Updated 24 February 2013

Oscar: why the sick jokes?

Why do people make sick jokes about other people's tragedies? CyberShrink comments.

In recent days, a reader asked me on the Cybershrink Forum why people "make jokes about other people's tragedies". 

They were shocked at how quickly people began making and circulating jokes about the Oscar Pistorius tragedy, as they had done about Michael Jackson, 9/11, and other sad situations. 

My reader said she's deleted a "friend" on Facebook for repeatedly making such macabre jokes - but added the fascinating observation that two women " very dear to him were murdered and their bodies found in very odd places", commenting that "he is the last person I expect to make a joke about this". 

Other readers suggested she was being rather over-sensitive. One wisely commented that "People do not usually joke when ordinary people are killed, but somehow when it comes to celebs of sorts it's kind of far from them and they do not see them as just ordinary people who also have family and friends who are in mourning and trying to get to grips with the whole situation." 

A penalty of celebrity status

This is an important observation - I've rarely come across anyone joking about ordinary dead or suffering people, and especially not at those who mourn and grieve for them. But it's one of the penalties of seeking celebrity status, that whatever happens to you, good or awful, becomes a sort of public property. 

It can be richly financially rewarding to make oneself a celebrity (and it's usually the result of deliberate effort) but this is one of the costs of achieving that aim. 

In fact, while there were few if any jokes about Oscar prior to these events, these emerged afterwards, and few if any were directed towards the victim and none towards her family and friends. There's actually a website that collects and collates such jokes, called Sickipedia. When last I checked there, there were already 634 jokes about Oscar, 118 new ones by the afternoon of his first court appearance.

A reflex response

It was almost a reflex response. Veteran comedian John Cleese was called disgusting for joking about this, having tweeted to his over 2 million followers that the defence would be that "he was absolutely legless at the time". Trevor Noah, was also criticised as insensitive and attention-seeking for tweeting, as an echo of Pistorius's part in a large advertising campaign for the Oscar awards : " And the Oscar goes to - Jail". 

The fact is that such joking is normal, human and common. Many people find the jokes funny when they're about a topic they don't personally feel emotionally raw about, but not when they hit close to home. 

We don't know how many nasty jokes were told in London pubs after the Great Fire of London or the Black Death. They didn't get written down, but I bet there were many. Trevor Noah's great ancestor may even have cracked a few while on the Ark. Jesters probably had a similar function in medieval courts. There have been torrents of such sick jokes after disasters of all kinds, the tsunami, earthquakes, floods, massacres. In my own experience they're not uncommon among survivors of such events, at varying stages of recovery from the emergency. 

Why tweeting is so dangerous

But one important aspect is that the context is crucial and it must be flighted in exactly the right audience. This is why tweeting such comments is truly dumb - a quick thought can rapidly reach millions, all people the Tweeter (or Twit) doesn't know at all. It's healthy when the joke is made by victims and survivors, less reliably so when made by the smug and safe. And some make such comments (as some rappers have admitted) purely to cause shock and to enable them to feel bigger themselves. 

Maybe this variety of comment has become more common due to a degree of desensitisation in modern society, in which we are exposed to so many horrors, in every news bulletin we watch, and in many movies. So many TV shows focus on "home videos" in which very silly people (anonymous so we feel no emotional attachment to them) experience a range of embarrassing and ridiculous calamities, surely experiencing serious pain, and the audience hoots with laughter. 

The Germans wrote observantly of Schadenfreude, the manner in which ordinary people can find humour and pleasure in the misfortunes of others. If Joe slips on a banana skin, Joanne may fall over laughing. Joe merely falls over. 

Sick jokes 'a form of denial'

Part of the function of sick jokes is that it provides us with a form of denial, not of what happened, but of how serious it was. It helps us not take altogether seriously something that would be far more frightening if we did.

So it's not surprising that the guy who outraged my reader has experienced two ugly personal tragedies - he may have felt even more need to minimise this shocking story. It gives us sort of handle on the immensity of the dreadful things that can happen to us. By joking about them, we exert a sort of control over them - we can't prevent them from happening, but we can choose how to respond. The hugeness of the awful thing that happened seems a bit smaller, more manageable. By joking, we deny it the power to ONLY upset us. The jokes are an expression of defiance against the overwhelming dismay. 

As usual, a bunch of people got mightily exercised about violence against women. It's a terrible thing that needs to be minimised by all available means, but there's a crowd who seems to do little except rush to loudly and publicly deplore it, which isn't actually of any help to the victims. 

Some have announced that such jokes somehow increase the risk or diminish the seriousness of such violence. I'm not sure. The monstrous perpetrators don't seem to have any sense of humour at all, and don't make jokes - they don't even seem to see their victims are worthy of a joke, let along more serious attention. Whether a joke is "distasteful" is indeed a matter of taste.Tastes differ, and some folks seem to have no sense of good taste at all.

Celebrities a natural target

Celebrities are a natural target - they are so well known we can all share a joke about them, but distant enough for us not to actually feel much for them. Many people see them as unreal, as though they don’t actually bleed and hurt like the rest of us. 

Sigmund Freud, who had a really feeble sense of humour himself, in his 1927 essay Humour (Der Humor) insisted that sick jokes were a way for the ego to "insist that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world."  

They work when there is a friendly relationship and rapport between the teller and the hearer. Rather than mocking the awfulness of the event, they are an expression of how horrified the joker feels. But it gives us a comforting sense of distance from the calamities, rather than accepting the full burden of these events. They should never mock sincere emotions like grief, though pompous and unhelpful responses of officials and the media may deserve such scorn.   

The immortal early film comic actor Buster Keaton wrote, referring to film techniques: "Tragedy is a close-up, comedy is a long-shot." 

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, February 2013)



More by Cybershrink

2013-02-09 07:27



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.