Humour can be gentle, encouraging and uplifting. It can also be harsh, confronting and powerful enough to bring down a dictator. Humour can be used to put people down or build them up.
Humour is about faults, short-comings, ridiculous behaviour, silly mistakes, the illogical, accidents (harmless and harmful), the grotesque and the unexpected. All humour about these things can be used in a way that divides people or unifies them. Humour can be racist, sexist, ageist, derogatory, and yet so funny that we are unaware that it may be, deliberately or unwittingly, leading us to stereotype people.
Blondes are stupid, Scottish people are mean regarding money. Irish people are illogical and prone to silliness, whereas the comedian’s own nationality is none of the above. However, even those who object to these sort of jokes don’t usually object when Scots tell jokes about the meanness of Scottish people, or the Irish tell Irish jokes. Steady Eddy is a comedian who tells incredible jokes about people with cerebral palsy but it seems OK because he has cerebral palsy, and he ‘normalises’ people with cerebral palsy by breaking down barriers.
Humour that has an underlying, sarcastic, political message is called satire. Satire may be aimed at being a reality check for politicians, and amusing to the general public, by showing up the silliness of some policies. Cartoonists are masters at using humorous caricatures and three or four words to amuse people as they make pointed statements on serious topics.
Humour can be confronting for those who believe in equality: do you laugh at it or do you denounce it for belittling whoever is the butt of the humour? It might be OK to do both. However, whatever you decide, it’s important to keep a sense of humour and not take our beliefs, whatever they are, too seriously. A sexist, racist or ageist statement can be funny between friends but the same statement might become an insult if the relationship sours for some reason. Fortunately, jokes about things like race, gender, nationality and domestic violence have become rare, at least in public.
So humour is a funny thing. It can be whatever the audience, or one person, perceives it to be and it can evoke responses ranging from a giggle to a massacre. Like everything we do, we need to consider the effect our actions have on those around us. Humour is like water and fire: each is of tremendous benefit but must be handled responsibly.
Bob Myers, author of Travelling the Road of Peace and Happiness.