I have been intrigued by the effects of satire and humour on public perceptions and trust. There seems to be reasonable evidence to suggest that political satire likely erodes the public’s confidence in political institutions. That’s perhaps not shocking since the purpose of making fun of politicians is precisely to erode public confidence in them. The difficulty arises in transitional settings like the countries of the Arab Spring. Robust criticism of government policy and actions (or inaction) is likely very important in ensuring that a real transition to representative government happens. At the same time, however, it is trust that is precisely what is needed to ensure a successful transition, and actions that erode trust generically may not be terribly helpful.

I recently came across an excellent perspective on humour (of the dark kind in this case) that crystallized a lot of my own thoughts on the subject. From Katie Watson’s “Gallows Humor in Medicine” (Hastings Center Report, Volume 41, Number 5, September-October 2011, pp. 37-45):

“Opinions, thoughts, and arguments framed as jokes bribe and confuse our powers of criticism— if we laugh at them, by definition we’re not in a critical mode. And if I say, “Wait, wait, I want to respond to that joke with a rational counter-statement challenging its underlying suppositions,” then I’m a drag and everyone laughing will resent having to stop playing. So positions promoted through jokes somehow seemstronger than those supported by arguments. They also have a built-in protection against criticism: “Hey, it was only a joke.”

Another analysis of backstage joking … focuses on humor as deployment of power. Bullies use jokes as weapons of humiliation, and brainy victims of physical aggression sometimes retaliate with humor, shifting the fight to terrain where they stand a chance. Since laughing renders us physically vulnerable for a moment, even the innocent pleasure of making a friend laugh can be understood as an act of (consensual) physical dominance and submission, and it is often observed that the language of comic performance is one of physical destruction (he killed, we slayed them). The teller of a spontaneous joke or funny story also wields the narrator’s power to frame and interpret events. When someone wonders if “it was wrong to make a joke” backstage, perhaps they are really asking about the use and abuse of the powerthat comes with asserting oneself as the (comic) narrator of someone else’s tragedy.

But a sophisticated analysis of power and humor includes assessment of relative power. This is captured in the concept of “joking up”—the idea that it’s okay for the less powerful to make fun of more powerful individuals or groups, but the reverse (joking down) is not … in jokes about people less powerful than the teller, the “punch” of the punchline can feel too literal.”