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August 2018: Using Humor as a Tool for Norm Change

Our August 2018 newsletter features the Spring 2018 issue of Social Research on "Changing Social Norms" and explores articles from past issues that also address this theme. In “The Seriously Erotic Politics of Feminist Laughter” (Vol. 79, No. 1, Spring 2012), Cynthia Willett, Julie Willett, and Yael D. Sherman, posit that humor can serve as a particularly effective means of changing social norms:

“Scholars have … noted the erasure or supposed “lack” of feminist humor…. And certainly, coming of age with or soon after the second wave of feminism, it is hard for us not to be well versed in the sad facts about hostile workplace climates, statistics on violence against women, the need for equality in a workplace for women who are primary caregivers—facts that do not have the effect they might have…Of course, we must also wonder, if rational arguments for equality worked, that fortress of reason called philosophy would not rank near the bottom of the humanities in measures of academic workplace equality. And if reason as a persuasive tool is at best only indirectly effective, and a weak tool on its own, might not the sting of ridicule or the contagion of joyous laughter prove to be more effective weapons for social change? Or, to turn the question around, what devices are more explosive in the social sphere, more discomforting to our conventional modes of thought, more invasive of our quasi-private store of associations, than the well-placed joke, the display of wit, or the well-honed use of irony?”

“In fact, poststructuralist perspectives on power and knowledge influenced by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Judith Butler among others should give us plenty of reason to suspect that various forms of humor or irony might be a more appropriate means of philosophical suasion than fact or argument alone.... Given that social norms shape cognitive habits, the unraveling and disrupting of conventional norms through ridicule might free our thinking as well.”


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