Jokes Apart

Vatsala Srivastava wonders why you’re laughing when you’re laughing.

“Just kidding!” Haven’t you heard someone say it? It was funny to begin with but then the words began to get harsh, your smile wavered, you began to frown, and suddenly, you were angry. The other person backed down hurriedly: “Only kidding, don’t take it so seriously.”

Chances are you tried your best to recoup. You smiled to cover your hurt, you smothered your anger. You want to be known as someone who can take a joke, someone with a Good Sense of Humour. But you were being gaslighted. You were being asked to deny the validity of your own feelings. You were being told that the problem was with you, that you were too sensitive.

Created by Divya Saibabu

An adult doing this to another adult passes muster because we have this notion of fair play. It is assumed that when two adults encounter each other, they are equals. When one hits, the other can hit back. I make a joke at you, you make a joke at me. Account closed.

That, of course, is a completely imaginary situation. For not all adults are equal. You can make a joke at your domestic help. When she says that her grandmother is dead and she needs to go to the village, you can say, ‘How many times has she died now?’  Can s/he return the compliment? Your teacher can mock you in class. Can you mock her/him back? How equal is equal anyway?

But when the person ‘joking’ is an adult and the subject is a child or an adolescent, the inequality is obvious and it is painful. All pain is remembered, all pain lasts but sometimes pain can cast a long shadow. The child/adolescent butt might end up internalizing the adult's critical jokes. Such internalization of negative emotions and remarks can lead to low self-esteem and make a big difference to their personality as an adult. Mariyam Abbas, a postgraduate student in clinical psychology at Aligarh Muslim University says, “Ill-spirited or even negative indirect communication and other such targeted behaviors affect the mental well-being, majorly negatively especially in children and adolescents as they are still developing in all aspects. Not only their mental well-being but their personality is also affected, which, later in adulthood, makes them vulnerable.”

A person’s physical appearance is the most common trait that is picked up by people to make jokes about.  As a child one hardly knows what is ‘good 'or ‘bad’ therefore all comments are taken at face value. However, adolescence is a time when a person is really concerned about how they look, hence they are vulnerable to negative comments about their appearance. Sheersha, 23, says, “I remember watching fairness cream ads on screen and believing that the only acceptable skin tone is fair. Imagine what that would have done to a child who had dusky skin tone. I have been mocked by people because of my skin color. When I was around six or seven, ‘aunties’ of the neighbourhood would offer me compliments but would end their sentences with, ‘ only if you were fair.’ As I grew up, people in my peer group would call me names, laugh and say ‘Hey, it was just a joke!’ It had come to a point where I hated myself and the way I looked. I tried every damn thing that I could to get fairer. Thanks to my mother who told me to stop and that I was just fine the way I was.”

A lot of these jokes can be sadistic. This kind of humour can be referred to as ‘disparagement humour’. According to psychologists Mark Ferguson and Thomas Ford, disparagement humour consists of  “remarks that elicit amusement through the denigration, derogation, or belittlement of a given target.” This type of humour, they say, is paradoxical. Disparagement humour is used by people who are prejudiced as they fear that if they said what was actually on their minds, they might be criticised by others. They would rather mould their prejudice into a joke and present it to an audience who they hope has the same prejudices or biases as they do and in case they are called out, they have a way to get out of the situation immediately.
In his work, The Joke and its relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud refers to these jokes as ‘tendentious jokes’ and says that these jokes ‘'are able to release pleasure even from sources that have undergone repression'. Insulting somebody to their face in front of people might very often backfire on the jokester. They would not want to take ownership of their ‘joke’ but what they can do is make a joke 'from the material of the words and thoughts used for the insult' and generate some amount of pleasure out of it. The blame of the negative effect caused by this kind of humor falls as much on the recipients of the joke who laugh at it and play along with the jokester.

Society has created different sets of checkboxes for different people and we are expected to conform to those norms as defined. This defined set of norms also is a place where prejudice stems from. Anything that falls out of these boxes is termed as odd. Avinash, 22, says, “I have what people call ‘feminine traits’ and the mockery about it came from a lot of people, even from the person who I called my closest friend. People pointed out that the way I walked, talked and sat was odd. My classmates at school would pass by me and make gestures making fun of me. This one time, a friend of mine imitated how I walked and we were all sitting in a group and everyone laughed. I began to look down upon myself and thought there was something wrong with me. It was only quite recently that I accepted myself for who I am and I have made my peace with it.”

While some of us end up getting support from our families or friends, some of us might not be as lucky. Prakhar, 21, recalls his early teenage years and says, “My teeth were a little bigger than the normal size and I was fine with them, until people started to make fun of me at school. They would point it out and tell me that I had teeth like that of a rabbit and at times make faces to imitate it. Even my sports teacher at school had made fun of my teeth in front of the entire class and I was terrified. I isolated myself thinking that maybe if I don’t talk to people, they might not make fun of me. I became so conscious about it that even today I can’t laugh properly without the fear of being mocked and judged by people.” Children and adolescents who are subjected to ridicule based on their appearance and behavioural traits might end up being extremely self-conscious and might compare themselves with other counterparts. This can turn nto social anxiety. In situations like these, social support groups could be very beneficial. A number of studies show a correlation between social support and psychological well-being.

With the advent of social media where people especially adolescents spend most of their time, ridicule has an easy way out. Nowadays, memes are used vastly as a medium for ‘light-hearted humour’ to mock people. A simple error by a person could go viral and could be extremely embarrassing for the person in question. Even a number of youtubers today, pick on people and mock at them in order to garner viewership. Roshni Sondhi, a mental health advocate says,  “Especially for the youth, such a plethora of digital platforms can not only increase the tendency of social alienation, but can also reduce their ability, comfort levels as well as willingness to value actual face-to-face interactions over virtual platforms. Such a change has indeed taken a major toll on the growing prevalence of social anxiety, amongst other concerns, with the focus being on the number of accounts being engaged with online, as opposed to the actual people being interacted with! Being part of groups or interactions with people whom we may not have even met in real life, also increases the risk of cyber bullying, to say the least." She adds, "The list is endless, however it's the need of the hour to promote media literacy amongst children, adolescents, parents, teachers, and even the stakeholders of media platforms! We need to create an awareness and a sensibility of being able to critically evaluate the information being thrown at us, making it a priority to strike a balance, while safeguarding one's mental and psychological well-being."

The consequences of cyber-bullying persist longer than usual as anything that is ever uploaded on the internet will stay and cannot be removed given the large scale sharing that takes place. People need to take responsibility for their actions and be more empathetic towards others. With the widespread discussion going around about mental health, people should now be aware of the fact that making fun of people and targeting them out of their own prejudice is not funny. People who are a part of the audience also need to claim a responsibility of calling out the jokester on the spot.

Jokes are an amazing way to bond and build relationships but only till a point that they do not play out at the cost of another person's emotions.