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Asymmetric Humour

Why is it okay for the weak to make fun of the strong but not the other way around? I’ve heard of the saying that it’s okay to punch up, but never to punch down, but why? What is it about our culture that allows the ugly to joke about the pretty, the fat to insult the thin, the poor to lampoon the rich? In other words, why is humour asymmetrical?

The simple answer is that if you’re in a position of status and power, ridicule isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. The edge is taken off because at the end of the day, you’re still on top and a few jokes aren’t going to change that.

Western European culture and its derivatives have had a strain of thought that assumes that everyone has equal worth. If one of your basic premises is the equality of all people, then when faced with the reality of inequality, those at the bottom would need to be taken up and those at the top brought down to bring the world into balance. Thus if you feel this way, you would find it vaguely disgusting when the strong prey upon the weak and vaguely pleasing when the weak get their comeuppance on the strong.

This is something that’s been going on since ancient times, though the strain of thought was never as dominant as it is today. Whether it’s stories of the ugly yet quick witted slave Aesop getting one over on a dull and oblivious master, whether it’s Christianity’ assertion that all people are equal in the eyes of God or the egalitarian Germanic traditions that gave us Common Law, it manifests itself over and over in our culture.

Maybe this assumption of equality is something that’s somehow innate in people, but I’d be inclined to think not. There are many examples of societies in history where floating the idea that all people are equal would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

For instance, the very first account of a peasant weeping when it wasn’t a subject of ridicule happened in the Gospels, when the Apostle Peter was overwhelmed with regret over having denied knowing Jesus three times. This may have something to do with the fact that writing was, up to this time, the near exclusive preserve of the ruling elite and their records are the ones that get preserved. Still, history is replete with examples of people who clearly did not believe in equality. Imagine the response you’d get from a medieval Mongol or an ancient Spartan if you asked them what they thought about the basic equality of all people.

If we were to see how a Spartan might treat a Helot slave or a Mongol one of his subjects, we would call that bullying today, even if they were not physically abusive. These people were strong and their victims were weak and as their cultures believed that might makes right, making fun of underlings was just part of the natural order of the world. Because we see equality as a basic ideal, such attitudes become distasteful.

In the modern world, we see this yearning for equality in the political correctness movement. Its aims, at their base, are to promote equality by couching touchy subjects in scrupulously neutral terms. Encouraging people to use less scornful or insulting language regarding anyone in a position of weakness puts people on more equal footing within public conversation.

A side effect is that it encourages the asymmetric humour I pointed out.

When a Chris Rock (to use a famous example) pokes fun at white America, he gets a free pass because he is doing so from a position of cultural weakness. As an African American, he is part of an underclass that is still struggling to achieve social parity with the dominant culture. Were a white comedian to make similar comments regarding black culture however, that comedian would be a pariah because they would be speaking from a position of cultural strength.

The same applies for women making fun of men or the poor making fun of the rich – the strong are fair game. After all, they’re strong.

They can handle it.

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