Are the funnies (comic strips) dumb? Are the minutes spent reading them a waste of valuable time that could be more profitably spent on serious reading? Or are they smart and useful? Similarly, is ethnic humor good or bad? Does it not perpetuate offensive negative stereotypes that contribute to social disharmony? Or could it perform an important function, airing differences and venting friction in a reasonably harmless way?
The contributions to our series published in this issue deal with the role that these somewhat controversial forms of humor play in helping us cope with life's pressures. We will come back to these questions in a moment. Let us first raise a more general question: Is humor a good or bad thing?
As I mentioned last month, the French philosopher Henri Bergson identified two social function of humor in his 1899 book Laughter. The first is corrective. Society makes fun of a wrongdoer to make him shape up. This is laughter at. The second is bonding. If I can laugh with you, I am like you. I belong. This is laughter with.
I prefer to laugh with, not at. In my introduction to the first collection on The Mission of Humor (THE WORLD & I, April 1992), I speculated about whether all humor is aggressive. The correct answer, to the extent that it is available, is that not all of it is. Some humor is aggressive, but does that mean that it is bad? This raises the question of ethnic humor--which can be obviously hurtful--and its "goodness" or "badness."
A few years ago, a lot of jokes were told about JAPs (Jewish American Princesses). On a number of East Coast campuses such jokes were picked up by skinhead and pro-Nazi groups, which led the campus administration of Syracuse University to ban telling them. Gary Spenser, a prominent sociologist from that campus, published an article titled "An analysis of JAP-Baiting Humor on the College Campus" in Humor (Dec. 1989).
On the surface of it, the jokes targeting Jewish women and presenting them as whiny, inept, lazy, greedy, domineering, and mercantile seemed to be definitely anti-Semitic. A statement by Mimi Alperin, chair of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Committee, published in the same issue of Humor, argued that the jokes were misogynistic rather than anti-Jewish.
But a thoroughly researched and tightly argued article by Christie Davis, "An Explanation of Jewish Jokes about Jewish Women" (Humor, Dec. 1990), claimed convincingly that it was neither. Davies revealed one snag about the JAP jokes: They had originated with Jews and had been told primarily by Jews to other Jews. They were a manifestation of self-deprecating humor.
Now, obviously, ethnic jokes like these, whatever their origin, are liable to be abused by "bad guys" for their own foul purposes. But does that mean these jokes should be banned? Does it mean that they are bad? It is a complicated matter. Life and reality are complex and sophisticated: Contradictions coexist. As ordinary citizens, we have to exercise, caution and sensitivity with ethnic humor. In fact, most people handle it pretty well. Hardly anybody who retells a Polish joke, for example, actually believes that Poles are dumb. (I'll bet that their personal experience with Poles, like mine, testifies to the
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