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:
- Initiating: you initiate the jokes without any prompt. Without you, the prejudiced jokes and conversations may not even happen. You express your prejudice, whether you are conscious you hold this prejudice or whether it is subconscious.
- Enabling: you laugh, respond, and at times add fuel to the fire with your own prejudiced jokes. You may not even realize that you’re doing it, but the social pressure to participate (to be “fun” and “cool”) is too great. While you don’t initiate the jokes, you encourage the abuse by making those who initiate the jokes feel funny and cool. Without you, they would likely stop making jokes for lack of reactions, or at least make them a lot less often.
- Disengaging: you don’t engage with the prejudiced humor. You ignore the jokes and remain silent because you realize that they are problematic (even if you can’t explain why that is) and you don’t want to reward the abuse. But while you stay out of those particular exchanges, you continue to engage with the prejudiced jokesters outside of those exchanges because you value your relationship with them too much. Despite a passive stance, you enable the prejudice: people in your life can engage in deeply problematic humor without ever feeling negative consequences for it.
- Withdrawing: prejudiced humor makes you too uncomfortable and the harm is evident to you. You are too principled to maintain close relationships with people who are so prejudiced. But you also don’t have the courage or the emotional capacity to intervene and challenge the jokes, so you withdraw. You slowly let the relationships fizzle out or ghost the abusers altogether. This position is active—you decide that you cannot maintain such relationships—which means you don’t enable the prejudice. But you don’t interrupt it, you let it live and potentially spread, but out of your sight.
- Indirect intervention: the prejudiced humor is too much for you to bear and you want to actively challenge it, but you don’t feel comfortable confronting the abusers directly—perhaps because you don’t have the emotional capacity, or because there isn’t enough intimacy and trust between you and those initiating the jokes. So you speak to others in the groups or circles you share with the jokesters to express your discomfort or how problematic you find the behaviors to be. This is a very active and important action: it may help other realize that there is a problem and push them rethink their response to the jokes—some may even confront the jokesters directly.
- Direct intervention: you have a trusted and intimate relationship with the one initiating the jokes and you want to maintain your relationship with them, and ideally help them grow out of the toxicity. Or you want to signal to other bystanders that those jokes are toxic and shouldn’t be tolerated. You are ready to invest the time, energy, and emotional labor to express your discomfort and help the jokester understand why their jokes are problematic. You also have the courage to come off as the “party pooper” or “PC police” and intervene publicly, even if it means losing some of your cool capital. This is the most important but also the hardest work one can do to address prejudiced humor.
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.