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Too sensitive to talk about or too funny not to mention

During the 2020 Golden Globes, the host of the show – comedian Ricky Gervais – with his monologue left an impression discussed worldwide; praised by some for his humour, while being called tasteless and offensive by others. Rather than praising the acclaimed celebrities, he made jokes at their expense. No topic was avoided, him having made reference to DiCaprio’s preference for far younger women, Asian ‘sweatshops’, Catholic paedophilia, and even as dark as the end of humanity.

His monologue was in accordance with the Benign Violation theory of humour outlined in the earlier blog post seen the attitude with which the jokes were told. First of all, the benign nature of his remarks was repeatedly made clear through his repeated mentions that he ‘just does not care’, distancing himself rather than saying it in an actively insulting manner. At the same time, he beforehand made clear his intentions, stating that he aimed to entertain the global audience of 200 million people sitting at home watching the award show, rather than praising the egos of those present at the award show. After all, the nature of the awards given already ensured praise to the privileged few presents. Through the combination of both seemingly careless presenting, combined with the communicated intention of entertaining the viewers, the underlying benign nature of the insults was made clear, turning them into humorous mockery instead.

At the same time, pushing the border and questioning matters such as the death of Jeffrey Epstein, clearly violates the observers’ expectation of an award show meant to highlight and praise the outstanding achievements of those in the movie industry during the year prior.

Funny or offensive

Whereas many could laugh with the performance, not all responses were positive. For example, one of the jokes which received much backlash concerned the lack of female directors. Gervais quipped it not being right that none of the nominees was female, adding that he had raised the issue with the larger studios to ensure that no female directors would be hired in the future to solve this problem of none of the women being nominated. One of the people responding to the matter was Melissa Silverstein, a woman actively advocating for women’s rights in Hollywood. She stated that the position of female directors is not a laughing matter seen the difficulty of the situation, criticizing Gervais’ for his performance.

Such a response is in line with the theoretical work of McGraw & Warren (2010), who in their experiments have shown that humour is dependent upon the extent to which an individual is committed to the norm being violated. As such, a violation of a norm one is weakly committed to can be perceived to be funny, whereas it stops being so with increased commitment, due to the actual feeling of being attacked. In their experiments, they have shown that a church giving out a polluting Hummer-car was perceived to be significantly funnier by those who identified as not being religious. Seen Silverstein’s work advocating for women’s rights in Hollywood, it becomes readily apparent that the joke by Gervais came too personally close, violating a norm with high personal commitment, therefore being perceived as a direct attack rather than as a laughing matter.

Nothing can be said anymore

Nowadays, a point often raised is that nothing can be said anymore without someone feeling attacked. Within internet culture, the people who respond as being offended are referred to as ‘snowflakes’. Snowflakes are described as those who actively express their hurt, supposedly in entitlement or need for others to conform to their norms and standards. The term has a strong negative connotation, blaming the individual for feeling hurt. Ordinarily, the blaming is in response to the negativity of being offended, disregarding the other person as being too sensitive.

Whereas blaming is easy, more difficult is to be able to understand both perspectives. However, it takes taking into account individual differences to be able to have an understanding of both the feeling of being offended, as well as the humour of such remarks.

Humorous Complaining

For those able to laugh, the humour helps transform the perceived violations of the way things have to be into a less threatening form (McGraw & Warren, 2012). Through such, humour has been documented as helping to cope with adversity, help smoothen interpersonal conflict and ease criticism. Therefore, humour can be an effective means of expression for the emotions accompanying the feeling of transgression, making it easier to deal with aspects of life not being as expected to be.

Considering this, humorous complaining can be of particular value, rather than needing to be discouraged, when addressing difficult issues such as the lack of diversity amongst directors. Through humour, topics which otherwise would be considered too taboo or harmful to address, become open to conversation. Testing this with data from various forms of social media, as well as online reviews of products, McGraw, Warren & Kan (2015) have found that a humorously phrased complaint is perceived to be more positive. The positive nature of the complaint contributed to it being more okay to be dissatisfied with the situation as experienced. The humorous undertone can make a complaint more benign in nature, therefore more readily being addressed rather than faced with a defensive response. Using humour to address social issues can, therefore, make it more normal to talk about them, which could possibly result in a solution over time.

However, humorous complaining is not effective for all individuals, seen as the benign nature of the humorous complaint also removes the perceived harm, and therefore the perceived need for support. Fittingly, it has been found that humorous complaints were less likely to elicit sympathy. In case a victim of any situation was directly to complain about the transgressions experienced, he or she would be perceived to be okay at handling their situation, seen as they can joke about it. Simultaneously, it would make the situation addressed more easy to talk about. Seen this, humorous complaining is not as effective as a means of asking for help, as it is for others aware of the transgressions to effectively open up conversation.

Such conversation addresses a violation of how things should be nevertheless, someone being hurt being an unavoidable consequence rather than a sign that nothing can be said anymore. Especially in the modern information society, in which vast amounts of information are being exchanged by people all across the globe at any given point in time, differing viewpoints more easily meet than ever before. It is the wide range of experiences which contribute towards our individual differences which make it that what is a benign violation of the world view of the one, is less so to someone else. By challenging each other’s way of being, progress can be found. Humour could potentially ease such conversation, bridging said differences in a way both sides can relate to, as long as it’s done in a seemingly harmless way.

Kan, C., Warren, C., & McGraw, A. P. (2011). Humorous Complaining. ACR North American Advances.
McGraw, A. P., Warren, C., Williams, L. E., & Leonard, B. (2012). Too close for comfort, or too far to care? Finding humor in distant tragedies and close mishaps. Psychological science23(10), 1215-1223.
McGraw, A. P., Warren, C., & Kan, C. (2014). Humorous complaining. Journal of Consumer Research41(5), 1153-1171.

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