The targeted group is attacked through jokes and comic portrayals. These jokes create and reinforce psychological distance. If you strip away the template of the joke, the sentiment usually boils down to a simple statement: The targeted group is strange; They are stupid; They are savages; They are villains. Mockery establishes a power dynamic and a narrative of purity and corruption: We are strong, intelligent, clean, and wholesome. They are weak, stupid, dirty, and contaminated.
Q: Why do (insert targeted group here) smell so bad?
A: So blind people can hate them too.
Q: What’s the difference between a smart (insert targeted group here) and a unicorn?
A: Nothing, they’re both fictional characters
Jokes are fun. They are constructed so the punchlines surprise and delight us, and we may find ourselves laughing even if we are troubled by the joke’s core message. Similarly, someone could write a song with a catchy hook and a compelling beat with lyrics that diminish a particular group. People might listen for the music and try to ignore the lyrics, or they might embrace the lyrics because the rest of the song is so good. Music and humor are compelling on their own – thus people pair messages with jokes and songs to make the message more attractive. Advertisers use jokes and jingles constantly to sell products, and bigots use jokes and jingles to spread hate.
Two common rationalizations for mockery are:
- It can’t be bad if the participants aren’t advocating greater oppression. “It’s just us making these jokes and we’re good people, so there’s no problem.”
- If mainstream shows and celebrities are participating in the mockery, it’s not really that bad.
Again, what matters is the impact of these jokes and not the intention. The impact is that a group is targeted and attacked.
People regularly participate in mocking an oppressed group without acknowledging that they are participating in oppression. There is often a failure to recognize that the impact of mockery is oppressive regardless of the intention of those making or laughing at the jokes.
It can be hard to take responsibility for an outcome you didn’t intend. Imagine that we’re at a big barbeque and I’m playing with a giant kitchen knife. I’m flipping it around and catching it, showing everyone how cool I am. But it slips out of my hand and sinks two inches deep into your foot. It cuts some arteries and we have to call an ambulance to take you to the hospital where you have foot-reconstruction surgery. All the medical bills add up to $30,000. You ask me to pay for it. Me?! I didn’t intend to stab you in the foot! Why should I be responsible for your medical bills? Because, you calmly respond, it was your actions that led to the injury. Legally, I’d be responsible to pay. So, I go ahead and pay and offer an apology for the pain and hassle I caused. I don’t like any of this. I didn’t intend for you to get hurt, so it’s hard for me to accept that it’s my job to deal with all of this. But it is my job.
So does intention matter at all? Yes! Imagine if I had intended to stab you in the foot! Not only would I have to pay for the medical bills, I would likely spend some time in jail. And the process of repairing our relationship would be much different if I wanted to stab you rather than merely accidentally stabbing you. Either way, you’ve been stabbed. It’s a bad day for you. But if I apologize and help you recover, we will likely have another barbeque together as friends.
Similarly, if you intend to hurt someone with hate speech, you are responsible for the impact. If you don’t intend to hurt someone with a racist or sexist joke, but you hurt them anyway, you’re still responsible to acknowledge your actions and help repair the damage you’ve caused.
And another big problem: Whoever tries to stop people from having fun, no matter how damaging the fun may be, can be perceived as being humorless, uptight, or judgemental. Some people fighting oppression combat this problem through the use of satire, which works by calling attention to the comic stupidity of narrow-mindedness.
A particularly troubling version of mockery is what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls “the cold joke,” in which specific instances of violence, including torture and murder, are accompanied by humor and laughter.
“The cold joke mocks the victims. It is an added cruelty and it is also a display of power: we can put you through hell merely for our mild amusement. It adds emphasis to the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’: We the interrogators are a group who share a joke at the expense of you the victims. It is also a display of hardness: we are so little troubled by feelings of sympathy that we can laugh at your torment; but the display [of oddly-placed humor] may be a clue that suppression of sympathy is not so easy and needs help” (Jonathan Glover, Humanity; A Moral History of the 20th Century, pg. 37.)
Not all mockery constitutes oppression, but when an oppressed group is mocked, concepts of protective dignity are eroded. When the targeted group is no longer seen as a group of unique and innately valuable individuals, more violent forms of oppression are more easily rationalized.