Pragya Agarwal, The Independent
Stand-up comedians often exploit our unconscious biases to deliver effective punchlines through the use of “paraprosdokians” — a figure of speech that allows a speaker to play with expectations, to introduce new meanings by tapping into our tendency to form quick judgements and biases.
In producing meaning, the paraprosdokian goes beyond our expectations of language, with the joke resolving only when we find the right framework in which to interpret it. Then there’s a “click”, a realisation of an incongruity and a sudden shift in perspective.
Often comedy resorts to evoking a gendered or racial stereotype when a punchline is delivered. As I discuss in my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, if done carefully, against our own social group, or against a group that is rightfully abhorred such as racists, it can be effective, but in other circumstances it can have significant social consequences.
Jimmy Carr’s “joke” about the Romani communities is not being done ironically or to create incongruity, or even to nudge people into acknowledging their own biases and prejudices. Instead, it is making a punchline out of a marginalised group. Not only that, it is also using a devastatingly tragic event in our global history as a source of humour, while also pitting one minority group against another.
If I had to say it politely for the purposes of this article, I would call it disparagement or “hostile” humour, which on the one hand gives the message that it is OK to be prejudiced against a marginalised and oppressed group, while also trying to cloak this prejudice in flippant comedy — don’t take offence because it was only a joke.
In making the target person or the group that this person holds membership of feel small and inferior or ridiculous, a comedian is not only displaying their own ingrained prejudices but also, in a roundabout way, enjoying belittling them. This is grounded in the feeling of superiority that they can gain from highlighting the misfortune of others.
This disparagement humour can take various forms of course, from mild “banter” to something as offensive and hostile as the mass killing of millions of people. But whatever form it takes, it is bolstered by the social position that the person using humour holds in comparison to the group that is being targeted. The more vulnerable this group is, the more harmful this would be for them, and can further isolate and exclude them.
The prejudiced norm theory states that such targeted humour gives permission to people to discriminate against the group targeted by the joke.
While accentuating the prejudice, it is also likely to create a culture where such discrimination becomes the norm, nudging the boundaries of tolerance of prejudice against vulnerable groups even further. And research has shown that it is likely to increase incidents of violence and aggression against the target group unless it is directly addressed and publicly denounced.
Racism is not funny. Making fun of a marginalised group is not funny. Supporting mass extermination of a group of vulnerable people is not funny. Only people whose sense of social and personal identity is dependent on viewing others as inferior would be amused by this type of humour. In deflating other people, their own egos are boosted.
We have to consider urgently, as a society, how long — and why — we ought to continue tolerating such lazy “humour”, where hatred is entangled with the “jokes” and there is a denial of social or moral responsibility on the part of the comedian, as well as the audience who find them funny.
A cavalier attitude to such humour is based on the belief that social hierarchies are valid, and that certain groups are rightfully more dominant than others. Once and for all, we all need to agree that any humour which is at the expense of others, and make them into “others”, is just not funny.
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