This paper, which is part of both my research project on ‘outsiders’ in social movements and my project on the personal and the political, has its origins in several observations concerning laughter in social movements.
1The first is the observation that humour is often a sticking-point in relationships between constituents – those who participate in a movement for the benefits it will bring them – and adherents – those who do not stand to benefit, but nonetheless participate for other reasons. Other things divide them too, of course, but it is striking that sometimes even people who feel they are on the same side find they do not – or cannot – laugh at the same things.
2Another observation is that being laughed at is often the trigger for the constituents to mobilize. This was certainly so for many of the early women’s liberationists in Britain, who form the case study in this paper. Being the object of men’s humour was a much-cited source of resentment, and frequently the immediate trigger for women to organise and meet without men present. Ceasing to laugh prettily at men’s jokes was also itself a significant liberation. So was redirecting humour in order to laugh openly at men.
3A further intriguing observation, therefore, is the frequent disparagement of feminism as ‘humourless’. Anyone who has read feminist newsletters and autobiographies, or heard the testimony of witnesses, knows that the internal emotional register included not only anger, but also mirth, joy, hilarity and even euphoria. But the outward face of feminism could often be unamused or severe. The ‘smile boycott’ – the ‘dream action’ of women’s liberation according to Shulamith Firestone – was intended to reconfigure the expectations by which women were supposed to serve as an appreciative audience for men’s jokes. Women were ‘trapped into laughter’ every day by teasing in the family, workplace banter, catcalls from building sites, the wit of party guests and the everyday chatter of any man who had made them temporarily captive. ‘Unlaughter’ was a consciously-deployed political weapon.
4At the same time, however, to refuse to laugh according to social expectations risked being figured as socially incompetent, over-sensitive or unhappy. It is striking how many of the early campaigns of women’s liberation were caught between the fear they would be seen as ‘too serious’ and the fear that they would be seen as ‘too trivial’. These fears, indeed, were sometimes held by the same person. This oddly contradictory state of affairs, I think, arises whenever a social movement seeks to redefine the terrain of ‘serious’ politics, and where this terrain is dominated by the oppressing group. The women’s new concerns were simultaneously dismissed as ‘too trivial’ (for introducing the ‘personal’ into the ‘political’) and at the same time ‘too serious’ (for introducing the ‘political’ into the ‘personal’). Both dismissals could be accompanied by laughter and ridicule.
5The final observation concerns the male allies of feminism. Feminist humour proved hard to share with such men, even when they shared the women’s feelings and beliefs about the oppression of women. Among the male allies we find a further contradiction: both extreme defensiveness concerning the freedom to laugh at whatsoever they liked, and also extreme guilt that somehow, despite their best efforts, the temptations of inappropriate laughter proved hard to extinguish. The men argued, somewhat inconsistently, that humour was both too sacred to regulate, and that it was too frivolous to be worth regulating. Some deep nerve must have been touched to provoke such reactions.
Laughter, it seems, was not easily shared, even by those who shared the same cause. Just as some women (rightly) suspected the men were laughing at them behind their backs, so some men (rightly) suspected that, behind the closed door, in their women-only groups, the women’s laughter was at their expense. The guilty half-laughter and private disloyalty of the supportive men was often a shock to feminist women. To be laughed at by ‘unreconstructed’, older men who had not tried to understand feminism was one thing. To be the secret object of ridicule from men who claimed to sympathise with feminism was another. For the men too, the new complications regarding what women found funny – for some men the ‘good sense of humour’ had been their primary seductive technique – left them bewildered and angry.
The tendentious joke
How should we try to make sense of the complications of laughter in a social movement? One view is that humour changes in responses to changes in belief. As what we believe alters, we cease to find some jokes funny. This will be especially true of tendentious jokes: that is, those that target some other person or group. Tendentious jokes rely on an unstated but implied tendentious belief concerning the target – that women can’t drive, for example, or that men are insensitive lovers. In not quite saying all that he means, the joke-teller prompts the audience to think the tendentious thought for themselves; and, in laughing as they do so, draw themselves into complicity with him. He obtains the laugh by reminding the audience that it shares this belief. So when a tendentious joke is ‘politicized’ – that is, when this implied meaning is made explicit – those who find they do not share the belief can no longer laugh. This is one way that tendentious humour ‘dates’. The beliefs on which it relied are no longer shared, so it no longer seems funny.
If this is true, of course, the tendentious joke is a very valuable source for understanding a period or a place. It tells us who is complicit with whom, and who dislikes whom. Better still, it is reliable evidence, because laughter is hard to disguise. It is spontaneous and hard to control. It can be impossible to suppress laughter even when the social costs of laughing are high. It is also difficult to fake laughter convincingly when you are not really amused. Laughter, in short, tells us what people really believe. This was certainly the view of one of the groups of British feminists I discuss in the paper: the Women and Language Group. Their report on sexist humour, written in the late 1970s, argued that for feminists humour was a ‘window on ideology’. You might, consciously or unconsciously, be able to disguise your views in ordinary conversation. But your laughter would reveal what you truly thought.
The trouble is that this is not true. Jokes are not so easily interpreted. Freud, whose The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905) offers the most plausible account of tendentious jokes, is a useful guide. Freud suggests that such jokes provide a momentary escape from the restrictions we usually place on our own pleasure. We are impelled by instinctual sexual and aggressive drives which develop in early childhood, but which are repressed into unconsciousness by means of parenting, education, and civilizing expectations. We dedicate mental energy to keeping them there, and the tendentious joke provides a brief and pleasurable release from doing so. Joking, Freud wrote, ‘makes the satisfaction of a drive possible (be it lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle in its way’. It circumvents this obstacle and in doing so ‘draws pleasure from a source that the obstacle had made inaccessible.’
However, Freud’s theory does not, as many suppose, show that jokes tell us what people ‘really think’. On the contrary, tendentious jokes mark the tendentious belief as one which is held, but normally censored. Jokes are a way of getting pleasure from thoughts that we already find unacceptable, and not just to others but to us. Laughter at a tendentious joke is therefore not an expression of belief, but of inner psychic conflict between separate parts of the mind. It indicates that we are split, or ambivalent. The joke exploits a gap between how we actually feel and (1) how we wish ourselves to feel (2) how we feel we ought to feel and (3) how we feel others expect us to feel. The last three of these correspond, very roughly, to the demands of the ego-ideal, the super-ego and the cultural ego. The joke both reveals this ambivalence, and is also a way of coping with ambivalence. Its meaning is therefore slippery and not straightforward. Jokes tell us several things, and not one.
This slipperiness offers a different way to think about the observations with which I began. Take, for example, women who laugh at a feminist joke against male insensitivity. They do so, according to the Freudian account, because the joke releases an obstacle to their pleasure: repressed hostility to men that they have not hitherto been able to express so easily. But for men – even men who share the feminists’ belief that men can be insensitive – the joke removes no such obstacle. They have never been so inhibited, and the joke therefore releases no such pleasure. Men, therefore, grimace and smile wryly. They do not laugh together with the women.
Or consider such men’s continued, sometimes guilty, pleasure at sexist jokes. This was usually – and doubtless often accurately – understood as a consequence of their unacknowledged sexist beliefs. But the Freudian perspective provides us with another possible interpretation. Perhaps the men had adopted feminist beliefs, and in doing so had created new obstacles to their pleasure. What they felt they ought to be, what they aspired to be, and what others told them they ought to be, had changed. They now expected something different from themselves. Their laughter might then be understood as momentary release from these new obstacles to their pleasure, not (as with uncomplicatedly sexist men) release from repression of their unconscious ambivalence towards women.
A further possibility, which, as Freud rightly says, only psychoanalysis could provide, is that this temptation to ‘inappropriate’ laughter is likely to be greatest among those who create such obstacles for themselves. The more we adopt civilising prohibitions, Freud argues, the more punitive the superego becomes to the rest of the psyche. Since the super-ego, unlike external critics, cannot be deceived about our true feelings, it is a harsher critic. The ‘virtuous’ who internalise feminist criticism will therefore be the more self-critical, and consequently face a greater intensity of conflict between unhappiness (conscience-stricken guilt) and ‘inappropriate’ laughter.
In the paper, I offer several further examples of how this perspective can provide a different interpretation of the evidence. They include the surprising aggressiveness of ‘alternative’ comedy towards women as joke-tellers; the defences offered for sexist humour, both old and new; and the emergence of the ‘ironic’ and the ‘self-deprecatory’ tendentious joke. These all, in different ways, suggest that humour develops, at least in part, in unruly opposition both to our publicly-expressed and to our privately-held beliefs. This makes it hard to be sure both what beliefs someone holds when they joke or laugh. Because laughter tells us several things and not one, it creates uncertainty. The tendentious joke is elusive: it may confirm the tendentious belief. Or it may be – but does not have to be – a way of getting away with or even a way of getting away from the tendentious belief.
what to do about jokes
This slipperiness also explains why humour can be so hard for a social movement to handle. The outcome of joking is unpredictable. It might lead to critical self-reflection, or it might deflate seriousness and deflect criticism. Movements cannot be sure how, if at all, changing beliefs will produce corresponding changes in humour.
There were, I argue in the paper, four main responses to the elusiveness of the joke. The first, which I call the ameliorist approach, was to ignore it and hope for improvement. As men’s beliefs changed through argument, persuasion, and reflection, some feminists hoped, their humour would change too. No longer believing what they once believed, men would no longer laugh as they once laughed. Jokes might be slow to adjust to changing beliefs, but eventually they would catch up. Then no one – except those who consciously wanted to harm others – would laugh at tendentious jokes.
The second approach was a stoical one. Humour, it accepted, could not be changed easily, even when beliefs changed. The most that could be done was to live aware of the damage that it could do, and seek, so far as possible, to avoid it. It was pointless to try and alter jokes, especially if they were a means of briefly (and pleasurably) reducing the constitutive tensions that made people up. Jokes, according to the more psychoanalytically informed view, were defence mechanisms which allowed the day-to-day work of repressing unacceptable thoughts and feelings to go on. According to a less elevated view, they were just part of the way people were, and would not change easily.
The third approach, however, was unable to resign itself to the hurt that jokes caused their victims. It tried to reduce the ambivalence of the joke by tightening the fit between what people felt, and what they ought to feel. Rather than ignore the slipperiness of humour, as ameliorists did, or surrender to it like the stoics, this approach tried to lift attitudes and behaviour up to the level of core political commitments. Through education and consciousness-raising, and censure of behaviour which fell short, the sense of humour might be raised and corrected, so that it coincided with the best of what people wanted of themselves and each other. This, although I acknowledge it is also a term much damaged by careless and pejorative usage, is the approach of political correctness.
For reasons I explore in the paper, none of these three approaches proved satisfactory in addressing the slipperiness of tendentious humour. The outcome – the fourth approach – has been to set slippery questions of motivation and intention aside and focus instead on harmful consequences of jokes. At least in public spaces, tendentious humour is now prevented and penalised not only by informal criticism but by formalised codes of respect, which examine not the joke-teller’s intention but the offence caused to the victim.
Social movements often make language a battlefield. They do so because so much of the world they wish to change is discursively constructed through language. But humour is an especially elusive target for reform because it is an inherently ambiguous form of language, whether in ‘saying it without saying it’ or allowing us momentary relief from what we usually believe, or wish to believe, about ourselves. What is most exasperating about tendentious joking is the difficulty in holding the joke-teller to the propositional content of their joke – the tendentious belief in this case. ‘Where an argument tries to draw the listener’s criticism on to its side’, Freud wrote, ‘a joke attempts to thrust it aside’. Jokes, infuriatingly, are not arguments.
If the psychoanalytic perspective has explanatory power, then it seems that the more we try to civilize old behaviours out of ourselves, the more tempted we are to laugh. We laugh most, and most inappropriately, at these moments of transition, than we do when nothing much is changing. But at the same time, as we ‘civilize’ ourselves, the less we can afford such laughter. This explains two observations which would otherwise be puzzling: first that the tendentious joke is not smoothly eroded away even in the adjustment of beliefs; and secondly that, among those of whom we might least expect it, the temptation to inappropriate laughter is actually greatest. They laugh despite themselves.
Social movements know how to influence and change beliefs, but if humour stands in a loose relationship with beliefs, it will not readily change in response. On the contrary, it will spring back against direct attempts to change it.
To those who hold the stoic view, this may be acceptable or inevitable (these are, of course, more or less the same thing for the stoic). But stoics are rare figures in social movements, which seek to improve the world. Movements that want to change people’s selves for the better, that believe that the personal is political, will find it hard to resign themselves to deep, unchangeable truths about human character. Tendentious jokes, after all, are tragic. They hurt other people and they give us pleasure. And yet to laugh is to be momentarily liberated from something, so for a liberation movement to have a problem with laughter is for it to have a problem with liberation. But there are some things that liberation movements may hesitate to liberate.
The evidence also suggests an important qualification of the general idea that the sharing of emotions helps to consolidate a movement. In considering the role of emotions in political behaviour, it has been tempting to treat them as merely adding an extra charge to beliefs. Political actors, it is suggested, feel happy and energised when their beliefs are shared, and sad or angry when they are thwarted. The example of humour, however, suggests that emotions can stand in more complex, even contradictory, relations with beliefs, and that they can even divide political actors who are otherwise united. Men and women in feminism did find odd coincidences of emotional register. But the picture is less one of people building collective strength through finding emotions in common, than it is people happening to find each other, amid a great deal of losing each other, even when they held beliefs in common. Movement solidarity, in other words, was built despite, not because of, emotions.
Please contact me if you would like to read the full draft of this paper.