Research by a University of Leicester sociologist shows that racist jokes can reinforce serious meanings about race issues – and suggests that we should be paying attention to this as well as the offence these jokes can cause.
In The Rhetoric of Racist Humour, published by Ashgate, Dr Simon Weaver makes the claim that the language of humour and jokes is structured and functions as rhetoric; that is, it uses non-literal imagery to convince us to agree with the joke-teller’s message.
The book is timely as the annual Leicester Comedy Festival runs from 3-19 February.
The book also follows his recent award-winning study on ‘anti-racism’ in African-Caribbean origin comedians such as Chris Rock and Lenny Henry, published in the journal Sociology.
He believes that in making judgements on whether humour should be criticised, we should analyse what the joke-teller is trying to articulate using an original approach he refers to as ‘rhetorical humour analysis’.
Dr Weaver, of the Department of Heath Sciences, said, “The research provides an answer to the ‘it’s only a joke’ response by showing that humour, as a form of rhetoric, has characteristics that mean it is highly likely to provoke a response of a serious nature.
“It is always very difficult to argue that humour does something specific because often it will do more than one thing in different contexts. This is something that needs to be accounted for when describing the harm that it might cause.
“I argue that to take an overly politically correct line with race joking often ignores the complexity of meanings or issues that are being articulated.”
Dr Weaver studied the linguistic mechanisms of US racist internet jokes aimed at African-Caribbean origin people, British stand-up comedy especially that aimed at Asian people, the Danish cartoons deemed to be blasphemous and the Ali G Show. From this, he argues that humour is a form of rhetoric because it uses linguistic mechanisms that resemble metaphor and metonym.
He explains, “Often political correctness wants to, but fails to, criticise humour effectively because there is little description of the mechanisms that make comic language work.
“For example, Ali G uses images from minstrelsy by having a white performer play a black stereotype, but he also offers political satire which makes simplistic judgements on the meaning of the act quite difficult.
“The argument that humour is a form of rhetoric is a very old one, it goes back to ancient Greece, but it is one that is not common in debates on humour today.
“Plato and Socrates were two of the first thinkers to see the function of humour as being the derision of the butt of the joke. Socrates was keen to highlight the rhetoric of humour, which is not something that people do today.
The Rhetoric of Racist Humour is published by Ashgate.
Notes to editors:
For more information contact Dr Simon Weaver on 0116 229 7107 or by email: [email protected]