[Published by Saint Mary’s Courier, Spring 2017 issue.
Think of the last time you laughed.
You may surprise yourself by recalling your laughter wasn’t during a funny moment at all. Though we always associate laughter with humor, we laugh when we’re exhausted, when we’re nervous, when we’re crying. It’s a gesture that, when dissected, isn’t so simple.
Saint Mary’s associate professor of religious studies Anita Houck has long recognized the complexity of laughter and its substantial power to unite us.
“Laughter creates, expresses, and shapes how people engage with each other. Laughter is also a social lubricant and helps to break the ice. People use laughter to bond with each other, but they also use it to exclude others, and they do both within and across community boundaries, and for all kinds of reasons,” Houck said. Further, when we laugh at jokes, we laugh because the joke is built on shared knowledge. The joke may even be offensive or exclusionary and still we stifle a laugh. In wrestling with the difficult question of how to deal with humor, Houck turns to the work of philosopher Ted Cohen. In his book Jokes, Cohen draws attention to humor and its complexity. Instead of denying something is funny, we are better served to “try remaking the world so that such jokes will have no place, will not arise,” Cohen says. The unjust assumptions we have about others will no longer be part of our shared cultural knowledge, and jokes that are based on them will no longer be funny.
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