The Question of Humour

Several years ago an incident occurred which left me feeling deeply wounded and upset. It was at that moment that I began to examine what people consider funny, or more precisely, what legitimately qualifies as humour. My analysis yielded answers that were not entirely surprising, and now the recent violence in Paris has me thinking again.

The incident in question happened when I answered the phone one day and was greeted by a sing song, “I’m seeing your son, and you’re not, hahahaha!” It was delivered by a family friend in the familiar school yard tune we all know as, na na na na naaaa. We see this brand of juvenile, so-called humour all the time in the movies, on television, and Youtube, et cetera. People aren’t even aware that they’re doing it because it’s been so thoroughly normalized in our culture, but to me… it felt like a knife in the heart. You see, my son had moved away as a child to another city to be with his father, and I was not able to follow him. Any parent would understand the agony of such a separation, and to this day we are still not able to live closer to one another. Poking fingers into wounds just isn’t funny. Period.

So, what is it about humour? I think we can all agree that there are essentially two types. Let’s call them, positive and negative. First, there is the harmless hilarity of laughing at ourselves… you know, those quirky human traits we all share that, when skillfully described by a comic, have us rolling on the floor in leaky hysterics. We love to laugh at ourselves, and comedians have capitalized on this for decades. The other brand of humour is dark, however, and is not so innocuous. It comes at the expense of others and is about “making fun” of someone else, for example mocking, ridiculing, belittling, humiliating, criticizing, and so on. At its core it is nothing more than a put-down disguised as a joke, and in my view this very closely resembles bullying. There is certainly an element of provocation and thinly veiled cruelty to it.

Sadly, modifying our perceptions and behaviour is a slow and painful process. For millennia we’ve indulged the baser instinct of laughing at each other. We laugh when others get hurt. Popular culture persistently upholds and promotes this type of negative and antagonistic aggression… so really, it isn’t a surprise that bullying is at an all time high in schools and in the work place. And further… it isn’t shocking that newspapers deliberately publish provocative material masquerading as humour while knowing full well that it will upset somebody somewhere.

So… as long as “making fun” of others in the name of humour is vociferously defended as free speech, then there will continue to be conflicts and horror in this world. Fingers don’t just poke existing wounds, sometimes continued poking actually creates the wounds. And then what? We can turn the other cheek like Ghandi did, but most of us would probably snap like the wild animals we all have the potential to be. Isn’t it time that we finally exercised some degree of sensitivity, compassion, and common sense? Isn’t it time we realized that some things just aren’t funny.