Let us descend into the dungeon of dark humour with contrasting takes on drawing the line between what’s funny and what’s insensitive. Or can you do it at all?
For the longest time, comedy has been hailed as an antidote to despair. As a child, it wasn’t uncommon to see our parents or friends trying to make us laugh whenever we cried our eyes out over things not going our way. Then came adulthood where one’s feelings aren’t really anyone’s concern anymore and one is essentially looking out for herself with a few resorting to the strongest of antidotes: dark humour. Some find solace in humour from the miseries of existence. Others see it as a callous reveling in the suffering of others; a form of schadenfreude involving the reduction of the most unpleasant and otherwise unfunniest of human experiences of warfare, handicap, disease, deformity, and death to matters of mockery.
Dark humour brings two worlds together/Image Credits: newfastuff
Dark humour is an irreconcilably sensitive topic that lies at the crossroads of free speech, political correctness, and morality. It makes you question your moral compass for laughing at sick jokes.
The Marketplace of Humour
In a free market, substandard goods struggling to get a foothold are shown a way out by better goods. So, too, do transient thoughts compete in the marketplace of ideas so that the truth may emerge with the use of reason, whether you like it or not. Yes, I am talking about that ‘make me a sandwich, dishwasher’ joke no one laughed at. But here’s the catch: what people consider as ‘truth’ may not be it because humans aren’t always rational.
Humour, on the other hand, does not have to make sense as such. It is not rational or logical, it may be but that is not a requirement. Humour is meant to make people laugh, make people feel good. It is supposed to make people forget the seriousness of their mundane lives now and then. At the same time, humour is capable of enraging people if they think it crossed an imaginary limit that is subjective. Dark humour brings two starkly opposite worlds together, putting the receiver in an uneasy position- questioning their urge to laugh at an aspect of human life that they know brings pain to many.
Here people can be grouped into two for their views on dark humour. Those who think it is inherent to human nature, thus, inseparable and even important in some ways and those who believe it shouldn’t be tolerated for what it often reminds, reflects or represents.
They view nothing as off-limits to comedy. Systems of the past from communalism, colonialism, communism, and casteism to regionalism, religionism, ableism, heightism, paedophilia, and everything taboo that one can imagine, all rooted in rueful realities that crept onto the virtual world virtually unopposed, are all the more tempting to be made fun of. Thinking that the worst of the worst imaginable with all its seriousness deserves to be laughed at is the triumph in tragedy. You cannot shy away from reality by dictating the terms of how it ought to be conversed about or should you laugh at some community’s expense when the "target" usually isn't the person or a group's suffering, but the situation itself, an attempt to defang it.
Don’t you tell me that you haven’t once giggled at the admittedly lame, cringe-worthy slapstick videos of failed attempts of an adult at walking? I mean a fall so great you can’t help but let a guilty wail of laughter ensue, at qualms with your conscience reminding you to slow down, that it could have been you. Even as you may say it doesn’t hurt being laughed at in hindsight, hailing it as ‘one of many experiences’, in the moment, at least for a second, it does. Dark humour is the laugh you have at the great falls of humanity. Horrendous blots in history that will be there regardless of your guilty giggle with the thought that it could’ve been you or you possibly are (an allusion to the veil of ignorance by John Rawls). Initially, that fall embarrasses you if you’re the butt of the joke but gradually, retrospectively you laugh along. A comic attitude emboldens one to take on the inevitability of tribulations of existence. Not to say it does not hurt as much, you are able to cope better. You have power over it. With all obsolete and modern negative connotations, they are reduced to laughing stocks of a blotch in the past that have been overcome, at least in the collective consciousness.
Perhaps it is no wonder why gallows humour is also a coping mechanism, a release for those engaged in hazardous but essential professions like soldiers, doctors, morticians, police; where seeing the worst of humanity and hardships alien to most comes with the job title. It helps remove humanity from a situation, possibly a reason why it exists in the first place. More than desensitisation, it is a sigh of despair soothed by humour in the recurring moments where efforts go futile. It is an act of defiance against pain by not letting it have its way with people like would usually be expected.
By seeing every subject, a slice of life in its glory and its nights full of terrors, ‘permissible’ to joke about (more so with ‘sensitive’ subjects), you start an important conversation even if it is only in the viewer or the listener’s mind. You remind them of the past with its gravity masked as a harmless meme.
A system built on inequality and suffering, once dismantled, is ought to undergo erasure and beyond doubt is not funny in the least. Dark humour thrives in murky waters of belittling human suffering, shock value, disgust, and twisted morality. Everything reminiscent of the system is to be off-limits from usage or mention from the world, officially, and ideally from common parlance as well. Some view semantic remnants of a system as proof of it still existing on some level. To them, oppression is masquerading as dark humour especially that which makes people from certain identity groups feel “unsafe” or uncomfortable. Erasure from the collective memory is necessary as it is the epoch of its disposal, an active undoing and to ensure any real progress, ‘educating’ and ideological warfare on the social media battlefield is the way to go, weaponising the personal as political.
Whether it is of any consequence is arguable but it surely is widespread and the point is that the potential of hurting people, more so those from certain communities, is great enough to limit speech that may be viewed as hateful. What may have been intended as a harmless joke ought to come with a trigger warning lest it be remotely perceived as such by someone. Lines between actus reus (guilty act) and mens rea (guilty mind) are blurred beyond recognition and elicit the same response.
To Joke or Not to Joke
In the wake of intolerance from the left, the right and the centre, with many hailing 2020 as the year of cancel culture and trigger warnings slapped on anything and everything that may be deemed hurtful and unsafe for certain communities, it is high time we start noticing how it is seeping into humour, dark and otherwise, as well.
Dark humour can be risqué, rancid and rotten- holding up a mirror to the society it is born from, reflecting and magnifying its defects for a closer inspection and outrageous by design. It revives a hyperbolised version of an atrocity, crime, stereotype or system that has been buried deep into the repressed collective memory or something most people know and consciously like to keep a distance from.
Either it's all ok, or nothing is/Image Credits: imgur
Looking at it pragmatically, perhaps not everyone has good intentions at heart when they are at it. Some individuals make distasteful jokes with the intention of hurting people. But should such people, professional comics or you and I be forced to rework our jokes and water down potential shock value? I don’t think so.
A Scene from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, a 1987 Dark Comedy/Gif Credits: GIPHY
With no topic off-limits, there is silent self-regulation that relies on individuals rather than a fallible constructed structure. Let people read the room for themselves rather than artificially making the room scream under pressure. With the freedom they have, you see people (hear to be precise) for what they truly are- their naked views not clad in political correctness or embellished by sesquipedalia to falsely push their thoughts atop the house of cards of ideas in a constant state of order and disarray.
By Shreya Shukla
Shreya Shukla is a second year BA Programme student at Hindu College. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.