes. All of this is based upon the evolutionary concept of “play” where animals develop relationships with other animals by playing with them, usually by tickling. Laughter is an evolutionary response for a playful stimulus and signals that the stimulus is appropriate.  For example, you’ll laugh when someone you like tickles you, but when someone you dislike or don’t know tries to tickle you, it feels very offensive.

In that same, way, jokes can either be inclusionary or exclusionary, depending on the nature of the humor. I’ve written before on how exclusionary jokes aimed towards a minority group promotes negative attitudes towards that group (in the case of women, this is manifested through sexist jokes promoting “rape culture”).

Several studies have also shown that humor enforces racial stereotypes of minorities. Like sexist jokes, these jokes are clearly exclusionary in nature; however, the identity of the joke teller is important to determine the response of the audience. A white male telling jokes about how “Jews are cheap” is very different from an Jewish person telling the same joke. Interestingly, studies show that when minorities tell racist jokes or when women tell sexist jokes, audiences are more likely to have their racist/sexist attitudes reinforced than when a white male tells them. You heard that right – minorities normalize racial stereotypes more than white people (I’m as disappointed about this point as you).

Articles expressing outrage over the Colbert piece muse about how the writing staff and Colbert are all white, and come from a place of privilege and are therefore not permitted to tell anti-Asian jokes. However, this criticism is offset by the notion that a white male telling an anti-Asian will promote more outrage and less normalization of anti-Asian attitudes than an Asian person telling the same anti-Asian joke.

Comedy is inclusionary by nature. It is well documented that people will fake laughter to pretend to be in on the joke. Less documented, though equally prevalent, is that individuals will take offense to the joke to deny the rhetoric of the joke-teller. The normative attitude in America is that white people cannot make jokes about minorities.  Therefore, Colbert’s whiteness simultaneously makes anti-Asian jokes offensive as well as prevents normalization of anti-Asian stereotypes among Colbert’s audience.

By being offended by the joke, the audience is less likely to want to hear what the performer has to say.  Just ask any white comedian how hard it is to tell a joke that includes the N-word. As soon as the word is dropped, the audience becomes very tense, and is preparing to either: A) hear proper justification for using that word, or B) to be able to dismiss the white performer as racist and not laugh at any other joke they tell (the more likely response).

Laughter is an effective tool in building bonds among people, as seen by its use in mediation between conflicting parties and use in management of employees. However, rejection of laughter creates tension between the joke-teller and the audience, and actually will lead to rejection of stereotypes proposed by the joke-teller.

So, what makes an audience take offense to a joke rather than laugh along with it?

Most audiences are composed of individuals of various races and genders; however, the comedy process homogenizes all the individuals into an “audience”. People no longer are Frank, Kim, Fernando, Sonia, etc., but instead are just “audience”. Through this process, they conform to an identity that is open and receptive to the comedic rhetoric of the performer.

However, that new “audience” identity is still constrained by the pre-existing prejudices and convictions of each individual member.  One unaddressed question about research on racist or sexist jokes is: “Do racist/sexist jokes make people MORE racist/sexist, or simply reaffirm inherent prejudices within people?” An audience that is racist may find anti-minority jokes funnier than one that is not racist. Conversely, an audience that does not tolerate racism will not find anti-minority jokes funny at all.

Suey Park is depicted as being humorless, stupid, attention seeker. Yet, it really appears that she is simply highly sensitive to Asian stereotypes. While she clearly finds Colbert’s piece HIGHLY offensive, the general consensus is that the piece was not exclusionary towards Asians. This means one of two things:

  1. Suey Park has not subscribed to the Colbert “audience” identity and recognizes that the Colbert jokes ARE racist.
  2. Suey Park’s intrinsic anti-white sentiment precludes her from perceiving any Asian stereotype as inoffensive.

Reading articles on websites like Salon and Jezebel, you can’t help but be bombarded with the notion of “privilege”, implying that a person who is white or male or cis-gendered has privilege and is not permitted to understand the space of the oppressed minority community. However, rather than creating dialogue through humor from minority communities (historically achieved with great success), they dismiss the ability of the “privileged” to empathize simply because they are not of that community, and would rather exclude the privileged from oppressed communities than engage them in open dialogue and build bridges.

I’ve tried to make the case for how comedy can build bridges, even though in some instances humor can be exclusionary. Social media activism, on the other hand, has been summed up quite eloquently elsewhere:

While experienced activists seek to build bridges and establish empathy between cultures, these elitists’ ideas of success involve extracting apologies from media figures for perceived slights. This just drives intolerance underground, where it manifests in more pernicious ways, winning very few over to a new way of thinking and entrenching everyone. Witness #CancelColbert.

Perhaps the response to an racist/sexist joke is to respond with your own humor that builds and engages others to your viewpoint, rather than simply express outrage?

After all, the world could do with more laughter and less exclusion.