Laughter is often called the best medicine – it can release endorphins, boost our immune system, and even strengthen our relationships. But what happens when laughter becomes harmful? When it’s not about sharing joy but instead used to cause pain and humiliation. In this article, we’ll explore real-life examples of when laughter has crossed the line from harmless fun to hurtful bullying. We’ll also discuss how to recognize and handle painful laughter and what we can do to promote a world where laughter heals instead of harms. So, buckle up and get ready to explore the dark side of laughter.
Welcome to the Dark Side of Laughter
When laughter becomes harmful, it can have severe consequences for individuals and the community. Destructive laughter can take on different forms, including offensive jokes, mocking, and ridicule. In addition, it can target people based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or physical appearance, among other things that are often outside of the person’s control. Can you recall a time in your life when you were the target of cruel jokes because of something you were born with? Teasing of this nature causes deep wounds that are hard to heal.
In my case, I was often a victim of the dark side of laughter growing up because I had a severe overbite. Kids at school called me “buck-tooth beaver” and asked how many dams I built that weekend. I was also mocked because my family practiced a strict religion with rules that my classmates didn’t understand and for developing physically before other girls my age did. All things I had no control over.
Harmful laughter can make people feel isolated, ashamed, and vulnerable. In some cases, it can lead to discrimination, bullying, and even violence. When laughter demeans and belittles others, it can create a toxic environment where people are afraid to speak up and be themselves. Even after you escape the toxic environment, it can take years, or even decades, to let go of the subconscious belief that there must be something inherently wrong with you that became ingrained due to the mistreatment of the past.
Recognizing harmful laughter is the first step in addressing it. It’s vital that we are aware of the power dynamics at play and the impact our words and actions can have on others. We also need to be willing to call out harmful laughter when we see it and educate others on why it can be hurtful. If you see something, say something. Don’t just stand there and watch it happen, or worse, participate in it to avoid becoming a victim yourself.
In the next section, we’ll look at some real-life examples of the dark side of laughter and explore the consequences of such behavior. By examining these instances, we can better understand what constitutes harmful laughter and how we can work to prevent it in the future.
Real-Life Examples of Harmful Laughter
Examining real-life examples is crucial to fully grasping the damaging effects of harmful laughter. One such example is the phenomenon of “mean girl” laughter, where groups of girls use laughter to exclude and humiliate others. This type of laughter is aptly named after the popular Lindsay Lohan movie “Mean Girls.” It can lead to heightened anxiety and depression in victims. It can also have long-lasting effects on their self-esteem and sense of belonging.
In the movie, Lindsay’s character becomes a mean girl herself before realizing the error of her ways and returning to un-popular but peaceful sanity. Unfortunately, the results are often much more traumatic and not resolved as neatly in real life. The damage done can permanently alter the course of someone’s life. In worst-case scenarios, the wounds are so deep that the victim ends their own life to escape them.
Another example is the use of laughter in bullying situations. Bullies may use teasing to mock and belittle their targets, and bystanders’ laughter can reinforce and perpetuate the hurtful behavior. This can lead to a culture of fear and negativity and have severe consequences for the mental health and well-being of the targets.
Sometimes, a person’s mental state suffers so much that bullying results in the tragic, unnecessary loss of life. Many believe the Columbine High shooting that my cousins survived in 1999 is one example. However, there is no concrete proof that bullying sparked the killing spree. If you have the stomach for it, this Wikipedia list contains the stories of many victims of the dark side of laughter in the form of bullying in person or online. Consider yourself warned that reading it is depressing AF. Nevertheless, I include it to illustrate how devastatingly common this circumstance is and how heartbreaking the results are.
In some cases, laughter covers up or dismisses serious issues. For example, laughing off harmful stereotypes or discriminatory comments can send a message that such behavior is acceptable or even humorous. This can profoundly impact marginalized groups and contribute to a larger culture of prejudice and discrimination. Unfortunately, this practice is all too common, perhaps particularly in adolescents. For example, a 2015 study found that humor is a common way adolescents interact around race. A follow-up study then found although viewed as “normative,” racial teasing had devasting effects on some recipients. (Douglass S, Mirpuri S, English D, Yip T. “They were just making jokes”: Ethnic/racial teasing and discrimination among adolescents. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 2016 Jan;22(1):69-82. doi: 10.1037/cdp0000041. Epub 2015 May 25. PMID: 26009942; PMCID: PMC4659767.)
By acknowledging the dark side of laughter, we see how laughter is sometimes a tool for harm. In the next section, we’ll explore strategies for addressing unhealthy laughter and creating a more inclusive and compassionate environment for everyone.
How to Overcome the Dark Side of Laughter
It can be challenging to handle destructive laughter, especially if directed toward us or those we care about. The first step in addressing harmful laughter recognizing that it is not okay and should not be tolerated. It’s important to remember that just because someone, or even everyone, is laughing doesn’t mean that what they are laughing about is necessarily funny or harmless.
One strategy for handling negative laughter is to speak up and let the person know their behavior is unacceptable. You can do so calmly and respectfully, and explaining why their laughter is hurtful is essential. It’s also important to listen to the other person’s perspective and try to understand why they think what they said or did was funny. The approach is crucial. Confronting the situation without boiling over in anger increases the chances that the “bully” will see how their joke was potentially hurtful. Attacking them full force pretty much guarantees the other person will be on the defensive and unable to hear what you’re saying because of how you’re saying it.
Another strategy is to create a safe and inclusive environment where you do not tolerate harmful laughter. You can do this by setting clear expectations in advance for behavior and language and by creating a culture of respect and empathy. Then, call out when boundaries get violated and provide support and resources for those affected. Again, you can do this individually, but it’s even more effective on a larger scale. So, if you are the leader or head of an organization, company, club, or group, use your impact to set the stage for an inclusive, safe environment for all. Then watch how your people begin to shine once the toxic cloud of dark humor lifts.
Laughter Can Be a Double-Edged Sword
Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to be aware of our laughter’s impact on others and to take responsibility for creating a culture of kindness and compassion. So, not only should you avoid making jokes at the expense of another, but you should refrain from laughing and call out those that do (kindly). By making a conscious effort to be more mindful and inclusive, we can help reduce the harm caused by harmful laughter and create a more positive and supportive world for everyone.
As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, when used correctly, laughter is a powerful medicine that brings joy and happiness to many. There are many positive ways to laugh that support physical, mental, and emotional health. However, when it becomes harmful, it can leave deep emotional scars. As we have seen in real-life examples, destructive laughter can have a devastating effect on its victims. Therefore, we must recognize the signs of harmful laughter and take action to prevent it.
If you or someone you know is a victim of the dark side of laughter, speak up and stand up for yourself. If your wounds hurt so bad that you fear you may harm yourself or others, please call 988 to speak to someone who can help. And, if someone comes to you for support because they’ve become a victim of laughter that wounds, stand up for them. Let’s work together to create a world where laughter is used to heal, not harm. In the words of Suzy Kassem, “Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.”
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Now get out there and spread some healing laughter!
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