'Actor Will Smith slaps comedian Chris Rock and the Academy Awards after Rock insulted Smith's wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

Not all jokes are thigh slappers

  • April 7, 2022

It’s been dubbed “the slap heard around the world.” During the March 27 Academy Awards ceremony, Will Smith went on stage and struck comedian Chris Rock in the face after Rock made a joke referring to Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.

With his “joke,” Rock hit a raw nerve: Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that results in temporary or permanent hair loss. She shaved her head at the end of last year as a way of dealing with her condition.

In a heated moment, Smith defended his wife with a slap, an unacceptable yet understandable response. The video went viral, celebrities shared their reactions, legal experts weighed in and fierce debate ensued, with some saying Smith was out of line and others saying Rock crossed the line.

On a broader scale, the incident opens debate on an area that some comedians and, indeed, all of us are struggling with: The appropriate use of humour. The discussion becomes even more urgent in a world polarized by free-speech-at-any-cost versus a “cancel culture” that heavily polices speech.

Jokes, amusing anecdotes, spontaneously funny circumstances and other forms of humour play a pivotal role in our lives. Humour helps us put proper perspective on our thoughts, experiences and situations in the world around us. It’s a safety valve that provides much-needed release from stresses, tensions and sorrows.

The ability to laugh at ourselves enables us not to take ourselves too seriously, ultimately leading to humility. Casting our foibles in an amusing light reminds us that we’re not perfect and that’s OK.

Even God has a sense of humour. Molly Law, editor of Christianity.com, theorizes that God created ostriches, elephant seals, platypuses, kangaroos and other quirky animals to make Adam laugh!

But humour can also inflict pain, purposely or as an unintended consequence.

Many people consciously or subconsciously wrap criticisms up in the guise of humour. Saying something nasty about someone with a smile and jovial mannerisms is a passive-aggressive way of dealing with a difficulty in a relationship or negative feelings like jealously or hostility.

It’s a safe strategy: If the person who is subtly attacked reacts with hurt feelings or anger, the one delivering the blow can always say, “Oh, I was just joking!”

Some use humour as a way of proving that they’re on-the-edge progressives. Swearing, vulgar expressions or crude commentaries on “forbidden” topics can get egotistical people lots of attention, either praise or criticism.

Even if there is no ill will, humour can still backfire. Sometimes, it’s a fine line between funny and insulting; it can be very difficult to discern the difference.

For Christians, humour is to be taken seriously. Matthew 12:36 warns that, on the Day of Judgment, people will give an account “for every careless word” they speak. Proverbs 18:21 exhorts us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

We need to prayerfully discern if our humour uplifts or demoralizes, using Ephesians 5:4 as a guide: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (NIV).

Catholic writer Genevieve Perkins gives more good advice in her article “Three Questions Catholics Should Ask Before Telling a Joke”: How well do you know this person? What is your intention in making this joke? What’s the occasion?

Generally speaking, jokes about things that are not a choice — such as a person’s race, nationality, disability, illness — have the potential to be hurtful. Humour that makes fun of religious beliefs is also destructive.

If we look at the world through God’s eyes, there’s so much around us to celebrate. Humour arises from a joyful heart. There’s enough funny, quirky, odd situations, people and features of nature that can provide rich fodder for jokes and amusing stories without having to tear individuals or groups down.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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