‘Just Joking’ Always Sounds Suspicious… But It Shouldn’t Have To

About a week ago, a friend emailed to tell me that a series of tweets from someone called Jason P. Steed, an academic-turned-US lawyer, lambasting Donald Trump for trying to write off certain nasty comments as ‘just a joke’ had gone viral. This became the top Twitter ‘Moment’ of the day, with the eye-catching headline:

‘English professor turned appellate lawyer Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals) explains why “it’s just a joke” is not a good enough defence for making jokes about socially unacceptable things.’

There’s a lot wrong with this headline, and it’s the headline which people have been talking and writing about ever since. For one thing, Jason didn’t say this was true all the time: he explicitly added,

‘a big caveat: humor (like all language) is complicated and always a matter of interpretation. For example, we might have racist humor that is, in fact, designed to alienate (rather than assimilate) the idea of racism. (Think satire or parody.)’

But, like most caveats, this one got forgotten amidst the excitement of a sweeping, judgemental statement (exactly the kind of thing which Trump supporters and detractors alike spend their time hurling back and forth). Instead, the bandwagon has rolled off down the road with everyone repeating the misleading headline and focusing on one tweet from the series in particular, which runs:

‘You’re never “just joking.” Nobody is ever “just joking.” Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).’

It’s true that views expressed in a joke are always performing a social function — because we share jokes and people react to them emotionally — but where some people have gone wrong in reading and repeating Jason’s tweets is to think that there’s only one social function that a joke about a particular group of people can be: to create an unpleasant ‘us versus them’ distinction.

I disagree. ‘Just joking’ can often be more than a good enough defence for saying such things, because ‘just joking’ usually means: ‘You’re not understanding what I said the way I intended it’. And not everyone who says that phrase is being disingenuous, even if they’ve made a misjudgement. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t done it yourself, probably numerous times, and felt that creeping anxiety as you realise that you now sound like a racist or bigot of some kind: ‘just joking’ as an excuse sounds suspicious in itself. But it shouldn’t have to.

The way jokes function and the social effects they have all depend on 3 key factors: (1) The speaker’s intention, (2) The audience’s awareness of and willingness to accept that intention, and (3) The social context in which it takes place. None of these factors seem to have been taken into account in the frenzied retweeting and self-congratulatory virtue signalling that’s accompanied Jason’s tweets.

So why am I writing about it? Well, however ill-advised it may be, I’m doing it for a couple of reasons. First, like Jason, I also happen to’ve written a PhD about humour’s social effects and functions, and, Second, because I think attempts to censor and censure humour are dangerous to a free society.

So, in this post I’m going to explain why it’s dangerous to treat jokes — even or especially offensive ones — in a one-dimensional way, and to present you with a few important positive social functions even the darkest, most aggressive humour can have. All of this depends on the three factors I just mentioned and will, I hope, give us a much better understanding of what ‘just a joke’ can mean to different people, in different situations, at different times.

A final caveat: I am not saying that jokes cannot be bigoted and hurtful and hateful, nor that such jokes shouldn’t be criticised and rejected. What I’m saying is that they can be a great many other things, too, and that we cannot and should not bundle them under a single interpretation.

Humour and Censorship

First off, we need to deal with the idea that jokes are ‘never’ or ‘always’ anything. This kind of totalising thinking leads very quickly to heavy conversations about whether people should be censored and punished for telling certain jokes. I, like many others, am sick to death of hearing tales from university campuses of ‘no-platforming’ cerain speakers and the ‘need’ for everything to come with a trigger warning. Let’s take it as read that we’re talking here about the issue of being offended, not the prospect of hosting people actively calling for violence and repression against a particular group or belief (although this apparently remains acceptable when done under the guise of religion).

Outside of these direct calls to violence and attack, being offended is an inescapable and deeply important part of life and our personal development. As the comedian Frankie Boyle — (in)famous for his dark and often tasteless humour — put it in a response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

‘The sheer range of opinion on this planet means you can’t be inoffensive. It’s something that can only really be aspired to within homogenous groups or authoritarian societies.’

There are so many people with so many different views and beliefs that you’re always going to offend someone. And, more importantly, your right to be left unoffended does not trump someone else’s right to express different views; the price of you having ‘free speech’ is that a bunch of arseholes you don’t like also get to express their views. And, of course, having your ideas upset on a regular basis is essential to learning and growing. To paraphrase the author Neil Gaiman, sometimes you only know what your comfort zone is by leaving it… And you might be surprised by the results. I’m not foolhardy enough to try in the space of a blog post to solve the perpetual riddle of where the line lies between the freedom to express an opinion and the incitement to active discrimination, but there is a line between these two ends of the spectrum, albeit one which may need to be drawn on a case-by-case basis.

Regardless, Frankie is right about the stifling nature of a culture which enforces strict rules about what is ‘acceptable’ public speech. Authoritarian regimes cannot stand any humour which pokes fun at them and their values, much as humourless individuals tend to be the most aggressive and inflexible when their own views and values are joked about. The Stalinist regime, for example, seriously considered banning political humour (and, because all of life was meant to be political in their class-based view of the world, this essentially meant all humour), so fearful were they of what their enemies could do with a well-aimed joke. In the end, they decided they’d continue to use political humour to mock internal and external enemies, while ordinary citizens who made fun of the regime were arrested in droves and sentenced to anything from 5 to 25 years (usually 10) in the Gulag.

In other words, it was never ‘just a joke’ under Stalinism, because a joke was always understood to be a weapon. Never mind that ordinary people were often simply joking to vent their frustrations about daily hardships and having to stand in queues for hours to get their food rations. In only slightly exaggerated form, this is precisely what Jason’s Twitter Moment has been taken to mean about jokes aimed at particular people today: that they are weapons, and weapons are, obviously enough, solely designed to inflict harm on others.

It’s not just modern authoritarian regimes which have feared humour, either. The Roman Emperor Tiberius had a man put to death for a sarcastic joke about the ruler’s supposed stinginess, and, albeit in fiction, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose centres the Catholic Church’s fear of humour: it transpires that they’ve locked up Aristotle’s long-lost volume of Poetics(supposedly dedicated to comedy) because of the havoc they believe it would wreak if ordinary people got their eyes on it.

Across History, attempts to control humour have been closely tied to direct repression of alternative points of view. Just like the idea of free speech itself, it’s a constant tussle, but despite the continuing fears, jokes are not simply or only weapons.

Playing at Prejudice

Let’s be clear: jokes can certainly be cruel and hurtful. They can be used to bully, demean and humiliate. They can accompany torture, and even be a kind of mental torture. But to think that that is all they can be or do is nonsensical.

All the same, what does it mean to tell jokes that’re strongly prejudiced against a particular person or group? Jason’s interpretation runs like this:

‘This is why, e.g., racist “jokes” are bad. Not just because they serve to alienate certain people, but also because they serve to assimilate the idea of racism (the idea of alienating people based on their race). And so we come to Trump. A racist joke sends a message to the in-group that racism is acceptable. (If you don’t find it acceptable, you’re in the out-group.) The racist joke teller might say “just joking” — but this is a *defense* to the out-group. He doesn’t have to say this to the in-group. This is why we’re never “just joking.” To the in-group, no defense of the joke is needed; the idea conveyed is accepted/acceptable.’

Jokes can certainly do this when they involve prejudice, stereotypes and aggression. But, as Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves put it in their superb book, The Naked Jape:

‘…it’s this edge of danger, this shadow side, that gives jokes their power. A joke is anarchic, a little scrap of chaos from beyond the boundaries of the rational, a toe dipped in the shallow end of anti-social behaviour’.

Let’s take this a step further, though: the real issue here is not the joke and its content, but who is dipping their toe in those waters, why, and in what context?

Think about it: the very same joke told by some hate-monger can, when played out by a comic who doesn’t hold those views, actually serve to highlight the outrageousness of those views. This might be satire, absurdist humour, or Frankie Boyle’s wilfully offensive style. The people being mocked are those who hold the views being played out in the joke. If we didn’t find the views outrageous, they wouldn’t, for us non-bigots, provoke laughter.

And we could go one step further still and say that the slightly nervous laughter jokes produce when they reveal to us that we do have prejudices that we’d rather not admit to, can often draw our attention to them and prompt us to reassess our unconscious assumptions. Jimmy and Lucy sum this up brilliantly when they write that

‘Jokes are a bit like fairground mirrors. We can’t help but see our gruesome reflections winking back at us from the jokes we enjoy.’

They’re right — in jokes like these we see ourselves and reality in a twisted light, and it’s not always a flattering image we get back. In other words, humour doesn’t simply create ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups. It can also reveal our prejudices and preconceptions and illuminate the artificiality of our assumptions, and of our separations and groupings. It thrives in areas of emotional friction; it might exacerbate them, but equally it might sand away their rough edges.

Obviously, there are plenty of racists who tell racist jokes to an audience with racist views, or who tell those jokes to discover if they are among fellow racists. I’m not denying that, and Jason’s assessment of Trump’s jokes in terms of their intent, their audience and the very public context of their telling, seems bang on. But racist- or other prejudiced jokes can be ‘just a joke’ in the sense I’ve just described: when they aren’t justifying or embedding those attitudes, but are, on the contrary, throwing a spotlight on them, both to mock them and prompt some uncomfortable self-reflection. They can be playing at prejudice rather than acts of prejudice.

Break the Rules to Make the Rules

Jokes thrive on breaking rules, but not in the way you might expect. One of the most important ingredients in humour is having our expectations subverted — something that humour theorists call ‘incongruity’. We expect one thing, and get something else entirely, which suddenly throws everything into a different light and reveals the fragility of our assumptions. In other words, we often find things funny and laugh at them when they upset what we think of as ‘normal’, ‘expected’, or ‘acceptable’. This can be simple wordplay (‘When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar’), but it can just as easily be black humour (e.g. ‘dead baby’ jokes).

Let me say that again: we laugh because something normal or acceptable has been upset: an active recognition of what is normal and acceptable is therefore absolutely fundamental to the process. We laugh because it is wrong, because we find it disgusting, because we find it unacceptable. People don’t laugh at dead baby jokes because they actually find convoluted infant mortality funny: they laugh at them because it’s completely unacceptable,even disturbing, and feels outrageous to even consider. When we laugh at death or other frightening aspects of life, we try to exchange fear for a comforting sense of distance and abstraction, renegotiating our relationship — if only mentally — with these unchangeable realities. Breaking the rules can, paradoxically, re-emphasise their existence; we break them to remake them.

And sometimes we break them just to show that we can. We constantly brush up against the boundaries of convention both to test them, and to remind ourselves that we’re not simply the slaves of convention or political correctness. Sometimes you want to throw a rock in a pond just to see how big a splash it makes, and to show yourself that you have the power to make that splash. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

But if we’re talking about throwing mockery at people rather than stones at water, is this a slippery slope? Well, if you don’t already hold some prejudice, the idea that playing out these aggressive, prejudiced attitudes is going to more deeply embed them in your psyche, or make them seem somehow legitimate, is questionable at best. On the one hand, by joking about them, we’re usually labelling those views as laughable and ridiculous. And on the other, like the regular claims that videogames lead some people to commit acts of real violence, there’s no provable, causal link. Just how many fencers or wrestlers — people who engage in virtual combat that’s not even abstracted to virtual reality — suddenly go on the rampage after playing their sports? The difference between play-fighting and actual fighting is perfectly evident to the vast majority of us.

Again, it depends on your intention and on the social context in which these things take place. So let’s take a look at the social context where even the darkest and meanest humour might not only be harmless, but positively beautiful.

Trust in Jokes

If a joke is a weapon, as many people seem to think, everything looks like a target. But a joke is a tool, not a weapon: it can be used for many different purposes. We use jokes to negotiate our way through ambiguities, emotional tensions, frightening subjects and difficult social situations. If one joke can be used to dehumanise someone and even help legitimise violence against them, another can be used to defuse a tense situation and lead to genuine warmth and friendship.

Jokes which seem aggressive on the surface can do something you’re doubtless familiar with: they can bring friends closer together. Let’s look at this as crudely and simply as possible. If I call my mate Brian a cunt, I mean it as, and he understands it to be, a term of affection. Why? Because intimacy and friendship is often expressed and reinforced by being able to do and say things together which are unacceptable in public — swearing, farting, crying, talking about bodily functions or embarrassing personal issues, etc. Sharing this publicly-unacceptable stuff signals that you trust each other deeply enough that you’ll not denounce each other to the outside world, and it draws you closer together in the process. You’re both sharing contraband material, but both trust each other that you’re not going to use it for harm.

What if one of those friends actually is prejudiced in some way played out by a joke, though? That’s certainly a risk. Again, I’m making no claims for jokes and their effects being always or only anything. I’M simply saying that they can be more than weapons or sheep’s clothing draped over hate and prejudice.

You might be expecting me to say that if who tells the joke is so important, then basically only people in a minority of some kind are allowed the special licence to mock their own group. So, for example, I’m ‘allowed’ to tell as many homophobic jokes as I like because I’m gay. Actually, this is nonsense.

I can and do sometimes exchange jokes based on gay stereotypes with my straight friends. That is, they tell anti-gay jokes too: gasp! Shouldn’t we be calling in airstrikes on these bigots?

No — because the question is not what they are (‘not gay’), but who they are: they are not actually homophobes. It’s not about being in the group that’s focused on by the joke, it’s about not actually hating the group that’s the focus of the joke. A homophobe telling a homophobic joke is offensive because s/he’s a homophobe, not because s/he told a joke. I could tell the very same joke and it not seem offensive because clearly I’m no homophobe… But nor is my mate Brian, a straight guy, who might also tell that joke to his friends, including me, who likewise aren’t homophobes. In fact, a gay person who hates that they are gay and tells homophobic jokes in an attempt to distance themselves from their feelings, is, as well as a tragic figure in need of help, much more offensive than a non-homophobic straight person telling the very same jokes.

Laughing — even aggressively — at what you are and what you love and accept is a healthy part of being a self-aware human. It’s not for nothing that figures of profound wisdom like Lao Tzu, the quasi-mythical author of the Tao Te Ching, or the ancient Iranian philosopher Zoroaster, are said to have been born laughing. Life is absurd, and the wise ones are in the on the joke. And on the more everyday level, if you don’t regularly find yourself ridiculous, it’s time to pause, reflect, and loosen up.

Laughing at yourself can be a vital coping mechanism. Jewish humour is famous for its reflexive character; in the same way that the repressed citizens of Stalin’s USSR told jokes that laughed at their own suffering, Jewish humour copes with centuries of prejudice and even the Holocaust by treating it as absurd, as laughable. Humour helps us deal with life in all its horrible complexity; as Nietzsche put it, ‘Man alone suffers so excruciatingly that he was compelled to invent laughter’. And these gallows humour jokes, or this Schadenfreude directed at yourself, isn’t necessarily exclusive, either.

This is when jokes can be quite wonderful, in the blurry spaces where it’s no longer clear who’s laughing at whom: you laugh with me laughing at myself; I laugh at you laughing at me laughing at myself laughing at you. When I tell a ‘Jewish joke’ to Jewish friends and we all laugh, we’re laughing together, side by side. This doesn’t mean we’re suddenly the same — it means we can see the differences and sometimes problematic stereotypes that could divide us, but we choose instead to laugh about them and move on. And we trust each other to do so.

In several ways, then, even the most controversial, offensive-sounding jokes which seem to be 100% attacking a particular group or person can be much more than they seem. In these cases, ‘just a joke’ means they’re not intended to offend or hurt anyone, but, on the contrary, can nourish and sustain deep and peaceful bonds between us.

Unfunny in Public

But where are we joking? What if the trusting conversations I just described took place in public and were overheard by someone who was deeply upset by them? This is the third of the three conditions I described at the beginning: the social context in which a joke takes place. It’s the factor that most often prompts the cry ‘but it was just a joke!’

So let’s get crude again to think about this. Back to Brian and me calling him a cunt. Fair enough between the two of us, but if I call a stranger or someone I don’t like a cunt, the meaning is very different, both because I intend it to be hurtful, and because it will likely be received as hurtful. Simple enough, right? Things get a little more complicated, though, if I call Brian a cunt in the presence of other people who don’t feel this is an appropriate thing to say: this is when the social context comes into play and muddies the waters. But wait — those waters get muddier still if we start asking questions about whether using the word ‘cunt’ as a vulgarity is intrinsically degrading to women and is therefore helping to reinforce a sexist, patriarchal culture.

Oh dear… that escalated quickly, didn’t it? Me being silly and calling my friend an affectionately absurd word now means I’m unconsciously an agent of the patriarchy. I don’t buy this. Like many words, this one means different things at different times to different people: as an insult, it is simply a ‘bad word’, not something which conjures an image of the female sex organs. Or, to be more accurate, it doesn’t necessarily do so: it depends, as ever, on who, which is why using such a word in the presence of people who you don’t know and/or who won’t understand your intention is not a good idea. There are different codes of conduct in different social contexts, so don’t say offensive things in front of those you don’t intend to hurt, but you also don’t get to tell me how to speak in private with my friends.

I appreciate that there’s definitely a bigger and more complicated debate to have on this particular issue. But the point here about joke-telling is that social context is key: where you speak and to whom can always trump your intention when you tell a joke.

Speaking of Trump…

It’s an undeniably thin line between telling a racist joke ‘ironically’ and simply being racist. I can’t choose how people react to what I say, but I can still make judgements on what to say based on what I know of my audience and the social context that we’re in at that moment. In Trump’s case, then, whatever his intention and personal views, which we can’t know for sure, he says inflammatory things in front of a mass audience while theoretically being a serious politician discussing plans for the future.

It’s highly unlikely that his entire presidential run is the world’s most convoluted and sustained satirical experiment and that he’s actually revealing to us the broken madness of the US political system and the deep prejudice of many of his supporters. Trump may be laughable to many, but he isn’t a comedian. He doesn’t get the comedian’s licence to say outrageous things under the premise that he is not to be taken literally and is intentionally playing with the limits of the acceptable. Between friends, we can negotiate this role; on a stage, the fool wears motley, but the (would-be) king does not.

In this sense, at least, I completely agree with Jason. But this isn’t because of what Trump said being ‘just a joke’, whatever we mean by that. No, it’s because the audience and social context meant that it didn’t function as an ‘ironic’ joke at all: too many people in his following genuinely hold such views, and the social context of a would-be leader [and now actual President] making derogatory statements, even playfully, about certain groups of people, is at best disturbing, and likely prompts some people to feel ‘licensed’ to act on their own prejudices, much as we saw in the waves of public acts of racism and xenophobia — physically violent as well as verbally — in Britain following the Brexit vote, when numerous people interpreted the vote as carte blanche to reveal their bigotry.

So where does this leave us? The key issue with Trump is that intention, audience and context are all wrong for a prejudiced joke to work in any of the positive ways we’ve just discussed. Jokes aren’t the problem: he is. And we have to remember that before we demonise or simplify humour, even or especially offensive humour. Because only authoritarian regimes do that. Humour is a vital part of the human condition and life itself — and like everything else in life, certainties and absolutes are few and far between.

‘Just Joking’?

So are we ever ‘just joking’? The big problem here is the idea that to say you were ‘just joking’ is the same as saying ‘the joke had no meaning at all’. In this sense it’s quite right to say that ‘You’re never “just joking”’. But, really, when we say ‘Oh, I was just joking’, we don’t usually mean ‘there was no purpose or meaning or significance behind what I said’; what we often mean is, ‘I do not really hold the exaggerated views I just played out in this joke — you have misunderstood my intention’.

Jokes are part of the realm of fantasy and imagination: we don’t think that our dreams or our sexual fantasies are actually real, say, but they can be entertaining distractions all the same. To say that we can never be ‘just joking’ without doing harm to a person or group that’s the subject of the joke would be a bit like saying that you can never have a sexual fantasy about someone without this actually violating them. Sure, telling them directly about your fantasy could have very uncomfortable consequences; telling anyone except close friends who you know will treat the fantasy for what it is — fantasy — would also potentially create a strange atmosphere between you, them, and the person in the fantasy. In other words, it depends who you’re talking to, but that doesn’t mean that you and your listeners are all suddenly doing harm.

There is no ‘never’ or ‘always’ with humour. It’s a genre in which everything is provisional; everything is up for grabs, and nothing is sacred. It’s so deeply entwined with the human condition that it’s as varied as life itself. Because jokes are inherently ambiguous — they play with and step outside of reality — what they mean depends upon the teller, the audience, and the context in which the joke is told. That’s why people have been trying to understand and explain humour since Aristotle and likely much earlier still — and we still don’t have any firm answers.

Jason calling out Trump for being a prejudiced bigot who says things that are inflammatory and disrespectful is more than fair enough. Jokes can do exactly what he says they can do. But it’s doing no one any favours to effectively demonise all jokes that make fun of particular groups or persons. They might never be just a joke, but that’s because they can be so much more.

The article was originally published in slightly different form on Voices in the Dark — a blog and podcast that brings you conversations and interviews about life, philosophy, psychology, psychedelics, spirituality, social dynamics and more. Our mission is to entertain, provoke, inform, and make you question everything you think you know. Our motto is: Be Silly, Be Kind, Be Weird.

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