License to Laugh?
There is a scene in Disney’s Finding Nemo where the title character is initiated into the aquarium community in a ritual with chanting and a test of will (he has to swim though a ring of bubbles). At the end of this ceremony he is given a new name. “Henceforth you will be known as Shark Bait” and the group chants, “Shark Bait, oo-ha-ha!” It’s hard to imagine a fish would enjoy being dubbed a predator’s appetizer, but sometimes irony equals humor.
Humor is a wonderful thing. With it you can connect with people, make friends, defuse conflicts and lower stress. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that laughter, the most satisfying result of a great sense of humor, has health benefits including lowering blood pressure and strengthening the immune system. So, it’s all good, right? Well, maybe not all good.
Humor is best understood not as a beneficial force but as a tool that—when used with the right intention and skill—can yield beneficial results. Think of any tool from a hammer to say, Donald Trump (ba-da BING! You see what I did there?). Used the right way and you can build a house or a deck (or in the case of the Donald, a gigantic skyscraper or comb-over). But with the wrong intention it can be used as a blunt instrument to inflict pain and suffering.
And the hammer can be dangerous, too (Man! I am on fire today!).
Individually, a sense of humor can be an insulator that protects us from painful reality much in the same way a potholder allows us to handle a hot skillet without burning our fingers. It can provide us a healthier response alternative to experiences that could otherwise cause anger, embarrassment, frustration and fear.
In a group setting, humor connects people in a shared emotional experience, creating and strengthening bonds. But it can also be used with contempt to isolate, ridicule and destroy self-esteem. The most well-intentioned humor can cause offense when used at the wrong moment or without proper sensitivity. Humor is a complicated tool with more moving parts than a threshing machine.
Even for those who understand it, humor is risky (as the inevitable lawsuit from Trump Enterprises will undoubtedly prove), and for the hapless jokester without a highly developed self-awareness or latent –or not so latent—prejudices, it has often become a game-changer that has derailed long and successful careers of politicians, sports figures, college presidents and movie stars.
One of the important functions of humor that creates so much confusion is the way that humor is used to define groups and to set an inside boundary. Simply put, jokes a group can make, but you—as an outsider—must not.
Sometimes people ask, “Why can a such-and-such a group engage in derogatory language and humor among themselves, but when I do it, it’s offensive?” It’s because the group has a license that is granted only to those on the inside.
The unfolding scandal at my alma mater, Ohio State, which has resulted in the firing of the band director, is a prime example. An internal investigation concluded that the band had a “highly sexualized culture” as evidenced by the use of degrading nicknames and traditions like “midnight ramp” that required band-members to march in the darkened stadium in their underwear.
To read the list of OSU Band practices is pretty disturbing. Yet, the backlash has been enormous from current and former members who have defended the director and even the traditions. The reason (and please understand that I’m explaining not defending here) was that this was an interior use of humor that was outrageous on purpose. The more outrageous it appears to an outsider, the more it defines the closed and elite nature of a group.
Far from feeling offended (although undoubtedly some on the inside were offended but reluctant to speak out), many of the members embraced the traditions, even going so far as having their sexist nicknames printed on tee shirts and practice jerseys. The reaction of one female band member who had done just that (and her nickname was a particularly offensive combination of her religion and her chest size) was telling. She defended the nickname as being something only her band-mates could use (“Shark Bait, oo-ha-ha!”) and felt offense and humiliation only when it was published in the university report and picked up by the press. What bothered her was not the nickname used in the context of the band, but that people on the outside, who had no license to know what went on inside the group, could now read it.
If you drive a car, go fishing or own a dog, the laws in most places require you possess a license. Not having a license doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to do those things, it means you aren’t allowed to and you face a penalty if you do. In the same way groups of people defined by ethnicity, occupation, religion and social standing can use even apparently offensive humor among themselves.
Only those on the inside are granted a license.
Author’s note: For my insensitive remarks, I wish to apologize to Mr. Trump and anyone else I may have offended in the BBG (Balding Billionaires Group).