We live in an age of rising gelotophobia; not, in case you are wondering, a fear of ice-cream, but a fear of laughter. It can, it seems, be terribly destructive to laugh at anyone for a range of reasons, and one of the hottest of those is cultural appropriation.
The wowsers have a point, at least some of the time. Blackface inscribes unequal and oppressive racial power relations. It does so even if entered into innocently as “just a joke”.
If that doesn’t sound right to you, it is probably because you also sense that laughter can be a source of pleasure, understanding, and human connection.
It was written by a comic playwright, more than 2,000 years ago, near the start of his Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) and it means something like “I am a man: I consider nothing human alien to me.”
Humour is one of the most durable ways of bringing people together, through the intimacy of shared laughter and understanding. Laughter is a distinctive feature of humans and it has evolutionary as well as socialorigins.
It is a human pleasure and a social glue, but it has also, for a very long time, thrived on cultural appropriation and distortion. We laugh with, but in doing so we often also laugh at.
Satire such as the verbal and cultural trappings of Trump (though Alec Baldwin does it with a certain furious intimacy).
Nine times out of ten, “That is just not funny” does not mean “That is a badly-executed joke” so much as “I don’t agree that you should be laughing at that”. Then the equally lame response comes back: “Can’t you take a joke?”
A fairly clear way to bring some order to this confusion is to distinguish between laughing up and laughing down. In modern Australia and other Western nations, we are generally OK with laughing up at people or groups who are relatively more powerful. When it comes to politicians, this licence to ridicule the powerful becomes a universal civic duty.
It seems to me that you can and should disagree ethically with some jokes, but it’s a big step further to insist that they simply are not funny, and a very big step beyond that to deny them a right to exist.
Humour without the risk of danger and offence would be a very bland thing. Humour helps build the robustness it requires of its victims, it is often a very good thing.
In our pursuit of a world that is safely and entirely OK, must humour be cleansed of its original sin of cultural appropriation and insensitivity? Are comedians welcome to make us laugh, as long as they don’t make us laugh at anything that doesn’t belong to them? Can an Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman never walk into a bar again unless complex multiple-citizenship conditions apply?
Is that fair? Would we like a world like that?
It would be laughable.