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Humour and Offensiveness in Contemporary Culture and Politics
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We’re accustomed to seeing humour as a diversion from the serious side of life, but humour also permeates some of the most troubling political developments in recent years. From the resurgence of white nationalism to the erosion of democratic norms, jokes force-feed us objectionable ideologies while we gasp and splutter at all the side-splitting shenanigans.

This book explores the relationship between humour and offensiveness in contemporary society. Drawing on examples from philosophical thinkers and popular culture, it invites readers to consider the dark side of humour.

Weaving together cultural analysis, political discussion and philosophical reflection, the book provides an antidote to positive thinking about laughter and a roadmap for navigating different types of offensive humour.

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Chapter 1 examines the relation between reactionary humour and subversive humour. The chapter begins by outlining Plato and Aristotle’s ethics of humour. Despite their philosophical differences, both thinkers warn us about humour at the same time as they seek to harness its power for their own ends. The key question they raise – where do we draw the line between good-natured humour and outright offence? – is one that preoccupies philosophers to this day. Some offer a bleaker answer than others. For Freud, humour provides an insight into our unwholesome appetites and aggressive instincts. Post-Freudian philosophers have sought to paint humour in a more positive, emancipatory light. But, as the chapter shows, it’s impossible to clearly demarcate between conservative humour and rebellious humour, between humour that reinforces our existing prejudices and humour that shatters our common-sense assumptions. What jokes want to do, more than anything else, is to kick up a stink and make us laugh – and the surest way to do this is to violate our moral sentiments, albeit with a nod and a wink.

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Chapter 2 considers the social and political implications of laughter. The chapter begins by reflecting on Hobbes’ writings on civil war, which depict laughter as a passion that’s rooted in violent emotion and intertwined with political instability. For Hobbes, humour ought to be expunged from our political discourse before it leads to discord and unrest. By contrast, Enlightenment philosophers like Kant and Hutcheson view laughter as a healthy expression of inner sentiment – and it’s this theory of laugher that remains with us today in the form of self-help books and feel-good therapeutics. Twentieth-century philosophers like Bataille and Foucault go even further: laughter is able to radically reorder our ways of thinking, knowing, and acting upon the world. Despite Hobbes’ warnings, laughter has become a philosophical touchstone of optimism and transcendence. Yet, as the chapter argues, laughter is deceptive; it shakes your hand at the same time as it punches you in the gut. This is captured by Bergson, for whom laughter – under the cover of fun and frothiness – punishes deviant behaviour by shaming us into compliance and conformity.

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Chapter 3 explores the political significance of humour in liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. In the second half of the 20th century, a sense of humour became a desirable trait, not only for individual citizens, but also for our elected representatives. The ability to tell a good joke is a way for political leaders to demonstrate that they’re smart, charismatic, and in tune with popular sentiment. And if our elected representatives should ever stray from the path of honesty and integrity, biting political satire will expose their failings. Humour is so closely aligned with the values of liberal democracy, such as tolerance and open-mindedness, that a lack of humour is often associated with brutal dictatorships like the Third Reich or North Korea. But, as the chapter contends, this underplays the extent to which boundary-pushing humour can serve also fascistic ends, such as coating virulent antisemitism with a veneer of winking irony or dressing up violent racism as cheeky banter. Jokes don’t have a political allegiance, but they do target those who appear to take themselves too seriously – which, for the far right, includes anyone who believes in equality, diversity, and inclusion.

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Chapter 4 discusses the most clown-like political leaders in recent history: George W. Bush, Donald J. Trump, and Boris Johnson. Over the last decade, a number of professional funnymen have entered the world of politics: Jimmy Morales in Guatemala, Beppe Grillo in Italy, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine. Unlike these comedians-turned-politicians, Bush, Trump, and Johnson engage in a hybrid form of politics we might call ‘clownsmanship’, a portmanteau that combines clowning and statesmanship. In the same way as circus clowns, these world leaders are simultaneously amusing and terrifying, and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry at their repeated blunders and provocations. Bush’s unintentionally funny slips of the tongue, Trump’s ludicrous boasts and insults, and Johnson’s shambling persona and comic exaggeration – these are more than personal defects. As the chapter demonstrates, they’re politico-comic strategies to gain power, deflect criticism, and avoid accountability. Taboo-busting humour is the backdrop to a certain type of anti-establishment politics, yet we’re so preoccupied by all the monkey business that we fail to realize that the joke’s ultimately on us.

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Chapter 5 examines the relation between humour and the body. Traditionally, bodily functions like urination and defecation have served as the ripest material for comedy. Scatological jokes liberate us from the norms of politeness and decorum, but they also offer a reprieve from repressive social structures. This is the view of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose concept of ‘carnivalesque humour’ captures the renegade spirit of laughter and provides an antidote to the stern diktats of state and church. Inspired by Bakhtin, contemporary thinkers see carnivalesque humour – rooted in the lower bodily stratum – as a means of popular resistance against despotic regimes. But comic ribaldry isn’t always a progressive force in society. As the chapter argues, the far right stokes division in the culture wars by characterizing certain types of bodies as disgusting and hilarious. Scatological jokes invoke a combination of repulsion and amusement, a volatile mix of feelings that’s sometimes used to delegitimize the rights of gay and transgender people. At its worst, body-based humour has the capacity to reframe real physical violence as a bit of knockabout fun – an effect that plays out with tragic consequences in the public sphere.

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Chapter 6 explores the link between humour and gender-based discrimination. There’s a long-standing myth that men are funnier than women, which is another way of saying that women ought not to be funny – and in fact should just keep their mouths shut. For this reason, radical feminist theorists like Cixous and Irigaray view uproarious laughter as a way to undermine gender norms and contest androcentrism. But laughter works just as effectively in the opposite direction, as a tool of male domination. This is especially true when misogynists reproduce the stereotype of ‘humourless feminists’, a sexist trope that singles out women who are said to take life too seriously and who can’t even take a joke (especially a smutty one). Underlying the myth of the humourless feminist is a fear that women will deprive men of their pleasure, a pleasure that – as Freud reminds us – is often aggressive in nature and sexual in content. As the chapter shows, obscene jokes make visible what normally remains opaque in all types of offensive jokes: humour is violation, and your consent is optional.

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The conclusion provides an extended analysis of Trevor Griffith’s 1975 stage play Comedians, which has become a touchstone for thinking critically about humour. Set in an evening class for amateur stand-ups in the north of England, the play explores key tensions around comedy: its ability to comfort, its willingness to shock, its flair for critique, and its propensity for violence. In the play, it’s never clear where we’re supposed to draw the line between joke-telling and hatemongering, or if there’s a line to be drawn in the first place. The play – like this book – leaves us with no easy answers and offers few consolations.

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The introduction outlines the book’s central questions: what do jokes do to us, and what do we do to others when we make jokes at their expense? We’re accustomed to thinking of humour as a diversion from the serious side of life. But probe a little deeper and we see another side to humour. In the not-serious world of jokes, anything is permitted and everything is fair game, and this is what makes humour so seductive and so insidious.

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