The Rhetoric of Racist Humour
The Rhetoric of Racist Humour is the fruitful outcome of Simon Weaver's doctoral thesis in sociology, completed at the University of Bristol. The winner of the British Sociological Association's (BSA) "Sage Prize for Innovation and/or Excellence 2011", Weaver uses case studies to investigate "the ways in which racist humour acts as racist rhetoric, has a communicative impact, is persuasive, and can affect impressions of truth and ambivalence" (p.1). Far from being funny, the book is a serious "critique of racist humour". Weaver argues that humour, while not necessarily serious discourse, can have serious effects and reinforce racist views. Moreover, the book provides a worthy analysis of the history and different forms of racism.
Weaver takes us through three major theories that have most often been used to conceptualise humour. The first is the "superiority theory", arguing that all humour is ridicule and mockery by the "superiors". The second is the "incongruity theory", stating that all humour is the result of an inconsistency, an unexpected juxtaposition that can bend truth. The third one is the "relief theory", arguing that humour is benign and provides emotional relief, through laughter.
Weaver then chooses Zygmunt Bauman's theory of postmodernity and the concept of "order-building" as a basis for his argument that humour can carry three types of race discourse today: "embodied", cultural and postmodern. According to Bauman, modernity's main project has been to create order and "order-building", thus creating classes based on normative, lawful and satisfying behaviour. This, in turn, has made space for proteophilia (love for "others") and proteophobia (fear or hatred of "others"). Weaver claims that it "seems obvious that those defined as 'strangers', 'outsiders' or 'others' often become the referents of humour - this is clearly the case in racist and ethnic joking" (p.46). Inspired by Bauman, Weaver coins the term "liquid racism" for defining "postmodern", complex, ambiguous and multiform types of racist humour.
Six case studies then illustrate the author's theoretical claims about the close link between jokes and racist rhetoric. Each case study presents humour that is more subtle, complex, ambiguous and multi-layered. The first is the case study of what Weaver calls "embodied" racism in the United States - humour that bases its mockery on physical or biological aspects of the "other". Here, the analysis data come from seven Internet websites that post racist jokes, some of which also openly claim racist stances. The second case study treats British stand-up comedy as a field for racist and xenophobic discourse. Here, the racism is more "cultural" than "embodied", according to the author, so more subtle and coded.
The third and fourth case studies present what those same ridiculed "others", especially black and Asian comics, have to say back in their "reverse discourse", using humour as a form of resistance. The fifth case study is the most "liquid" and "postmodern" comedy analysed in this book: the highly ambiguous character of Ali G. It is a matter of most personal interpretation, by all publics, to know whether the Jewish actor playing Ali G is ridiculing blacks, white British gangster wannabes or Asians living in Britain yearning for a gangster lifestyle. Ali G's hybridity is what makes his humour so multi-layered, hence "liquid", having attracted both proteophobic and proteophilic reactions. The last case study analyses the cartoons printed by a Danish newspaper in 2005 that depicted Prophet Mohammed and caused widespread reactions, boycotts and threats. Analysing not the humour itself - the drawn cartoons - but the discourses in the different reactions, Weaver suggests four layers of reading these cartoons, making their racism "liquid" and "postmodern".
In its serious criticism of racist discourse, be it subtle or direct, this book is also a major contribution not only to humour studies, but sociolinguistics and sociology in general. For as long as we need to say "it's just a joke", this book provides space for serious reasoning around what may seem funny, for humour has its side effects and can sting to injury. Although we as readers might not always agree with Weaver's suggested interpretations of the jokes analysed, this book opens many paths for research, especially concerning humour that blurs the distinction between "us" and "them" in "reverse discourse" comedies.
BAUMAN, Z. (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
BAUMAN, Z. (1993) Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwells.
BAUMAN, Z. (1995) Life in Fragments. Essays in Postmodern Morality. Oxford & Cambridge, MA: Blackwells.
BAUMAN, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
University of Geneva