Disparaging humour

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A research project led by a Western Carolina University psychology professor has shown that men and women use humour for different ends. Men are more likely to use ‘hostile humour’ to criticise each other and establish dominance, while women employ humour to maintain relationships and put each other at ease. “Our research demonstrates that exposure to sexist humour can create conditions that allow men – especially those who have antagonistic attitudes toward women – to express those attitudes in their behaviour,” said Professor Ford of the psychology department at WCU. “The acceptance of sexist humour leads men to believe that sexist behavior falls within the bounds of social acceptability.”

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Professor Thomas E. Ford of Western Carolina University
watches as students take part in an experiment
to determine  the impact of watching a videotape
containing sexist humour on men’s behaviour

Ford, who conducted research into sexist humour at his previous institution of Western Michigan University, presents the findings in an article accepted for publication in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, one of the nation’s top social psychology journals. The article, “More Than Just a Joke: The Prejudice-Releasing Function of Sexist Humour,” was published in February 2010. In the article, Ford and his team describe two research projects designed to test the theory that disparagement humour has negative social consequences and plays an important role in shaping social interaction.

Not just harmless fun

The research project concluded that disparaging humour is not just harmless fun and games. Instead, exposure to sexist humour can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women. “Sexist humour is not simply benign amusement. It can affect men’s perceptions of their immediate social surroundings and allow them to feel comfortable with behavioral expressions of sexism without the fear of disapproval of their peers,” said Professor Ford. “Specifically, we propose that sexist humour acts as a ‘releaser’ of prejudice.”

The research indicates that people should be aware of the prevalence of disparaging humour in popular culture, and that the guise of benign amusement or “it’s just a joke” gives it the potential to be a powerful and widespread force that can legitimize prejudice in our society.

In disparagement humour, a target individual or group is victimized, belittled, or insulted . . . ( Zillman, 1983).  Humour theorists have proposed that, under certain conditions, we enjoy seeing others victimized and find jokes portraying such events humorous. For example, Freud (1905-1960) believed that one function of humour is that it allows the expression of aggressive and hostile feelings in a  socially acceptable manner (called “tendentious” humour in his theory).

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Verbal abuse disguised as jokes

Abuse disguised as jokes is a category of verbal abuse which all the women I interviewed experienced,” wrote Patricia Evans. “It takes a quick mind to come up with ways of disparaging the partner either crassly or with wit and style. This kind of abuse is not done in jest. It cuts to the quick, touches the most sensitive areas, and leaves the abuser with a look of triumph. This abuse  never seems funny because it isn’t funny“.

Disparaging comments disguised as jokes often refer to the feminine nature of the partner, to her intellectual abilities, or to her competency. If she says “I didn’t think that was funny,” the abuser may, for example, discount her experience angrily saying “You’ve got no sense of humour” or “you can’t take a joke” or he may accuse her of antagonism by angrily saying “You’re just trying to start an argument.” These statements themselves are abusive.

Brainwashing effects

It may be obvious to the reader,” writes Evans, “that the abuser’s responses do not demonstrate goodwill or an interest in the relationship. Unfortunately, the partner is usually not clear about that.” Since the abuser responds with anger, the partner may believe she did in fact ‘take it wrong’ and that’s what he’s angry about. Or (as some partners of abusers do) she may wonder if there actually is something wrong with her sense of humour. “The brainwashing effects of verbal abuse cannot be overemphasized,” writes Evans

Devastating effect

Patricia Evans is an interpersonal communications specialist and the author of  five books on the topic of verbal abuse. She is also a consultant, speaker and trainer, offering workshops and information on the topic. Evans has single-handedly brought the subject of verbal abuse to the forefront of public consciousness – naming and defining verbally abusive relationships via her first book, when they were still unnamed and undefined. She has spoken on the devastating effect of this “secret form of control” on more than two hundred radio shows, and 20 American national television programmes, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN and News Talk.

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Patricia Evans

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David L. Quinby, Professor Emeritus, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio reviewed another of Patricia Evans books. He wrote: “I feel a compelling force to tell you that I consider your book, Controlling People, to be probably the single greatest ‘grande synthesis’ I have yet seen. And I have seen hundreds of thousands of ambitious but partial attempts at this over my 75 years. Humankind urgently needs this, both on an individual and a collective level. Nothing else seems to be working very effectively ”  David L. Quinby, Professor Emeritus, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.

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