There are not many people who would happily agree that they are humourless. (Idols judge Randall Abrahams may be one of the few people who, in public, at least, pretend to be humourless.) This is why people who unthinkingly perpetuate racist, sexist or homophobic stereotypes often defend themselves by depicting their critics as humourless.
Comedy can be squeezed from the most shocking and bleak events. Earlier this year the Cape Town Holocaust Centre hosted a play, The Timekeepers, about a flamboyant gay German and a conservative elderly Jew befriending each other while working together repairing watches for the Nazi’s. The night I attended the performance, the audience at first responded uncomfortably to the humour in the play. Like others in the audience, I too at first shifted around uncomfortably. Can we really laugh about these things, I wondered? But as the actors skilfully won us over (with the help of a clever script), the laughter became louder and more sustained. Humour, in this case, became a powerful weapon to affirm the humanity of the victims of Nazi atrocities.
But humour (or what is presented as humour) can sometimes be used by the economically, culturally and socially dominant as a vehicle to endorse harmful stereotypes and to promote prejudices (often invisible to them) about groups who are less powerful and influential in our culture. It can also be used to assert control over what we may and may not think and say.
In such cases the unstated aim of the supposed humour is often to re-enforce the idea that the prejudices and stereotypical assumptions on which the “joke” are based are normal or natural and therefore entirely harmless. “This,” implies the person who makes the so called joke, “is just the way the world is and if you do not find it funny you are a dour and self-righteous prig, one that is too stupid or too lacking in joie de vivre to laugh at yourself and at your own oppression.”
If you happen to not be part of the economically, socially and culturally dominant group, you will probably find it hard to mask your own prejudices by silencing others with the defence that you were merely joking when you expressed these prejudices. You just do not have the power to dictate what is funny and what is not funny. Your view of the world is not the dominant view, so if you tried to assert your dominance by dictating what should be regarded as funny and what is not, you will only dig a deeper hole.
However, those whose prejudices, irrational beliefs, interests and assumptions form the basis for how the world is structured and how knowledge is produced and legitimated, often hold immense sway in society. Because of this dominance they often manage to control the discourse and to make their own prejudices, irrational beliefs, interests and assumptions appear normal and inevitable.
For such people, invoking a supposed superior sense of humour is therefore an excellent strategy to delegitimize those who challenge their prejudices, irrational beliefs and unexamined assumptions. One way to do this is to decry others who criticise you as humourless and to justify your sexism, racism or homophobia on the basis that you were “only” making a joke.
On the one hand this “it’s only a joke” defence is a powerful tool in the hands of those who benefit the most from the normalisation and entrenchment of cultural prejudices and stereotypes. It helps to assert their power to decide what all of us are legitimately allowed to think and feel and when we are allowed to laugh and when we are not. On the other hand, it reassures everyone who holds the view that these stereotypical beliefs and prejudices are true and therefore not stereotypes or prejudices at all, and are worthy of jokes.
This phenomenon was recently on display in an article published on the front page of the Cape Times, a Western Cape publication presenting itself as a serious newspaper. The article, reporting on the results of a household survey, stated: “If you want a tidy house for the rest of your life, never make a Western Cape woman your wife.” This was obviously a play on the 1963 song by Jimmy Soul entitled: “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife”.
After reading the article, I jotted down an email to the editors pointing out the sexist and patriarchal stereotypes being perpetuated in this introduction. In a puerile response the editors basically said: “It’s a joke, get over it.” (Translation: “Shut up you humourless cow. How very dare you tell us that we harbour any prejudices”.) This kind of response often reflects unadulterated hubris on the part of the person who made the “joke”. It also often reflects the unquestioning belief of those who use the joke defence that they are the final arbiters of what is funny and what is not.
People whose world view is dominant and who benefit from the way in which society is structured and how “knowledge” is produced, often resort to the joke defence in an attempt to re-assert what they believe is their unquestioning right to control the discourse, and thus to control what those who are not like them are allowed to think and feel.
The joke defence is not unlike the retort often used against people who criticise racist statements and actions by white people. When you call out somebody on his or her racism you are often told that you are “over sensitive” or that you should stop playing the “race card”. Those who use the race card defence do so in order to silence others who dare to complain of racism and racial discrimination. It is used to re-assert the right of the culturally dominant group to be the final arbiters on what constitutes racism and what not.
Decrying others for using the race card, therefore, often amounts to no more than an attempt to re-assert cultural white baasskap. It is often aimed at taking back control of the situation in order to shield the racists from criticism and exposure. It is often no more than an obvious attempt to deploy the power of “whiteness” to dictate what may and may not be spoken about.
Those who invoke the race card defence to try and silence those who criticise racism are really saying: “I have the right to decide what is racism, but you – the possible victim – never do. In my own mind I am, after all, die baas van die plaas.”
People who complain that others “play the race card” often contradict themselves and play the race card themselves when white people are criticised, or when the notion of whiteness is exposed and critiqued. According to this bizarre view, only those who complain about the racism of white people can ever play the race card. According to this belief, white people who complain about racial prejudices in black people are merely using their power to decide what is racist. Apparently they never play the race card because they are the ultimate arbiters of what constitute racism. It is a textbook example of how white privilege is deployed in our discourse.
Similarly the defence that a clearly sexist article was just a joke (albeit one that relied on a harmful stereotype about the appropriate role of women in heterosexual relationships) relies on the power of patriarchy. It asserts the right of the editors (either men or, if not men, then women who accept the oppressive gendered nature of relationships much like hostages with Stockholm Syndrome sometimes accept the authority of their capturers) to decide what is funny and what is not. The article in the Cape Times obviously normalizes patriarchal and oppressive gender roles. It is based on the assumption that women do the housework and men marry women partly to enslave them into doing their housework for them.
In our society housework has a low status and where it is done for pay, the remuneration is low. (In excessively gendered relationships such work is often done for free.) Many men still expect women to do the housework and work hard to maintain the traditional exploitative gendered structure of intimate relationships. Men who help with housework are often ridiculed as hen-pecked and depicted as feminized and therefore less worthy of respect, as less powerful. (This is an indispensable source of hilarity for some sexist comedians.)
Many women in South Africa still find themselves in such exploitative relationships in which strict gender roles are enforced, sometimes through violence or the threat of violence and sometimes through the power of “tradition” and societal expectations policed or promoted by the kinds of people who seem to be editing the Cape Times. The article in the Cape Times took this state of affairs for granted, as if this was the most normal thing in the world, and made fun of it. The “joke” was not aimed at challenging the idea that housework should be done by women or to critique the way in which gender roles are used to exploit women to do work for little or no reward. The “joke” was based on the assumption that we all agree that it is perfectly normal and acceptable that wives do the housework while their husbands edit newspapers.
When they were caught out, they had to re-assert their power by invoking the joke defence. This is all about power. Who has the power to decide what is sexist? And what is a joke? A first step in challenge this insidious working of patriarchal power is to unmask it, even at the risk of being called humourless by those who wish to protect their own power. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.