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When Jokes Are Actually Angry Lies

Hiding behind the "I was just joking" defense.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

How many times have parents heard sullen children say “But I was just joking!” when they are in trouble for being threatening, rude, or caught in a deception? As humans, we use the concept of jokes to bring fiction to everyday life and communication, ostensibly for entertainment purposes.

Jokes serve many purposes, often very valuable ones. Jokes are a way to relieve tension and to lighten heavy, topics. Jokes banish boredom, and allow us to entertain thoughts that are forbidden. It’s not by accident that “Your momma” jokes are prevalent in cultures that have deep honor and respect for the role of motherhood. Let’s not even get started on the social function of “dead baby” jokes.

Freud suggested that humor, and jokes, were ways in which we express conscious and unconscious thoughts, motivations, and feelings. He pointed out, quite effectively, that humor often conceals anger and aggression. Saying “I’m going to kill you,” in a laughing tone, allows us to safely say “I’m really upset and scared/frightened/angry with you, so much that I could harm you,” in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive reaction.

But the underlying anger and motivating feelings are still there. Not in all jokes. Many jokes are silly, with no deeper underlying content. But the humor that touches many of us, and triggers uproarious laughter, in many cases emerges from deep wellsprings of painful emotion. How many legendary comics have we lost, to depression and overdose? All time favorite funnyman Robin Williams suffered from crippling depression, and that sadness and self-doubt fed his humor, because those feelings and the need to be relieved of their burden, is familiar to us all.

But, we must acknowledge that humorous intent doesn’t excuse, or mitigate violent motivations or intent. Saying that a statement is meant to be ironic, or “punching up” at people in power, doesn’t take away the underlying aggression. It’s fine to use humor, as an engagement tool, and to present or explore ideas in more accessible ways. But, humor doesn’t make the anger, the rage, the threat or the violence, less real. In the United Kingdom, Paul Chambers was tried and convicted for making a joke on Twitter, about destroying an airport. The conviction was eventually overturned on a 3rd appeal. We all must recognize, that as tempting as it can be, there are times and places where jokes and humor must take a backseat to current events and social reaction. “Too soon!” describes our recognition that ability to find or acknowledge humor in something is in a balance with the soreness, and our resolution of our ambivalence and feelings about the event or issue.

Jokes are, in essence, based on our ability to recognize and distinguish fact from fiction, and to suspend judgment for a moment, to explore the humor of a misunderstanding, or being tricked. Jokes are, inherently, deceptive. They are one of the ways we teach people to lie, in socially acceptable ways. The person who can tell a joke straight-faced is the person who has learned how to tell a lie, in convincing ways. But, as Rachel Klein says in her essay on the topic, a joke stops being funny, and just becomes a lie, when it hurts someone, and we keep going.

The relationship between humor and deception, is that with jokes, the humorous intent comes first, and the deception is a vehicle to achieve it. In other words, we first conceive of the desire to play a trick and make someone (maybe just ourselves) laugh. Then, the lie, the falsehood, is a way to achieve that guffaw. Now, this might not always be true — most of us can think of times when an unintentional lie or misunderstanding turns into a joke, because it was just too good to let it go. But, in general, we let jokes and humorous deception slide, because we recognize the value and generally positive intent of jokes. We exempt people from violating the social demands for truth-telling, when their intent was to be funny (watch this amazing slow-mo video of a whoopee cushion in action...)

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked what President Trump meant when he appeared to be advocating a heightened level of rough treatment of criminals in a speech last Friday to police on Long Island.

"I believe he was making a joke at the time," she responded.

But, humor in these cases, kind of has to be “pre-registered.” (In modern replication studies, the replication research is ‘pre-registered’ as a way to create transparency and honesty in research.) A lie, when exposed, doesn’t get to be called a joke, and be exempt from the taboo on telling falsehoods. Defending as a joke, after the fact, an angry, racist, or sexist statement doesn’t take away the ugliness of those words.

Ultimately, it’s about maturity, responsibility, and integrity. Our words matter. When we allow them to spill out, without thought or consideration, they reveal our unspoken intents and feelings. When those intentions and motivations are harmful, or threatening, it’s part of being an adult, that we “own” those words and the feelings they revealed. And, we own and acknowledge the consequences of those words.

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