By Daniel J. McLaughlin
"It's just a joke," they insist, "Where's your sense of humour?" Jokes can be, of course, subjective. 'Knock knock' jokes may cause some groan, or others to roll on the floor, holding their belly. You may roll your eyes at cheesy puns, whilst others loudly guffaw at the wordplay.
However, once the jokes target one particular group of people, in particular a minority, they cease their seemingly harmless status - and end up punching downwards, instead of spreading the funnies far and wide.
As the late Sir Terry Pratchett was believed to say, "Satire is meant to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it's not satire; it's bullying."
I may be accused of political correctness penning this article, as though I am a sensitive snowflake, censoring language. But there is a difference between political correctness and common decency. The former does exist, and it can do more harm than its good intentions. Political correctness immediately shuts down the debate, leaving no right of reply for people holding contrary opinions; and by closing the forum, it prevents room for understanding and growth.
Common decency, on the other hand, allows views to be heard, even if they are not ones that you hold. It opens a dialogue about harmful words, actions, and behaviour. Instead of chastising someone for ignorance (in the true sense of the word) on certain matters, such as gender identity or sexuality, common decency informs them about how it affects a person or a group - and why they should consider changing or avoiding what could cause harm.
And that's what I intend to do here: open a debate about gay jokes, and explain why it is not a humour deficit to describe them as potentially harmful.
Jokes aimed at minorities, such as the LGBTQ community, are known as 'disparagement humour'. They are paradoxical: the 'jokes' communicated an explicit hostile or prejudiced message, whilst attempting to hide the hostility in the medium of humour. Writing for the Conversation, Thomas E. Ford, professor of social psychology at Western Carolina University, observes that prejudiced people conceal their true beliefs and attitudes most of the time - but it can be unlocked through disparagement humour.
Ford proposes a "prejudiced norm theory". Sexist humour, for instance, can expand the limits of what is an acceptable way to treat women. He found that men with hostile sexism reported greater tolerance of gender harassment in the workplace when exposed to this sexist humour. Similarly, studies have found that these men recommended greater funding cuts at their university after watching sexist comedy skits.
"Even more disturbing," Ford adds, "other researchers found that men higher in hostile sexism expressed greater willingness to rape a woman upon exposure to sexist versus non-sexist humour."
The same could apply to gay jokes. This disparagement humour could promote discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Off-colour jokes about gay men resulted in those exposed to them to recommend greater budget cuts to a gay student organisation in another study.
Christopher John Hunt, a clinical psychologist from the University of Sydney, explores the subtle effects of offensive language. The choice of words in a gay joke can also impact the levels of discrimination that members of the LGBTQ community face. For instance, an Italian study found differing impacts on attitudes towards gay people based on whether they heard them described as "gay" or "fags".
When hearing the word "fag", heterosexual people displayed greater negative attitudes towards gay people than when they heard the word "gay". "This highlights how using offensive language may have an important indirect impact on minority groups, as it may have an unintended effect of hardening majority group members' attitudes towards then," Hunt concludes.
Even in the case of progressives making jokes, it can have a negative impact on perceptions of gay people. For instance, liberal comics in the United States, such as Stephen Colbert, have made gay jokes about the 'relationship' between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. While it does not come from a source of bigotry, they can be harmful.
"To those less enlightened than the progressive jokesters and their audiences, this brand of humour sends the message that gay jokes are a perfectly acceptable way to undermine a man's social status. It teaches kids that making gay jokes about classmates who are a little too friendly is all right. It tells conservatives and Trump supporters that gay jokes are funny - and that being gay is, indeed, being weak," the Washington Post argues.
Gay jokes may appear to be harmless attempts at humour, and even some of them come from those who believe they are not homophobic, but they can cause harm, whether it's overt or covert.