Comedy for Druids

Comedy often has a political dimension even if it’s not ostensibly about politicians. You can subvert and undermine with laughter, draw attention to issues, and raise awareness. This is the kind of work we might want to associate with the Druid satire tradition. Such comedy is a means by which those who have little worldly power can call to account those who have a great deal of power over them.

There is another kind of comedy. It is used by the powerful to crush the less powerful, through mockery, ridicule, stereotyping and misleading. It is used as a cover for hate speech and prejudice. I am seeing this online a lot, and it troubles me greatly. Abusive, humiliating and cruel, hate speech is easily framed by joke shapes. Object, and you will be told that the problem is you, for having no sense of humour. Feminists who object to rape jokes are told they have no sense of humour. “Just a laugh” is used to excuse reinforcing the idea that women are inherently inferior, that it is ok to judge women purely on looks, and all manner of other unsavoury things. I’m prepared to bet that other groups subject to hate speech also have to endure ‘jokes’ that aren’t funny.

The first rule of comedy is that it should get a laugh. Lines like “You’re so fat and ugly” are not innately comedic. Using words like ‘lame’ and ‘gay’ as criticisms is not ironic, or clever, or funny, it’s just lazy language use that needlessly reinforces prejudice. I’ve seen far too much of this. If you are using comedy to attack someone who has less power than you, then you’re doing it wrong. If you spot someone making gags of that shape, it’s worth calling them out. The point of satire is to keep the powerful in line and civilised, not to bash the disadvantaged.

Calling out unfunny bigots who claim comedy as an excuse for airing their hate, is not a safe or easy business. Expect to get a dose of it too. If you say “that’s not comedy, that’s racism” to someone online, then a response like “you’re an ugly bitch who can’t take a joke” is likely. Probably even if you’re a guy. I think guys who challenge are more likely to be told they aren’t ‘proper men’, that they must be ‘gay’, have a vagina, or otherwise not be macho enough to laugh. Hate pedlars come in both genders, and will justify and defend their hate without a second thought. Usually by giving anyone who questions it a thorough dose of their poison. If you’re calling someone out, you have to weather this. Take it personally, and they will call you weak and ridicule you, while their prejudices go unchallenged because they can avoid taking you seriously. I can’t say reasoning with the unfunny brigade works, but if you try it, do it calmly, without anger and without resorting to hate speech yourself. There are forms of sympathy that can get under people’s skin. “I really feel sorry for you. Life must be pretty grim if this counts as funny. I’m guessing you aren’t a very happy person.” A ‘poor you’ approach can confuse, challenge, break down defences and leave no room for a really angry comeback.

Refusing to get the joke is an interesting strategy for dealing with the unfunny. Even good comedy suffers when you have to explain it. Play clueless, and try and get them to explain to you why the ‘joke’ is funny. There’s nothing like having to break it down and expose the core prejudice to make it clear to someone exactly what they are saying. Conveying the idea that it doesn’t work as a joke helps reduce the incentive to keep pedalling it.

People use comedy to draw attention to themselves, and to show off how clever they are, in part. Failure to get a laugh, drawing the wrong kind of attention, or getting feedback that tells you that no one thinks you are clever, makes trying to pass hate speech off as humour less appealing. If the aim of being unfunny is to make sure that you are the aggressor, not the victim, getting laughed at is not the outcome you wanted.

It’s one thing laughing at the foolish things people do. It’s another laughing at the things people have no control over. Laughter that deflates arrogance is a good thing. Laughter that crushes the vulnerable, is not. Far too many people either do not know, or do not care that there is a difference. We need a culture shift, to which end it may be productive to start laughing at the people who are not funny, rather than laughing with their hate speech or being silent in a way they will understand as tacit support.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Comedy for Druids

  • evan

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  • Terra

    I think there’s some sexism in the dynamic you describe. Often it is men telling women they are too sensitive, can’t take a joke, etc. I see it as a way that men disempower women. Their comments dismiss our words, they try to make our words have no power. Of courses, it’s not always men dismissing women — people of any gender may be on either side of the conversation. To me, this particular dynamic is part of the larger problem of people not respecting each other’s words. I have seen this dynamic of “you can’t take a joke,” but fortunately it is not something that comes up in my life much right now. The kind of thing that happens more in my life right now is I say things like, “I’m miserable,” and someone says, “You should not be miserable. You have a lot of good things on your life. You should be grateful for what you have.” I think that “you should be grateful” dynamic is not as bad as the “you can’t take a joke” dynamic, but I think they are both part of the problem of people trying to invalidate other people’s feelings. I struggle with how to cope with this. One thing I do find is that when people lash out, when they seem aggressive, when they put people down, often they are feeling hurt, and are trying to protect themselves from that hurt. So if you say, “You are being racist,” and a person replies, “I was just joking. You can’t take a joke,” it’s probably because it would be very painful to that person to accept the idea that they actually are racist. Perhaps a useful approach would be to tell the person making the racist joke, “I know you mean well, but some people are hurt by that type of comment, and this is why people find it hurtful.” Another idea I have about to handle this type of situation is to tell myself that they can only disempower me if I let them, that I can choose to give no credence to their comments. So I have these ideas about how to handle people who behave with disrespect, but in practice, if I find someone is being disrespectful, usually I don’t want to bother to talk to them. If someone I care about and am close to hurts me, I usually struggle with them about it, because I want to continue the relationship. But otherwise, if someone hurts me, I just shut them out. I’m not sure it’s a good thing. I do get bothered by things that many people wouldn’t get bothered by, so it seems there is a only a small number of people I bother to talk to, and I sometimes end up more isolated than I would like to be. And I also feel I have an obligation not to let disrespectful behavior stand unopposed. But we can only do so much. We need to nurture our souls, and sometimes that means not fighting every battle.

  • Nimue Brown

    I think you’ve nailed a lot of really important points there. Thank you for sharing those thoughts. The isolated bit is not good though.

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