The Social Function of Humor & the Perils of “Just Joking”


In a recent rally in the United States, Republican candidate Donald Trump made his usual tirade against Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton, but with an extra kick that left his supporters cheering and everyone else angry or disgusted:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

For those unfamiliar with the basics of American law, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution pertains to the right of the people to keep and bear arms. By suggesting that the upholders of this right deal with Clinton, Trump may have been implying nothing short of armed insurrection or downright assassination. In the backlash of his comment, he of course has resorted to his one-size-fits-all caveat: that he was”just joking,” and that people should just cut him some slack already.

To repeatedly use that alibi, however, and to use it in the way Trump consistently has, has its own perils, as Dallas appellate lawyer Jason P. Steed explains in the following Twitter rehash of his Ph.D. dissertation. (This is not a joke; the dissertation actually exists.)

Questions of this gist have been posed to Steed: If social function is all there is to humor, is anything ever genuinely funny? From both a psychological and sociological point of view, very few things are. For one, it may be worth noting that humor, like any group-oriented characteristic, is often relative from place to place; and what are known as inside jokes need not be between two individuals but can appeal to all members of a single culture.

For its part, the United States Secret Service — the agency assigned primarily to the protection of the American president and vice president — made the following ominous comment after Trump’s ‘joke.’

Was the Secret Service kidding? Unless we are part of their in-group, which we can safely assume is a tiny group at that, we may never know.