Humor to Harm: The Impact Dark Humor Has Placed on Our Society and Ourselves

Male presenting character based on the “Wojak” meme style commenting on a form on anonymous board site 4chan. 4chan, and other sites like it, are hubs for dark humor. Illustration by Gabrielle Campbell

Dark humor has been in the world of comedy for a long time on our screens from stand up comedy to adult cartoons like South Park. But this form of comedy didn’t flourish within younger generations until 2016, where social media apps such as Ifunny (remember this one?), Youtube, and Instagram were major hubs for uncensored comedy. At first, the content was somewhat harmless, with the punchlines surrounding chaos and absurdity, but when consumers of this content dug deeper and the harmless chaos became repetitive, dark humor content creators turned to communal shock as the punchline to their memes. This has led to younger people having beliefs based off of homophobia, racism, sexism, and more based on the comedy they have consumed ever since they first laid their eyes on the world of free range social media use. This epidemic of harmful humor has grounded itself in the real world, especially in middle and high schools, with one recent example being the drawing found on a desk in Franklin High School English teacher Desmond Spann’s classroom.

On February 15, 2022, one day before the second Franklin Talks session of the year, Spann posted a video onto Vimeo titled “The Impact,” where he talks about a drawing found on a desk in his classroom, which was revealed being a character from the game “Among Us” with the phrase “Sussy [N slur]” written next to it. Not only does he reveal the content of the drawing, but he also explains how something that is delivered with the intent of being humorous could leave a serious emotional impact on someone else: “Too often, we don’t get/or even want to see the impact of racial slurs written around schools… even the people who do it don’t get to see the impact…but it’s hard to have it seen if you have been impacted by it, and I’ve been impacted by it.”

That is what inspired Spann to share the video to the Franklin community: Racism, with the intent of humor or not, is overlooked too often, especially when it is presented implicitly. Racism that is added into compliments or humor (microaggressions) are brushed off our shoulders due to the false idea that true racism is explicit and physically violent in nature. In his words, “I was just [becoming] kind of tired of incidents like that being swept under the rug…There’s the official response that happens, but it’s also understanding racism and other forms of ways we shame people, but it thrives when it’s hidden… It was triggering of the dehumanization that I face in the culture, and not so much the drawing itself, it was just a bad attempt at being funny.”

When interviewing Spann, he mentions consistently “The culture” that we live in and how the culture that we are constructed in is the root of these actions, rather than the individuals themselves: “We focus a lot on the act, and we focus a lot on the individual, and we take our eyes off the culture. In my teaching of the video, people asked me ‘ ‘did you find out who it was?’ ‘ and I say, ‘ I don’t know, and I don’t care to know. I blame the culture.’”

In Spann’s definition, the culture is “the felt experience of our collective story,” where although we are living in the same world, our experiences within the culture have different levels of recognition. In that same culture, we deal with wrongdoings or negative emotions with dehumanization, without any room for accountability or problem solving with the intent of witnessing growth in an individual.

Whitney Phillips, author and professor of Communication and Rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, has experienced the growth of this humor firsthand, which inspired her research into media study as a whole: “I thought I wanted to study political humor, but my brother, who at the time identified as a troll…kept telling me to go this site called 4chan…” 4chan is a bulletin-based website that was established in 2003, where anyone can post about any topic in the world anonymously. 4chan in modern day is infamous for the graphic nature of its content, whether it be gore, racism, shooting threats, and more, but that dub of the website wasn’t stamped on in its early years. Phillips explains, “Back then, it wasn’t known in the same way it is now as being a hotbed of white supremacist activity, but it was still a deeply problematic space…” On 4chan, what forms the website as a problematic space is the mass amount of “identity based antagonism,” where conflict that occurred was surrounded around a person’s identity. Phillips talks about her brother asking her at this time to explore 4chan at a consistent rate. “My brother pushed me to 4chan, he just wanted to [I think] freak me out… when I encountered it, it was so egregious, and so transgressive…”

Witnessing the uniqueness of 4chan at this time inspired Phillips to write her first dissertation-turned-book titled This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which is inspired from seeing mainstream media and this more controversial form of media combine with each other in the name of comedy. Phillips says, “I became very interested especially because there was a lot of overlap between what I was seeing on this ‘bad space,’ and then more kind of mainstream spaces that we’re dealing more with [ex: Politics]… and also popular internet memes that many at the the time [2008], were emanating from 4chan.” Following the interest of dark humor and the way it became part of mainstream media, Phillips decided to switch her focus onto the ambivalence of dark humor in her second book titled The Ambivalent Internet. Phillips explains, “When people say the word ambivalent, they often misuse it and think it means ‘I don’t care’ [or in other terms, apathy], but ambivalent actually means both on both sides: It’s two opposing strongly held beliefs held at the same time.”

Ambivalence within dark humor is what protects it from criticism because ambivalence protects the true intentions within the material. One common example of this is presenting the joke or meme with a nonchalant posture, that way, confronting the joke with criticism deems the confronter as someone who cannot take a joke. Franklin High school senior Sophie Locker, just like many others, has had experience with confronting this avoidant tactic, except for her, it’s been implemented on her own identities by her own family. “A family member of mine.. He’s 50 [which is pretty young, has] alienated several members of my family including myself through this kind of jokey bigotry…they always told the line enough to where it feels like you can’t quite call it out… it’s always enough of a joking tone that if you call it out or you get offended, you’re the instigator.” When a person clings on to dark humor long enough, this form of humor has a chance of being conditioned into more serious ideologies due to its ambivalent nature. The way ambivalence affects the viewer is that it makes the intent or punchline of a dark joke or meme convincing, especially to the younger generation who have little experience with the outside world to begin with. This makes them more susceptible to falling down the “Alt Right” Pipeline, an internet term used to describe the concept of media algorithms aligning dark humor with alt-right politics. This causes a shift from humor to serious ideologies due to the uncensorship that comes with shocking humor. When we are uncensored, we naturally feel free, and this is emphasized with people who are feeling isolated. Not only do the isolated feel free to express, but they also feel a sense of security. Locker explains that “It’s really one of those things where you can go one of two directions. Normally, it’s just either you mature out of it: you dip your toes in it as an impressionable young person, and then at a certain point… you realize it’s ridiculous, or you become further entrenched in it. The way [alt right communities] thrive on that social isolation can make it so much harder to get out of it because you’re surrounded by people who believe the same things as you, and are telling you that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.” 

With that being said, due to the climate of our world in which we are driven by the fear of being found out abruptly, and the exposure of antagonism in others, dark humor is not going anywhere. No matter how much we try to ban the telling of shocking jokes and the sharing of controversial memes, dark humor will always find its way back into our minds, and our screens, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to unlearn the use of dark humor and reflect on our intent with sharing dark humor in order to create growth in ourselves and our communities. According to Spann, “In a strange way, I think if we were connected more, then the need for dark humor would not exist as much…It would still exist, it’s just the thing that gets fulfilled when people [ who go to dark humor would be able to be fulfilled in more harmless and inclusive forms of humor ].” Not only does a sense of community and intent of reflection rather than cancellation help combat the overuse of shocking humor, but the focus on digital footprint and the recognition of lack of knowledge of intentions can help the sharing of shocking humor decrease. Phillips states that “Sometimes, this content gets shared, even if it’s shared in the spirit of humor or if it’s shared in the spirit of critique…it still spreads. It could be intercepted by someone who is not in on the joke and who in fact [believe sexism or racism is an ideology] and spread it with hateful intent.” 

Lastly, combating dark humor with neutrality and question rather than reaction, is a helpful way to not only strike up reflection upon the sharer, but also could diminish the need for offensive jokes to be told. “Don’t laugh. It’s so easy to fall into the peer pressure of [disrupting the social circle but], if you can stop it at the ‘it’s just a joke’ stage, then it doesn’t have the space to blossom into a widespread ideology, and it also says to the people that the joke targets that this won’t be tolerated… It’s either the dead face stare [or ‘what do you mean by that?’] that makes them feel uncomfortable [due to lack of reactive response].”  Locker says. To challenge the people who are motivated by the discomfort of others, while still holding a space for reflection and growth, can make the isolated feel more welcomed into the culture, without the need for the thrill of shock and morbidness.

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