When a cat approaches someone it likes, it begins to purr. Humans signal friendship by smiling and making jokes. Jokes are disarming and unifying. Sharing laughter, is noisier than purring, but it brings people together.

Jokes work in teaching too. At the beginning of each new term students often feel a bit apprehensive when they meet their new lecturers. That may be surprising given that at universities lecturers don’t “punish” students for talking etc, as some old fashioned school teachers, might. Nevertheless, new students often feel “out of their comfort zone” and nervous at first, so it helps if lecturers begin with some jokes, however, lame, to show that they come in friendship.

It is often said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but those who say that have clearly not experienced puns. Puns can be excruciating. The best, or worst ones, end up in Christmas crackers, and sometimes entire families can cringe together when corny puns are shared. That said, I admire those who can be punny. I have even come to like and look forward to their puns. The great thing about puns is that they are unlikely to be misconstrued or to cause harm.

Some forms of humour can be harmful. It’s a fine line. I remember in my youth it was commonplace to hear jokes stereotyping certain groups within society, jokes that brought “in-groups” together at the expense of “out-groups.” Sometimes the jokes were nationalistic, sometimes cultural. Some were targeted at human stupidity – “why didn’t the rocket ship from (insert nation) not bother with heat protective coatings for its mission to land on the sun? Because they intend to go at night – boom, boom!.”

To me this joke was sublimely nonsensical but by choosing one nation as the astronauts it was actually embedding a long division within the society I lived in. A division I was only vaguely aware of as a child. As I travelled I found these types of jokes were targeted against different groups in different parts of the world. One doesn’t hear them nowadays.

When I was a student I read a book by Milan Kundera, called The Joke, about a student who made a joke at the expense of the communist party in Czechoslovakia. The consequences were life changing – he ended up in a labour camp. Jokes, satire, cartoons, ridicule, can have great power that can be used for good or for ill. Many people fear that sometimes gentle, sometimes more severe, suppression of inappropriate humour is “political correctness gone made’”and a sign that freedoms are diminishing.

But, I think the move towards sensitivity and inclusion is usually much more innocent. It is an effort to unite society, and as the world becomes globalised and we see more diversity, it is an attempt to ensure that everyone feels included and safe. Being cautious with jokes is usually just part of avoiding inadvertently creating  “in groups” and “out groups.”

It can be confusing though. On the quiz show QI, Stephen Fry made a particular point of relentlessly teasing Alan Davies. Sandi Toksvig does the same thing, with wonderfully benign good humour. And both of them do it, not out of hatred, but out of love. Alan is the favourite and indeed showing that you can make a joke at the expense of your friend, is a way of demonstrating just how strong the friendship is. Thus, humour and jokes, can be used to unite, provided they are not misunderstood.

On the other hand genuine cruelty in humour also occurs and it amazes me how much it is celebrated. Mental toughness in sports such as cricket is cherished. Those who can issue the most cutting sledges, are sometimes viewed as national heroes. For some time belittling the opponent seemed to be a core part of the game. But perhaps I misunderstand and this is just gentle teasing banter between equals who are temporary opponents on the field – it looks like a dangerous example to me though.

Similarly, I think it is interesting that we celebrate politicians who are adept at the cutting put down. I confess that looking through the quotes from Keating and Churchill, I can’t help smiling, though I am not quite sure whether I am right to laugh with them at their victims.

In scientific research seminars, jokes can brighten up otherwise fairly dry subjects. Even quite subtle jokes can engage an audience.  In teaching harmless humour is very helpful. With everything everywhere being taped speakers are a bit more cautious about the types of jokes they make but that’s not such a bad thing. Every episode of QI is recorded for prosperity and that doesn’t seem to cramp their style. With good will I think humour will survive and thrive.

It’s important that we encourage it, support it and forgive the terrible puns, or occasional unintended slights that occur. Because, after all, as Oscar Wilde said, some things are too important to be taken seriously.



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