Friday, January 04, 2008

Jokes - who wins what, and who loses what?

BD is back from the war. With an artificial leg. He's staying with an old friend while he's in DC for a short trip. Mark is gay. He makes a joke that alludes to BD's disability.

BD cuts him short.

double click on the cartoon to enlarge it

So why can't Mark joke about BD's new leg?


As a member of a group labeled "Disabled" BD is now seen as weak, as less capable, as different from the norm. Mark, as an abled bodied male, is part of the more powerful group - the group that doesn't need help, that isn't pitied, that doesn't have to talk to potential employers about accommodations. His joke calls attention to the difference between them, indirectly makes the point that Mark has more power.

BD emphasizes this when he says it's not ok for Mark to joke about his leg, "Not from you, from my peers."

Because the peers are part of the same out group. As members of an outgroup, they can actually make up their own 'in' group - people with disabilities. In the group, they can joke. It's a way out groups have always coped with their out status. Sigmund Freud wrote that humor was a way to express criticism that was "difficult so long as [it is] direct, and possible only along circuitous paths." Charles Gruner writes that, "Humorous situations can be best understood by knowing who wins what, and who loses what."

So BD turns it around.

"Sorry, Let's tell gay jokes instead. See if that helps."

Now BD is in the in group and Mark is in the out group. Now BD has more power than Mark.

When you hear people tell jokes, particularly jokes that are at someone's expense, think about "who wins what, and who loses what." Why did they tell that joke?


  1. When I was growing up, my parents would make fun of me until I cried. "We are just doing that because we love you!" It took me years to understand why poeple thought I was mean and hated the world. Of course joking back to them in the same tone was considered mean and I'd get into trouble. I was in high school and a friend was like, "Why do you say things like that? Well, your parents are messed up. No one knows how to take you." We had a discussion on humor. I was 14 and felt really stupid. Later I'd talk to her mom and she said that the important thing was that I was amiable to correction! She told me that I laughed at my parents to keep the peace and they twisted it to saying it was OK by blaming me because I laughed.

    Bad memories but fascinating topic.

  2. Amen! Very important post. When my hubby fought his EEOC battle against his military boss, they told him he was "too sensitive." Minorities and women have been told that for a very long time. Don't we know we are supposed to laugh at discrimination. Ha ha h . . .

    As you said, though, humor can also be used to turn the tables.

  3. Thanks for all your effort to the cover the trials! It is a valuable public service. Soon we will know if you will be called back into service.


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