ISIS recently announced they “will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission” in a video that showed the murder of 21 Christians in Libya. Not long after the video’s release, Italians offered cheeky travel advice to the militant group via Twitter, using the hashtag “#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome.” Tweets warned of traffic jams and tourist traps at landmarks like the Trevi Fountain, while others humorously applauded ISIS’s “vacation” choice. But is laughter the best medicine for international threats?
Jokes are a way for societies to cope with threats. People use irony to lessen their anxieties about an unsettling situation without seeming paranoid. Humor also give status by discrediting those with strong anxieties and giving the joker an air of nonchalance.
- K.A. Parkhill, K.N. Henwood, N.F. Pidgeon, and P. Simmons. 2011. “Laughing it Off? Humour, affect and emotion work in communities living with nuclear risk.” The British Journal of Sociology 62(2): 324-346.
Ethnic jokes also draw symbolic boundaries between who does and doesn’t belong. These jokes reinforce the moral values of the in-group by characterizing outsiders’ unacceptable behavior. Framing is key in being playful with something political—those involved in the interaction need to have shared beliefs and the joke needs the right context.
- Christie Davies. 1982. “Ethnic Jokes, Moral Values and Symbolic Boundaries.” The British Journal of Sociology 33(3): 383-203.
- Elise Kramer. 2011. “The playful is political: The metapragmatics of internet rape-joke arguments.” Language in Society 40: 137-168.
However, humor is a double-edged sword as evidenced by the events that followed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons earlier this year and the Jyllands Posten depictions of Mohammad in 2006. Targeting a minority group reinforces stereotypes and masks the diversity of individuals within the group. When a member of the dominant culture “punches down,” with an ethnic or racist joke, the audience is more likely to be judgmental of individual members of a minority group.
- Otto Santa Ana. 2009. “Did You Call In Mexican? The Racial Politics of Jay Leno Immigrant Jokes.” Language in Society 83(1): 23-45.
- Marion G. Müller and Esra Özcan. 2007. “The Political Iconography of Muhammad Cartoons: Understanding Cultural Conflict and Political Action.” PS: Political Science and Politics 40(2):287-291.
- Christian F. Rostbøll. 2009. “Autonomy, Respect, and Arrogance in the Danish Cartoon Controversy.” Political Theory 37(5): 623-648.