Taylor: Humour has bitter edges

Look around the room: Someone won’t be laughing at your hilarious joke.

Humour is a funny thing. Because sometimes it isn’t funny.

A political cartoon of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is funny—unless you’re Stephen Harper.

A comic strip about a fat orange cat is funny—as long as you don’t ask for Garfield’s opinion.

Is a satirical cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed funny? Some gunmen in Paris didn’t think so.

North Korea’s president Kim Jong-un apparently took strong offence to a rather inept and juvenile movie.

My friend Ralph Milton has done some serious study of humour. He contends that humour usually has a victim. “When you hear a joke,” he says, “look around and see who’s not laughing. Who feels hurt? Who is wincing?”

That’s why I can’t repeat most of the jokes I heard as an adolescent. They almost universally portrayed girls and women as objects for male pleasure. Sadly, 13 dental students at Dalhousie University in Halifax still think so.

If those old jokes didn’t denigrate women, then they picked on other races. Or on people with supposed mental or physical handicaps. Remember the Newfie jokes we once thought were so funny?

Today, you can only tell a Jewish joke if you’re Jewish. An Irish joke, if you’re Irish. Otherwise, it’s evidence of prejudice.

Even gentle humour has a victim—ourselves. In the narratives spun by Garrison Keillor or Stuart McLean, we recognize our own foibles, our own failings. And so we laugh at ourselves. Laughter is our reward for seeing the punch line coming.

Ever wondered why it’s called a “punch line”? The term itself identifies the subliminal violence hidden in humour.

Laughing at yourself is a learned response. Young children don’t laugh at themselves. When they feel that adults are laughing at them, they cry. Or get angry.

Laughing at yourself demands a certain maturity. Some people never develop it. Anything that seems to ridicule their icons—for example, the Prophet Mohammed—causes them to flare up.

In our increasingly secular western world, we have learned to admire the acid artistry of Aislin, the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin, the zaniness of Monty Python.

But we too have our icons. I suspect most of us would not take kindly seeing Queen Elizabeth portrayed as a drug dealer. Or the Pope as an arms merchant.

Or—an extreme example, perhaps—Jesus with an erection. Christian churches, despite their many variances, generally share a conviction that Jesus was pure, unsullied by “sinful” thoughts, the earthly embodiment of a sexless God.

I think a lot of people would be outraged.

You see, we’re not very good at imagining ourselves into other people’s feelings. Or, as the Golden Rule puts it, at treating others the way we hope they might treat us.

I’m not arguing that we should get rid of humour. Humour can lay bare a person’s inconsistencies and weaknesses. It can make tyrants look ridiculous. And it is vastly preferable to organized war. Or, for that matter, to disorganized war—lynchings, bombings and shooting up schools and shopping malls.

Life would be very dull without humour.

But humour can be used as a weapon. And when it is, we need to remember that even humour has victims.