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Ways of Laughter & Humor

There are three different ways of laughing. These may sound the same to the uninitiated, but in fact they are very different from each other. There is in the first place laughter by those who have power against those who do not. This is laughter that is meant to keep people in their place, although this aspect of power is often not acknowledged and may even be denied. This is the laughter of the adult at the child who mispronounces a word, the laughter of a man at a woman who does not know how to avoid a kiss or a fondle, the laugh of an employer at an employee who comes in late because his car has broken down, the laughter of a master at a slave. This is a form of laughter that sets up boundaries, that excludes the person being laughed at from membership in the group belonged to by the person with superior power.

And there is laughter engaged in by those without power against those who have it. By the teenagers who use their own argot to laugh at adults. By blacks laughing at whites. By Jews laughing at an anti-Semitic society. By immigrants laughing at the native-born. This too is an exclusive kind of laughter, laughter meant to draw lines around one group and to keep it safe from another. But it is very different in kind than the laughter of the social superior, for it has in it an element always of defensiveness, an acknowledgment that while one group of people is as worthy of power as any other, equality is not something that this society has to offer. This is laughter like the joke told walking by a cemetery at night: A talisman meant to keep powerful malignant spirits away, even though one knows that the power of talismans is limited.

And finally there is laughter that is close to all-inclusive, laughter derived from humor meant to make us each laugh at ourselves, laughter that goes to the heart of the human condition and excludes only those who are not human. This is laughter designed to break down barriers,...

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Ways of Laughter & Humor. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 14:03, March 19, 2019, from