What Can Laughter Do For Social Justice?

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Basic human biology makes humor an effective tool to fight oppression.

The feminist scholar bell hooks wrote a passage on laughter that I still think about regularly. The paragraph is from her 2004 book The Will to Change. In it, she tells the story of standing up in front of an audience and using the phrase “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our social system. Her listeners burst into laughter. It would be easy to take their reaction as a gesture of mockery, but bell hooks doesn’t. Instead, she observes, “No one ever explained what about the phrase was funny…I choose to interpret their laughter as a sign of discomfort.”

According to scientific research, she’s right. Studies show that “endorphins secreted by laughter can help when people are uncomfortable.” Because laughter is a social lubricant that strengthens human bonds — an evolutionary advantage our primate ancestors developed 10–16 million years ago — Homo sapiens are especially likely to laugh when they sense a threat to their social order. Of course, as bell hooks points out, our current social order grants more power to white people, wealthy people, and men. By naming these phenomena for what they are — examples of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy — hooks distances herself from these social structures and suggests a division between caucasians and people of color, the wealthy and the poor, the male and the female. The easiest way to smooth over potential ruptures in the audience as a result of this statement? Laughing.

The irony is that in attempting to laugh off distress, humans often become complicit in the social inequalities that create friction in the first place. The philosopher Henri Bergson considered laughter a social corrective, one that people use when they sense someone deviating from communal norms. For instance, if a communal norm is for men to wear pants, and one man walks outside in a skirt, laughing spectators just might drive that man back inside to change into his jeans. Nobody likes the humiliation of unwanted attention. And so, by laughing at “deviants,” people with influence can corral straying group members back into “acceptable” boundaries. This kind of social policing gives “deviant” community members a choice: Obey the rules, or become the group laughingstock. In this way, laughter works to uphold norms that harm the marginalized.

But while laughter can be used as a tool by the powerful to keep the powerless in line, it can also be used inversely: as a way for the marginalized to reclaim power, while engendering a crucial dialogue around social justice. Two comedians of color — Aziz Ansari and Jessica Williams — have been particularly deft at using laughter to communicate thorny messages about racism, sexism, and all the other -isms — and the way they’ve done it is rooted in basic human psychology.

While laughter can be used as a tool by the powerful to keep the powerless in line, it can also be used inversely.

Take the “First Date” episode of Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, in which his character Dev, a New Yorker of Indian descent in his thirties, meets a white woman on a dating app. They end up back in her bedroom, where she asks him to get a condom from the ceramic jar on her night table. He turns around to find that the jar is fashioned as a cartoonish-looking black woman in a red dress and white apron: a racist image of the black “Mammy.” The camera zooms into the jar in a series of exaggerated close-ups, with dramatic non-diegetic sound effects. The cinematic flair makes Dev’s predicament obvious. As viewers, we laugh to relieve our own sense of uneasiness with the scene.

A few cuts later, Dev explains to his date that the jar is offensive. “Isn’t it a little racist?” he asks. “You can’t use that shade of black to depict African-American people.” When she protests that nobody else has ever been offended by the jar, he wants to know if any black people have seen it. She says no. Dev raises his eyebrows. “So, I’m the person with the darkest skin tone that’s seen it, and I’m the most offended. Don’t you see a correlation there?” It’s a hard moment to swallow, but Aziz Ansari had preempted his viewers’ discomfort. We’ve already laughed out our tension. And now we can truly hear his point about racist paraphernalia.

Our increased receptivity post-laughter has a biological explanation. Laughter decreases cortisol levels and other stress-producing hormones. As a result, humans become more amicable and less confrontational after some chuckles. According to Psychology Today, “laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain,” including those involved in phenomena like friendship, love, and affection. All of this softens our fight-or-flight instinct and lubricates otherwise strained interactions. If only Dev’s partner observed the scene from the TV viewer’s perspective, she might have been more open to his criticism.

Jessica Williams pulls off something similar in Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere. The video is a 2014 parody on street harassment, based on a Fox newscaster’s claim that America’s “feminized atmosphere” is demonizing men. In the video, Williams prances by Manhattan construction workers while singing You’re a Grand Old Flag, trying to ward off their inevitable catcalling. She gushes sarcastically that her commute is like “competing in a beauty pageant every day!” Her satirical portrayal of catcalling shows how irritating and even frightening this harassment can be for women on the streets.

I laughed aloud watching Williams’ video. I could relate to it all. Her jokes were empowering for me, because they gave me permission to laugh at a daily frustration. Although there was a screen between us, I also felt a bond with the women Williams interviewed in the skit. We had similar trials, and we were laughing about them together. As evolution would have it, my social bonds felt stronger.

Philosophers studying laughter might have attributed my feelings to superiority theory. This theory states that when somebody laughs at another person, they feel superior to the party who’s the butt of the joke. In cases where the people laughing are more oppressed than those they’re laughing at, the solidarity can bring with it a sense of power. As Jazmine Hughes wrote in The New Republic, “By making fun of white people, people of color can, in a small way, push back against stereotypes, opposing racial humor by inverting it.” Hughes gives an example: “If you are a black person in the 1800s, and there’s a white man who owns you, beats you, and tears your family apart, then it’s totally fine to crack a joke about his waistcoat to your friends.” If you’re a woman, you’re allowed to make fun of the men whose stares creep you out as you’re walking home. The women in Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere are inverting sexist humor, comically rebuffing the male newscasters who think sexism is overhyped.

In cases where the people laughing are more oppressed than those they’re laughing at, solidarity can bring with it a sense of power.

There are real emotional benefits to group laughter, as well. Laughing with friends for 15 minutes can raise pain tolerance levels by 10%. Whether it’s women like me laughing at Fox News commentators with Jessica Williams, or people of color cracking up with Aziz Ansari at white people’s ignorance, the opportunity to make fun of an oppressive force is cathartic. Considering how many people feel oppressed by Trump’s presidency, it’s no surprise that viewers are finding ablution through the late-night skewering of Donald Trump by Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, two comedians whose ratings have surged since Inauguration Day.

When bell hooks lectured on our “white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy,” I suspect she was sincerely naming the hierarchies that organize American society. But on some level, I wonder if she knew her string of multi-syllabic words would get some laughs. Trying to label our flawed social system only emphasizes exactly how flawed it is. It takes 17 syllables just to name the problem. The power imbalances are so great, that describing them sounds unintentionally hyperbolic. In a reality so ridiculous, there’s hardly any room for exaggeration — and even the most liberal audience could find that funny, in a self-deprecating, shared misery kind of way.

Perhaps this laughter was something bell hooks intended. Just like comedians set the stage for earnest discussions, so bell hooks might have been breaking her students’ apathy by giving them an easy access point. Laughter doesn’t necessarily lead to understanding, but if some giggles help students open their ears, it’s a step in the right direction.

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