Monday, February 12, 2007

Laughter, Prison Rape, Political Correctness, and Signal Extraction

Thanks to Ezra Klein and Glenn Reynolds, the prison rape problem is getting some much-needed attention in the blog world. At Unfogged, Fontana Labs (pseudonym) says, “I'm so ashamed to have joked about this.”

Prison rape is a real problem that deserves to be taken more seriously. I’ve written about “the rape penalty” twice before (Glenn links to the former post). That said, I can’t really feel guilty about making the occasional joke about prison rape. As my friends (especially my co-blogger) will tell you, I’m willing to joke about pretty much anything, and I don’t feel bad about it. To see why I think it’s okay, it’s worth knowing something about the evolutionary origins of laughter. One of the more widely recognized functions of laughter is to release stress and anxiety produced by fear or danger.
The relief theory is the basis for a device movie-makers have used effectively for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again! Similarly, an actual story or situation creates tension within us. As we try to cope with two sets of emotions and thoughts, we need a release and laughter is the way of cleansing our system of the built-up tension and incongruity. (According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations. "The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress," she says.)
In short, we sometimes laughter precisely because we recognize that something is terrible or wrong. It’s the healthy alternative to feeling fearful or angry all the time; there’s really something to the old saying, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.” In my case, I can find humor in prison rape precisely because it’s so appalling.

A second function of laugher is to draw attention to incongruity:
The incongruity theory suggests that humor arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don't normally go together. Researcher Thomas Veatch says a joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens.
This function of humor helps to explain why professional comics so often dwell on race, sexual activity, and excretory functions: discussion of these topics is inherently incongruous with everyday experience because of their taboo nature. A lot of the humor arises simply from the fact that we are unused to talking about such things in polite company. Prison rape fits this criterion as well.

So why do we also regard laughter about certain topics as socially unacceptable? Probably because laughter serves a third function as well: to establish superiority.
The superiority theory comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else's mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it.
Hence the opposition to jokes about race, sex, sexual orientation, etc. The fear is that people who laugh at members of other groups is expressing a feeling of superiority to that group – the kind of superiority that could create the detachment needed to indulge one’s actual bigotry. This function of humor probably also plays a role in jokes about prison rape; most free citizens tend to feel superior to those who have been incarcerated.

The problem, then, is one of signal extraction. Laughter serves primarily as a social signaling mechanism that helps to bond people together. It can bond them in shared relief from fear or danger, in shared recognition of incongruity, or (less laudably) in shared feelings of superiority to outsiders. But when interacting with someone whose intentions are unclear, it’s hard to trust that they’re laughing for acceptable reasons. I can only hope that my friends and family, who are on the receiving end of my joke-telling, know the right signals to extract.

I think it’s also worth noting that political correctness may have made some kinds of jokes funnier than they were before. Political correctness has successfully removed certain attitudes about race, sex, ethnicity, etc., from the realm of acceptable discourse – often justifiably so. But hearing those attitudes expressed aloud is now much more inconsistent with everyday experience than it used to be – and as a result, they are more likely to trigger the incongruity-sensing function of laughter.


Anonymous said...


Jeffrey said...

You've got a broken link: "The evolutionary origins of laughter."