Comedy and social justice

Why can’t you take a joke? How humour both silences and challenges

Photo: 92YTribeca

Earlier this week, I curled up on my couch with a glass of wine and watched the livestreamed conversation between renowned social activist and feminist bell hooks and political comic Hari Kondabolu, hosted by the Cassandra Voss Centre in Wisconsin’s St. Norbert’s College. Through the beauty and accessibility of online media I was able to enjoy a thoughtful and informative discussion from the comfort of my living room in Montreal, Canada.

Kondabolu is a comedian known for his politically and socially charged material that routinely focuses on issues of race, white privilege, and discrimination. And since bell hooks has written on intersectional feminism for decades, it was inevitable that the use of humour to silence the marginalized, and the use of humour by the marginalized to challenge and advocate for justice, would come up.

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At first glance, humour and politics might appear contradictory because contentious social movements are often seen as serious and angry, whereas humour is perceived as frivolous and light. But bell hooks believes that “we cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour” and that “humour is an intervention in a dysfunctional situation, which leaves the door open for healing and understanding.”

“we cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour” - bell hooks

During the discussion, Kondabolu cited comedians such as Margaret Cho and Paul Mooney as examples of how it is possible to make people uncomfortable by communicating important truths, while still making them laugh. In doing so, humour can be a communication tool and part of a strategy for social movement activists. Humour basically offers a non-threatening way of challenging long-held beliefs, while forcing people to question and rethink what they thought to be true.

When Kondabolu stated during the discussion that he doesn’t like being branded a “political comic” or a social justice warrior, because he doesn’t see his observations as political, but mere observations, hooks was quick to explain that “branding is a way of silencing.”

If you brand someone as a whiner, a complainer, a humourless SJW, you are outright dismissing and belittling their concerns, their critique of an unjust system, and the mere fact that your words and actions are complicit in their dehumanization.

The fact that so many SJWs who point out sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious discrimination are treated with such a disproportionate amount of disdain for simply daring to object, speaks volumes about the establishment’s desire to silence dissent.

As bell hooks astutely pointed out, “Normalized aggression isn’t seen as political. Only criticism of normalized aggression is seen as political.” It’s a point really worth remembering as we navigate often-confusing discussions on freedom of speech and hate speech.

In “Laughing against Patriarchy: Humour, Silence, and Feminist Resistance,” an essay by Amy Billingsley, a crucial question is asked, one touched upon by hooks and Kondabolu. “What is the difference between silencing humour and humour that breaks silence? And what would it look like for humour to serve as a practice of feminist resistance?”

Silencing humour occurs when sexist jokes, rape jokes, and misogynist jokes about violence are laughed off as a way of evading and trivializing a person’s discomfort and unease with the content. When a stand-up comic uses violence or sexism as the focal point of a casual joke, it’s not edgy or original because there’s nothing original, shocking, or revolutionary about the status quo. Half of all women in Canada will experience at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lives. That’s the norm. So when most of male-dominated comedy, existing and thriving in a patriarchal world, trivializes and dismisses sexual aggression and female concerns towards it, it challenges nothing.

In fact, it is because we live in a world where masculine-centric discourse is the established norm that sexual aggression can actually be joked about as a cliché reflection of reality.

“Normalized aggression isn’t seen as political. Only criticism of normalized aggression is seen as political.” - bell hooks

In video footage of the Steubenville gang rape the perpetrators “joked” about “raping her quicker than Mike Tyson raped that other girl” and said she was “deader than Obi Wan Kenobi after Darth Vader cut his head off.”

In a similar vein, the Philippines presidential campaign front-runner thought it completely appropriate to recently “joke” about wanting to be the “first” in the gang rape of a hostage victim who eventually died.

These are both instances of silencing humour, the kind that dismisses violence against women as inconsequential and unimportant.

Of course every time someone decides it’s okay to “joke” about such horrific, violent, and sadly common incidents around the world, the “not all men” brigade comes riding into town shutting dissent down and calling naysayers overzealous, biased, malicious, and agenda-driven.

But as bell hooks pointed out, humour, and by extension stand-up comedy, is not innocent, but can convey a silencing message. The trope of the humourless feminist has been used time and time again as a means of silencing those who object to sexism and misogyny. Repeatedly and routinely we’re told that “we can’t take a joke” if we dare point out that something is humiliating, abusive, and corrosive to our mental and physical health and safety.

It’s why funny feminist writers including Caitlin Moran, Lindy West, and Jessica Valenti, to name a few, provide important counterpoints to that convenient and misleading fallacy that women aren’t funny. Women laughing at sexism and exposing the absurdity of men’s rights advocates’ anger (Feminist Tinder and Do You Consider Yourself a Feminist are examples of Tumblrs doing just that) ultimately allow for safe spaces where people can speak out, thereby providing a means of feminist resistance.

For those interested, a video of the conversation will be available online next week at www.snc.edu/cvc

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