Be Careful Whom You Laugh With
Contemporary news media are highly visual, and we are used to images of riots and revolutions: angry crowds, police or military in riot gear, tear gas, water cannons, upturned cars or buses, fire. One of the startling things about the Capitol insurrection on 6 January 2021 was how different the initial news images were from these stereotypes. The photos from inside the building that appeared on social media feeds and on news sites were of people who looked like they were wearing fancy dress, people taking selfies inside the Capitol Rotunda as if they were a group of bemused tourists, and of a general ambience of a party gone wild instead of what actually happened: a violent assault by a few hundred people on the lower House of the U.S. legislative assembly that was at the time sitting in the House chamber. These images were shared thousands of times in the hours during and after the attack, both on the news and on social media. People added funny captions, and turned the images into memes. That the revolution did not quite come seemed to make it all even funnier. Having studied democratic speech extensively, this laughter makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, and in this essay I will attempt to explain why this is so.
It is hardly surprising that people found these pictures hilarious. The man carrying a lectern, waving with one hand and grinning widely, was a firm favourite. (In a further twist, many internet users seemed to think this man’s name was “Via Getty”.) Photos of Jake Angeli, also known as the QAnon Shaman, wearing a horned fur cap with animal tails hanging over his ears, climbing over furniture to get to the speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives, look more like part of an elaborate hoax than an insurrection. In one of the most iconic shots, Angeli is flanked by two comically inept-looking men with straggly beards. In yet another photo, bored-looking, casually dressed men loll on the sofas in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, one of them with his feet up on her desk. Elsewhere, tired-looking men are slumped on benches in the Capitol Rotunda, a sight familiar around any tourist attraction. (This page has a selection of these photos.)
As these images form part of our wider political discourse, our reactions to them have an ethical dimension; that is, we may have been in the wrong when we treated them simply as funny photos. As I have argued elsewhere (Chappell 2012), in mature, fully functioning democracies, we are not just concerned with ensuring the basic elements of democracy (epitomised by free and fair elections) and with the behaviour of elected officials and civil servants. Democracy is grounded in wider deliberation in the public sphere. This is the kind of political conversation that goes on in civil society groups, among ordinary citizens in all kinds of places, and (perhaps now most significantly) online. This kind of political deliberation is intermittent, spread out over time and place, and develops what we could call the political mood of the country. It includes narrative, humour, pictures and art as well as serious debate.
When we laugh at a remark or a joke someone made, we signal approval, creating and maintaining social bonds.
Political humour serves many positive functions. It can help us put across serious points in a way that is more likely to make an impact than sticking to dry facts. It can help us let off steam. Humour can also help us cope (both individually and collectively) with difficult or outright traumatic experiences, and has thus been particularly important for marginalised communities. At the same time, making fun of others has always been a weapon of humiliation, and saying “relax, it is just a joke” has been a way of minimising the hurt others are experiencing. This is why using humour to try to slide under the free speech radar is a common strategy.
Here, I would like to introduce a further distinction between two ways of evaluating political humour. The first, more familiar one, is by asking what we are laughing at. In particular, we can ask ourselves if a joke has been made at the expense of someone. The second way of evaluating humour in the public sphere is by asking whom we are laughing with. On the day of the Capitol insurrection, we were laughing with those who were acting against democracy.
Laughter is always relational, even when we are alone and our laughter is self-directed. Thus, our amusement does not only have a subject (what we are laughing at, whether joke, comment, behaviour or funny object) but also a speaker and an audience (whom we are laughing with). Shared laughter is also communicative. When we laugh at a remark or a joke someone made, we signal approval, creating and maintaining social bonds. People who laugh together like each other more and couples who laugh together regularly tend to stay together for longer. Laughter is contagious, which is why we might end up laughing (however uncomfortably) at bad or sexist jokes, although it is not clear whether such ambiguous laughter changes our long-term views or allegiances.
Some examples will make this distinction clearer. If a comedian makes a joke about the weather, he invites us to laugh with him, at a joke about the weather. This is not problematic, as our laughter is aimed at the weather, something we cannot harm. If a comedian makes a joke about people for whom the weather causes serious problems, for example through not being able to heat their home adequately, we are not only invited to laugh with him, but also at a joke targeting people who have been made vulnerable. We are making an undeserved joke at the expense of those who are less privileged than us. Laughing at (really, making fun of) people other than ourselves can be problematic. Crude, essentialising jokes about racial stereotypes, women, the disabled and other minority groups are now commonly considered inappropriate. Making jokes about a politicians’ public statements is different in important ways. Donald Trump’s famous covfefe tweet is a good example. Here, we laughed at someone who had made a bizarre political statement open to public scrutiny. When it comes to laughing at, the question to ask is whether the subject of our laughter is something we can legitimately make fun of, and whether we will harm (rather than simply offend) the person on the receiving end by doing so. When it comes to whom we are laughing with, the question is whether we want to ally ourselves with the positions of those inviting us to laugh and what the motives behind inviting us to share a joke were.
When it comes to whom we are laughing with, the question is whether we want to ally ourselves with the positions of those inviting us to laugh and what the motives behind inviting us to share a joke were.
With this distinction in mind, let us now have another look at what happened on 6 January. For a moment, we were meant to feel that we were laughing at photos of people invading the Capitol. The people in the pictures appeared as funny bunglers, more like the burglars in Home Alone than genuine revolutionaries. We laughed at a political action legitimately open to public scrutiny. Laughter at a failed insurrection could also serve people as a coping mechanism, helping them express difficult emotions, and let off steam. But even laughing at genuinely funny photos from a violent riot is morally questionable, because their content is no laughing matter. After all, the story that emerged during the days following 6 January, was not at all amusing. There were reports of men in paramilitary gear carrying zip ties, possibly aimed at kidnapping members of the House of Representatives, and of others carrying improvised bombs. We heard stories of trauma told by elected representatives, journalists , photographers, the police.
But, in my view, our acceptance of our invitation to laugh with the insurrectionists was even more questionable. The reason I believe that we were laughing not just at their antics, but also with the rioters was that many of the scenes in these photographs were knowingly comical. They sought to reframe the events of the day through tongue-in-cheek irony. The costumes and poses played consciously on internet memes, whether political or not, that nowadays everyone, even the least technologically inclined, seems to be familiar with in the West. Another reason might be that these are also the kinds of images that countless movies revolving around the comedy of things outside their natural context have conditioned us to find funny. But these weren’t the Wedding Crashers, they were the legislature crashers. Our existing sense of humour has been used to manipulate us to laugh at an event that was not, in itself, funny. As neuroscientist Lynne Barker puts it: “Laughter does have the power to override other emotions momentarily – we cannot sob morosely or simmer with anger while simultaneously laughing.” And it was not just our emotions that were overridden by laughter on 6 January. Our attention was also drawn away from the violence to the jokesters. It is difficult to say what the long-term effects of such inattention would have been in legitimating the outcome, had the insurrectionists succeeded.
Laughter changes our attitudes and diffuses our sense of threat; it marks interactions as safe. The images from the Capitol worked to downplay and normalise the violent disruption of a functioning democratic process by making it appear funny, therefore safe. Thus, they made invading the Capitol and threatening the legislative process more acceptable. In this, they followed a common strategy popularised by anonymous sub-cultural sites 4chan and 8chan. This is how Whitney Philips describes this move: “It was hard to take Nazi memes all that seriously when they were sandwiched between sassy cats and golf course enforcement bears, and so, fun and ugly, ugly and fun, all were flattened into morally equivalent images in a flip book.” In the same way, we risked not taking the insurrection quite as seriously, and giving the impression that we viewed it as “just a joke” or “just a few guys”.
The images from the Capitol worked to downplay and normalise the violent disruption of a functioning democratic process by making it appear funny, therefore safe.
As the last couple of years have shown us, what is said on the internet does not stay on the internet. As an example, online conspiracy theories lead to people rejecting vaccines offline. So far, we have been asked to check our sources and check our facts when reading and sharing material online. This attitude is increasingly becoming part of civic education: a good citizen is someone who considers their sources before they choose to believe someone. But this isn’t quite enough. We need to pay attention to emotional tone as well, and consider whether it is appropriate to share in the laughter (or outrage, for that matter) of others. At the end of the day, all of these interactions, however small and seemingly harmless, contribute to ongoing democratic deliberation in the public sphere.
By only asking ourselves what we are laughing at and not whom we are laughing with, we seriously risk making mistakes or even allowing ourselves and others to be seduced. When we share this kind of material on the internet, we are implicitly condoning it or, at the very least, are seen to be condoning it, which can come down to the same thing in the impersonal online world where real intentions are hard to read. When we laugh at such jokes, maybe even without intending to do so, our indignation and outrage is over-ridden. Sharing a joke also creates community, even if only for a moment. If we are serious in supporting democracy, we should not want to enter into even a momentary community with those who seek to disrupt and destroy its workings.
Chappell, Z. (2012) Deliberative Democracy: A Critical Introduction, Palgrave.
Phillips, W. (2019) “It Wasn’t Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, “Fun,” and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter”. Social Media + Society, Online First.
Scott S, Lavan N, Chen S, McGettigan C (2014) The social life of laughter. Trends Cogn Sci 18:618–620. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.09.002.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.