Millennials, meme culture, and the appropriate humour problem.
To most readers, the idea that we are living in tense times will probably come as no surprise. As well as the continued and ever-present threat of severe, permanent damage to the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, international rhetoric has become heated in recent months, with events in the Middle East, struggles for control of trade and international influence, and the wider impact of the civil war in Syria all having an effect on the perceived level of international security. Things came to a head at the start of the year when a US airstrike assassinated the Iranian general Qaseem Soleimani, and a subsequent misdirected Iranian missile, fired in retaliation, appeared to be the cause of a tragic plane crash. Commentators drew obvious parallels with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the world held its breath – …and world war three memes started trending on Twitter.
Thankfully, we are no longer in 1914, and large-scale international conflict is no longer seen as a feasible solution to more localised problems. Britain, France, Germany and other nations have made appeals for a de-escalation of tension, and things are moving forward in a calmer way than they would have done even 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not sure if it would be appropriate to start handing out medals to everyone who acted like an adult rather than a trigger-happy toddler, but this is one of the few occasions recently where common sense and thoughtful decision-making have definitely prevailed. But should we perhaps be a little concerned that, instead of being worried at the feasible prospect of catastrophic war, the younger generation and the general hope for the future of humanity (no pressure, lol) responded with a series of tasteless jokes?
I’m pretty certain that ours isn’t the only generation to enjoy a bit of bleak comedy- Shakespeare, after all, famously inserted a “your mum” joke into one of his most famous tragedies, and St Lawrence, halfway through being roasted to death on a gridiron, apparently said, “Turn me over, this side’s done” (earning himself the title of patron saint of comedians). Emergency service workers such as paramedics and police officers have a well-known tendency towards gallows humour, using it to vent the emotional stress of lives spent identifying bodies and cutting people out of cars. But, for those of us whose careers are less dramatic, what does our joking really say about us?
Humour is like the economy, the Kardashians, and public toilets: a construct created by society. It relies on context, timing and delivery; a gag that passes at a wedding would be deeply inappropriate for a funeral, and you joking about your parents’ divorce is by no means an open invitation for your friends to do it too. Humour is actually a fairly sophisticated cultural tool, and it has lots of different levels: there are people who mistakenly believe, for instance, that paedophile jokes are funny because they don’t have the emotional maturity to tell the difference between “genuinely amused” laughter and “I’m laughing out of nervousness and also starting to wonder why you’re telling jokes about it all the time, must remember to google who I can report you to.” Sometimes, humour which would be offensive in other contexts is mitigated by some sort of distancing factor, which is part of the reason why shows such as South Park and films such as Team America: World Police get away with half of their jokes: unsurprisingly, it’s harder to prosecute a puppet for racism than a human being.
In fact, bleak and gallows humour can generally be described as incorporating an emotional distancing factor, and perhaps this is something we should consider when we look more closely at the recent (and arguably pretty offensive, if you have the misfortune to live in a warzone) batch of world war three memes. To borrow from my degree, “the medium is the message”: the way in which society communicates says a lot about how it functions and the entirety of the internet is constructed in a way that prevents genuine serious emotional reaction. Yes, there are over-sharers on Instagram and there are the #nomakeup selfies, but for the majority of the time, people keep any clue as to what they’re really feeling far away from any of their online personas. In a world of Twitter trolls and cyber-stalking, revealing anything personal, anything heartfelt has the potential to cause huge damage both online and in real life, and even on sites which have a culture of emotional honesty, such as Tumblr, users generally remain anonymous. In some respects, the internet, with its social media networks created by young men to model how they interacted offline, suffers from a similar problem of juvenile, masculine peer pressure: the only times it’s acceptable to show emotion are when you’re angry, horny, or laughing at something.
The thing is, people often use humour to communicate things which they feel awkward about or are struggling to cope with. When a paramedic jokes about the fact that this is the third car crash they’ve attended in a week, they’re signalling to their colleagues that the emotional stress is getting to them. Self-deprecating humour is a sign that someone’s self-esteem is perhaps a bit rocky at the moment, and people who lie awake at night stressing about the prospect of nuclear war post apocalypse memes on Reddit. Any comedian who jokes about their dysfunctional family, or their social background, has almost certainly got a whole pile of issues sitting in there just waiting to burst out. It would be lovely, although certainly an interesting culture shift, if the internet became a bit less hostile if people felt like they could be more open about the things that really concern them, rather than hiding behind humour. Maybe all the rest of us can do, when we hear someone make a bleak jab at the state of the planet or their failure of a degree, is ask what’s actually bothering them, instead of laughing along.