It is no laughing matter

The other day, a friend forwarded this joke – a machine was invented for catching thieves. In America, 9 persons were caught in a day. In China, 30 were caught in a day. In England, 50 were caught. And in India- well, the machine was stolen in an hour!

I could not help but laugh at reading it. I am sure, that, many other Indians would also find it funny despite its insinuation that our national past-time was thievery. I am also sure, that, somewhere deep down in our hearts, we may just believe in what the joke alludes to. But if it were so, why would we laugh at something which should be acutely discomfiting?  Is it fashionable to have  a sense of humour?

James Beattie, an 18th century Scottish poet and philosopher, suggested that laughter distinguished ‘Man from the inferior animals’.  An ability to laugh is apparently considered a desirable quality in  human beings these days. Some surveys have identified, that, a sense of humour is considered an attractive attribute in selecting a sexual partner. We have turned a full circle from  Hobbes’s fear of the power of  laughter to Osho’s description of seriousness as a deadly disease. Laughter and humour are now considered good and a person who enjoys a good laugh, at himself, is thought of as liberal and progressive. It is also believed, that, humour may actually help us brave challenges thrown by life and keep our sanity in the face of adversities.

But there is a cruel side to humour too. Satire and sarcasm are often directed at people considered inferior. These may be individuals or groups sharing some common characteristics which distinguish them from the perpetrator of humour. Ethnic, national, linguistic, professional, sexist or other prejudices lead to stereotyping of people who become the butt of jokes. Humour, thus, becomes the means to inflict some sort of punishment.

Freud may well have been right in saying that we deceived ourselves about the true nature of our laughter!

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