Written by Sal Bhakuni
“Just kidding” is a defense against the out-group – a way to get out of an ill-timed, offensive, or hurtful joke. Now, the out-group can’t be angry with you, because it was, seemingly, a joke all along – they should have known better.
From puns to jokes to memes, humor has been a part of our world since the dawn of time. Some anthropologists believe that the humans have been joking around since the concept of a campfire began where cavemen could sit amongst one another and discuss their days. We’ve come a long way since then: humor no longer functions as a way to pass the time – now we have parody twitter accounts, tumblr text posts, reddit threads, instagram videos, and vine clips just to name a few. The often non-sensical nature of these humor devices have older generations convinced that millennials are getting less and less smart over time. So what is the social function of humor in the age of memes, and what does it really say about us?
At the most fundamental level, humor exists as a way for humans to include or exclude, allowing us to integrate others into our groups or prevent them from being a part of our communities. It tells us who we as individuals, and to a larger extent, society, celebrate and who we spurn, and why and how we do that. For example, let’s take President Trump’s “joke”, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Those who are a part of the in-group are meant to laugh in agreement, while those are a part of the out-group might not laugh or become angry. The joke serves as a way to reinforce the actions of the in-group while alienating the out-group, and based on who responds to the joke and how, we can tell which group people belong to and what actions to take from there.
But what if you’re like President Trump, and “just kidding” when you make one of these jokes? Often when people say that they are just joking, they are automatically on the defense; you don’t need to say that you are kidding to the in-group because they automatically know the truth. “Just kidding” is a defense against the out-group – a way to get out of an ill-timed, offensive, or hurtful joke. Now, the out-group can’t be angry with you, because it was, seemingly, a joke all along – they should have known better. Albeit, we live in the age of roasting culture where jokes at other people’s expense are seen as funny, but it’s probably fair to say that the President isn’t trying to roast those whom he offends.
It’s important to understand the power dynamics at play in relation to the world around us and the implications of those dynamics on our society. If the recent election has taught us anything, it’s that those in the President’s in-group is larger than we might have originally thought. When we can contextualize our interactions, humorous or not, with those around us, within these kinds of psychological and functional frameworks, we can better decide the courses of action to take, regardless of if we are a part of the in-group or not.