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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Humor Online

Funny stuff is funny. Deep, I know. What we don't want to do is scour all humor from our world. Laughter is healthy and it connects people together. But humor can also be used to hurt people. Bullies use humor as a weapon to destroy.

Scientist, Peter McGraw, think's he's cracked the humor code.

Philosophers had pondered this sort of question for millennia, long before anyone thought to examine it in a lab. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes posited the superiority theory of humor, which states that we find the misfortune of others amusing. Sigmund Freud espoused the relief theory, which states that comedy is a way for people to release suppressed thoughts and emotions safely. Incongruity theory, associated with Immanuel Kant, suggests that jokes happen when people notice the disconnect between their expectations and the actual payoff.
But in the end, none of the theories alone could account for all the types of humor out there (especially Sarah Silverman). McGraw came up with the idea that humor is benign violation. He uses the example of tickling, if you tickle yourself you're not violating anything since you know it's coming. If a stranger in a trench-coat tickles you it's not benign, just creepy. But if your friend tickles you, it's both benign and a violation at the same time.

Making jokes about people have been off limits for most professional ministers. You can't make fun of people because someone might get offended. That's not a bad rule to follow in preaching and public speaking. But when it comes to developing relationship online, eschewing humor is (or would be for me) like cutting off your left arm and replacing it with a jellyfish. It's not helping anyone.

I think we're all pretty clear on the violation part of humor. We need to violate a social norm, an expectation or even the rules of grammar in some unexpected way. What we need to do is create more benign space for humor to happen. Jokes that are racist or sexist are only seen as funny when the teller feels safe and disconnected from the object of the joke. Being vulnerable with people keeps us from feeling safe telling offensive jokes, they stop being funny. But, then as the vulnerability increases and we learn to trust each other more, we can expand our humor palette.

When we've done the work to develop the relationship and the shared vulnerability, then we can really laugh with each other. We know that the jokes are benign rather than just being violations.

How do you create space for humor?

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