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Empathy and humor – resistance to empathy?

Humor and empathy are closely related. We start with an example that includes both. Caution: Nothing escapes debunking, including empathy. My apologies in advance about any ads associated with the video. 

Both empathy and humor create and expand community. Both empathy and humor cross the boundary between self and other. Both empathy and humor relieve stress and reduce tension. 

However, empathy crosses the boundary between self and other with respect, recognition, care, finesse, artistry, affinity, delicacy, appreciation, and acknowledgement, whereas humor crosses the boundary between individuals with aggression, sexuality, or a testing of community standards. 

If you have to explain the joke, it is not funny – nevertheless, here goes. 

The community standard made the target of satire in the SNL skit is that people are supposed to be empathic. The husband claims he wants to understand social justice issues but when given a chance to improve his understanding – drinking the empathy drink by pitched by the voice over – he resists. He pushes back. He pretends to drink, but does not even take off the bottle cap. When pressured, he even jumps out the window rather than drink the drink. 

The wife does not do much better. She resists expanding her empathy too, by pretending that, as a woman, she already has all the empathy needed. Perhaps, but perhaps not. People give lip service to empathy – and social justice – but do not want to do the hard word to create a community that is empathic and works for all. 

The satire surfaces our resistance to empathy, our double standard, and our tendency to be fake about doing the tough work – including a fake empathy drink. If only it were so easy!

Therefore, be careful. Caution! The mechanism of humor presents sex or aggression in such a way that it creates tension by violating social standards, morals, or conventions. This occurs to a degree that causes stress in the listener just short of eliciting a counter-aggression against the teller of the story or joke. Then the “punch line” relieves the tension all at once in a laugh. 

Another sample joke? This one is totally non controversial, so enables one to appreciate the structure of the joke. 

A man is driving a truck in the back of which are a group of penguins. The man gets stopped for speeding by a police officer. Upon consideration, the officer says: “I will let you off with a warning this time, but be sure to take those penguins to the zoo.” The next day the same man is driving the same truck with the exact same penguins. Only this time, the penguins are wearing sunglasses. The same police officer pulls the driver over again and says: “I thought I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The man replies: “I did. Yesterday we went to the zoo. Today we are going to the beach!” Pause for laugh. 

The point is that humor, among many things, is a way in which one speaks truth to power—and gets away with it. In this case, one disobeys the police officer. One is technically in the wrong, though vindicated. Penguins in sunglasses are funny. More specifically, the mechanism of the joke is the ambiguous meaning of “takes someone to the zoo.” One can go to the zoo as a visitor to look at the animals or one can be incarcerated there, as are the animals on display. 

Instead of a breakdown in relating such as “you are under arrest!” the relationship is enhanced. The driver is following the officer’s guidance after all, granted the interpretation was ambiguous.

You get a good laugh—and a vicarious trip to the beach added to the bargain. Empathy is the foundation of community in a deep way, for without empathy we would be unable to relate to other people. Humor and jokes also create a community between the audience and storyteller as the tension is dispelled in the laughter (see also Ted Cohen on Joking Matters (1999)).

The story creates a kind of verbal optical illusion, a verbal ambiguity that gets expressed in laughter. In empathy perhaps one gets a vicarious hand shake, hug, “high five,” pat on the back, or tissue to dry a tear, expressing itself in recognition of our related  humanity, while affirming and validating the self-other distinction.

Featured image of laughing carrousel horses (c) Alex Zonis

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project