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To those who joke about the Holocaust and other tragedies

28 January 2013, 16:00

A leading theory of the origins of laughter illustrates why some jokes reveal a level of deep uncaring.

To those who joke about the Holocaust and other tragedies...

Hopefully, dear readers, it is to none of you whom I need address this post. However, as you may be aware, there are some among us who feel that literally anything can be used as topic for good comedy. Now, at face value, I accept that proposition fully; indeed, my comedic senses can venture on the offensive side (Tim Minchin, anyone?), especially when it involves people so contemptible as homophobes, paedophiles, the corrupt, and the generally immoral as its target. There are few things as good as a razor-sharp joke, aimed precisely at the right place, to bring inflated egos down to size. It’s for precisely this reason that most of us love Zapiro.

But if you joke about the holocaust, or rape, you reveal a lot about your character.

Let’s not discuss whether one should be allowed to joke about these things. I support full freedom of expression, and I never wish to stop anyone from expressing what is on their mind. However, I do often wish that people’s minds were not infected with certain opinions and, in this case, expressing one of these ‘jokes’ reveals something very unpleasant about the teller’s character. You see, it all has to do with the purpose of humour.

Have you ever wondered why exactly we laugh? Of course, we laugh because we find things funny, but this answer is quite circular. Why do we find things funny in the first place? (Think about this for a second before continuing). It helps here to think about the types of things we find amusing. What makes a good joke, in almost all circumstances, is that the punch-line violates our expectations, as set up by the lead-in. In some cases, we need to re-interpret parts of the joke because of a homonym (“First thing this morning, there was a tap on my door; funny sense of humour my plumber has.”), or we are taken by surprise by a near-absurdity (“What's red and bad for your teeth?

A brick.”) We may take a while to ‘get’ the joke—the split-seconds where we are busy reframing the information that was first presented in a new light—but once we have figured it out and it makes sense, we laugh.

As for the root of laughing, spoken (or written) jokes are perhaps not the place to be looking. Evolution (yes, it’s true whether you believe it or not) places language as a relatively recent development (obviously; there’s a reason why we don’t have vivid first-hand written accounts of the stone age), so we are better off considering physical (nonverbal) humour when looking for the origin of our cackles.

Imagine this scenario: Your friend is walking down a passageway, slips on a stray banana peel (who knows how that got there), tumbles spectacularly, and finds the floor. It’s quite likely that, at this sight, you will burst into laughter at this bizarre scene. But: consider the same scenario where, instead of being unhurt, your friend falls and sustains a major concussion. Will you be laughing then? Not likely.

In physical comedy, actors continually ensure us that, though they bump and fall, or walk into walls, they are never badly hurt. Only a psychopath would laugh at the sight of someone being in genuine distress. And this is the crux.

 It is likely that laughter served as a pre-language vocalisation to signal that, although someone has fallen, they are in no real danger. Think of how many times, upon being relieved at some stress or danger passing, you have burst into some degree of laughter. “Everything is OK”.

With this in mind, it is now very clear why someone who laughs at a joke about rape or the holocaust is revealing something truly vile about their character. The laugh symbolises that there is no real cause for concern; that we shouldn’t be worried. But, where these topics are concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing at all funny about rape or genocide. Laughing at either of these is admitting to feeling nothing for those who suffered or their relatives. It’s an admission of “I don’t care,” a grand statement of something far worse than apathy. It is cold and unkind, and should be met with contempt instead of a shared snigger.

To my Facebook ‘friend’ who thought it hilarious to re-post an anti-Semitic rambling on Holocaust Remembrance Day: Thank you for showing your true colours; I wish to have no further dealings with you. To the one who argued at length in defence of his rape ‘joke’: You clearly don’t understand the devastation that these too-common atrocities cause. It is not about free speech; it is about being a decent person. 

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