The cost of laughter: assessing our roles in toxic humor

Humor plays a key role in maintaining systems of oppression. Under the guise of “just having fun”, people with toxic beliefs denigrate groups who are already discriminated against. But it is largely people’s reception to the prejudiced jokes that determines how harmful they are.

I identified 6 behaviors when it comes to prejudiced humor, from most harmful to most disruptive, to help us know where we stand and explore where to go next.

Humor is one of the most powerful—and overlooked—ways that oppressive systems are maintained. Not just on TV or in stand-up comedy, but also in private spaces: at the dinner table, at the office, in group chats with friends, etc. Under the pretext of “just having fun” and “trolling”, people with toxic beliefs denigrate and belittle groups who are often already discriminated against. Prejudiced jokes have a very real impact, on both the person telling the joke and those listening.

First, it lets the person telling the joke express their prejudices—sometimes hatred—unchecked. Under the guise of “just kidding”, the person making the joke can evade criticism. In fact, if someone calls them out, it is generally that person who ends up being ridiculed for “taking everything so seriously” or “lacking a sense of humor”.

Second, the prejudiced jokes solidify stereotypes to the people hearing them. It doesn’t matter how educated you are or how much you know that those are just tropes; they can be internalized and, subconsciously or not, impact your behaviors around the people targeted by the jokes. If there are young people in the room, or people who haven’t been exposed to those tropes before, this may even give them a first introduction—which will, inevitably, get solidified over time by more jokes and more stereotypical representation in the media.

Finally, by making a punchline out of a marginalized group, the joke normalizes the abuse of that group. It makes it seem like denigrating them is not only acceptable, it is fun and trivial. And this inevitably bleeds over into real-life actions. Exposure to sexist jokes makes men more tolerant of gender harassment and, most disturbingly, more willing to rape a woman. Prejudiced humor fosters discrimination against groups who are already discriminated against.

But the responsibility for this harm doesn’t just fall on the person making the joke. People’s reception determine how damaging it is. I can think of 6 behaviors when it comes to prejudiced humor, ranging from most harmful to most disruptive—a toxic-humor continuum. It doesn’t really matter who the joke targets—women, queer people, black people, disabled people—the behaviors are largely the same:

The impact of prejudiced humor is real—even if it is done unconsciously, just to be funny and without meaning harm. A racist joke that goes unchecked at the dinner table normalizes racism—to both the person making the joke and those witnessing it. A sexist joke that is laughed off at the water cooler normalizes misogyny to everyone around. An ableist, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, or fatphobic joke in a chat group makes everyone in the group more likely to discriminate against these groups.

I hope the toxic-humor continuum can help us identify where each of us stands and explore where to go next.