“It’s Just a Joke”: The Dark Side & Lore of Prejudice.


Joke cycles. We’ve all come across or taken part in them throughout our lives. There are chicken jokes, knock-knock jokes and lightbulb jokes. Remember those awful dead baby jokes? The jokes that circulated when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff in 1986? Not long after email became a ‘thing’, it took just hours (some say minutes) for jokes about Princess Diana to circulate online after her death; quickly becoming one of the most widely known joke cycles of modern times.

There are mainstream jokes, sick jokes, dark humour jokes and jokes relating to celebrities or events. Then there are the kind of jokes that are visual (memes and cartoons for example). Pranks and practical jokes. Generally we associate ‘jokes’ with fun, lightheartedness and joviality.

…which is true of course, unless you’re the subject of the joke.


Jokes are also subversive; used to mock, demean, shame and perpetuate cultural and social myths that maintain a gaping hole between ‘us and them’. Jokes about women, feminists, men, Islam, Judaism, asylum seekers, the LGBTQI community, indigenous people, British people, fat people, skinny people, Catholics, the Irish, blonde jokes, greenie jokes, redhead and redneck jokes… and the list goes on.

Earlier this week, prominent Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of author Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in protest. In her response to the speech, Abdel-Magied wrote:

“Shriver began by making light of a recent incident in the US, where students faced prosecution for what was argued by some as “casual racial and ethnic stereotyping and cultural insensitivity” at a Mexican-themed party.

“Can you believe,” Shriver asked at the beginning of her speech, “that these students were so sensitive about the wearing of sombreros?

The audience, compliant, chuckled”.

Shriver, instead of unpacking the argument in a sophisticated way, simply dismissed the incident as being laughable; unworthy of comment, an outrageous example of political correctness gone crazy. A joke.

“The audience, compliant, chuckled”.

In Australia we have a long tradition of defending ‘the joke’, as seen here when Steve Price and Van Badham recently clashed on television program Q&A. The discussion was about misogyny after an incident where a female sports commentator was publicly attacked by a colleague who suggested he’d pay to see her drown.

Being offended by such ‘jokes’ is in itself culturally problematic; often attracting comments that one should ‘lighten up’, ‘grow some balls’, stop ‘being a victim’, stop being ‘so sensitive’ and ‘get a sense of humour’.

As illustrated by this website and the disclaimer it presents below, there exists a very bloody-minded folklore in Australia that our culture loves a good joke, including (and especially) those that might offend.



Here’s a joke for you.

“An abo kid dies and goes to heaven. He meets St. Peter and is given a pair of wings. “Does this mean I’m an angel?” says the kid. “No Says St. Peter. “You’re a blow fly. Now fuck off”.

Not abusive, malicious, abrasive or personal? Such an ideology – a nation being able to “laugh at one-self [sic]” – reeks of dominant culture, privilege, a dismissal of history (more on that another time) and an unwillingness to recognise that there are vast differences between the experiences of ‘mainstream’ Australians and those who belong to minority communities.

Who’s There? Free Speech? Just a Joke? It goes both ways.

Outside the media circus, politics and even the law (i.e. Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination islam-picardAct), the real discourse around freedom of speech and political correctness is going on in our personal conversations, our online communication and on social media. Despite what we might think, our online and social ‘debate’ is rarely discussion at all.

Generally speaking, the people we surround ourselves with in life and on social media are like-minded with similar values and social attitudes. Rarely are we confronted by attitudes that are drastically different from our own, and when we do, we often use humour to retaliate.

Take anti-racism for example:

“What do you call 10,000 racists under the sea? A good start.

What’s the difference between a racist and a Pizza? A Pizza can feed a family of four”.

Perhaps the most common ‘joke’ currently shared online in popular debate around racism and immigration is that racists can’t spell. It’s a global phenomenon; one you’ve likely come across many times – and there is some truth in it.

Trolls and people with racist online agendas aren’t renowned for their academic prowess, however, those of us who can spell and claim to stand up for ‘what is right’ also use humour, elitism and privilege to offend, ridicule and abuse those from low educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.


Studies indicate that ‘hate humour’ has a very real impact on everyday lives. Social psychologist Thomas E. Ford asserts that:

spelling-final“By disguising expressions of prejudice in a cloak of fun and frivolity, disparagement humor… appears harmless and trivial. However, a large and growing body of psychology research suggests just the opposite – that disparagement humor can foster discrimination against targeted groups”.

Not only do researchers argue that a greater chance of real-life vilification toward minority groups exists where prejudicial values are prevalent, ‘hate humour’ can also have a direct impact on the people who use it:

In one Italian study, differing impacts on attitudes towards gay people were examined based on whether they heard them described as “gay” or as “fags”.

When hearing the word “fag”, heterosexual people went on to display greater negative attitudes towards gay people than when the word “gay” was used. This highlights how using offensive language may have an important indirect impact on minority groups, as it may have an unintended effect of hardening majority group members’ attitudes towards them”.

Christopher John Hunt

In short, social minorities such as women, immigrants, asylum seekers, Muslims and LGBTQI people are more at risk of experiencing vilification as a direct result of hate speech and ‘hate humour’.

The haters? It’s a well documented cycle. Hate begets hate and this has serious social consequences.

When we share hate jokes and memes, we don’t generally do so to sway someone else’s opinion; we do it to make our stance known and establish ourselves within a group who hold similar beliefs, constantly re-defining and distancing ourselves from the perceived ‘other’. Us and them. 

feminists-picardPublic commentators have begun to seriously contemplate how we break these cycles; specifically in relation to the rise of the eternally ‘swamped’ Pauline Hanson, ‘The Trumph’ and the prospect of a dangerously divisive plebiscite on marriage equality here in Australia.

Brexit. Was the joke on us all? Now that wasn’t funny.

A. To get to the other side…

The following jokes were collected by a colleague for a children’s folklore project in 2009 from 12 yr-old boys:

“Q. What do you get if you send one Asian to the moon?
A. A problem.
Q. What do you get if you send two Asians to the moon?
A. A big problem.
Q. What do you get if you send ALL the Asians to the moon?
A. Clean Up Australia Day! (Alternative answer: Problem solved!)”

Subversive language and disparagement humour are often a feature in the ‘play’ humour of kids and likely this will always be so. We do need to remember though, that kids absorb what they hear and are unlikely to understand that what they’re doing is harmful unless it’s something that is discussed with them and by the adults around them.


Frankly, it’s far from pleasant immersing oneself in the realms of prejudice even when you’re not at the receiving end of most of it. It’s confronting, distressing and tiresome to all of us who despair at the levels of prejudice reported every day in the media and in our news feeds.

Is it better to ignore it or acknowledge it? In 1998, folklorists Alan Dundes and Uli Linke conducted a controversial study of Auschwitz jokes prevalent in post-WWII Germany (documented until 1983). After being criticised for airing and documenting such revolting hatred, they observed that:

“The authors of the article in question did not make up the jokes; they merely reported them… One might even go so far as to argue that if someone had called attention to the degree of anti-Semitism in Germany before the holocaust, conceivably lives could have been saved”.

While the latter claim is bravely speculative and provocative, it does raise a worthy point about how we engage with ‘hate humour’. If the rise of the likes of Hanson and Trump are anything to go by, perhaps we would do well to pay more attention to the speech, humour and arguments of those who promote prejudice, instead of mocking and ignoring them.

This is a view that is increasingly being echoed by Australian public figures (including Mariam Veiszadeh and political journalist Margo Kingston) and it makes sense; particularly in an age where social media companies are not engaging in the issue of combating hate speech and ‘hate humour’ as they should.

In her blog, Yassmin Abdel-Magied writes:

“Honestly, I think what we *must* do is start by truly listening. 

…Leaders haven’t been listening to what sections of the population have been trying to say, and so the ‘unheard’ have taken to yelling in the only way that seems to get the attention of progressives and intellectual elite (a social segment for the purposes of this argument) – by voting in ways that will hurt them – despite what said elite say is ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ and ‘good’.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. But what it might help us to do is *understand* why populism is taking on the hold is has, and understand what needs to be done to tackle it”.

Are we capable of this? I’d like to think we are.



Brought to you by The Hidden Culture and Captain Jean Luc Picard.

Reference: More on Auschwitz Jokes
Author(s): Uli Linke and Alan Dundes
Source: Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 1 (1988), pp. 3-10
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1259565
Accessed: 14-09-2016 10:40 UTC

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