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Humor Theory for When Everything Seems Like it is Going to Hell

Mediators have long recognized that they can use humor to help disputants deal with conflict (though it can really backfire).

What about using humor when it seems like the world is going to hell?

In her essay, Please Laugh About My Abortion With Me, comedian Alison Leiby describes experiences with her comedy show “Oh God, a Show About Abortion.”  She writes:

I understand that not everyone wants to approach abortion with jokes.  I understand it feeling too soon to laugh in the wake of Roe being overturned, and I understand people whose experiences were traumatic.  But for those who are up for it, I think having a healthy sense of humor – one that is predicated on personal vulnerability – is an extremely valuable coping mechanism in these dark days of American culture.

I hope that the show helps destigmatize a procedure that should have no stigma. The show also has helped me on a personal level.  I needed to laugh through my abortion experience because the alternative – the way my life without the abortion could have turned out – is so upsetting.

Also, it’s funny that there was a maternity wear store across the street from a Planned Parenthood.

Gettysburg College Professor Steven Gimbel, the instructor of the audio Great Courses course “Take My Course, Please!  The Philosophy of Humor,” – who knew that philosophy of humor was an academic subject? – notes that humor sometimes can be “good medicine” and says that many jokes “invoke a frame shift or some other mechanism that forces a person to see the familiar in a way that is unusual.”

The writer Arthur Asa Berger sees comedy emerging as a reaction to a tragic world.  Berger argues that the human condition is one in which people are born into lives of suffering.  By finding humor in mistakes and unfortunate events, individuals transform into people more capable of flourishing in this life.

For progressives like Ms. Leiby, the Dobbs decision overturning Roe is a tragedy, and she uses comedy to help herself and her audiences deal with it.

Conservatives see Dobbs as a good thing, and they may be outraged at Democrats who now control the federal government and at companies and celebrities who promote liberal ideas.

Theoretically, conservatives could use humor to cope with their version of hell.  However, Prof. Gimbel cites a study in the journal Current Biology showing that

political liberals tend to have enlarged anterior cingulates, [which] is the part of the brain that deals with ambiguity and resolving complex problems.  Political conservatives tend to have a larger amygdale, the part of the brain that deals with immediate reaction to threat and fear.  The anterior cingulate is also very involved in the brain’s processing of humor.  This accidental correlation may play some explanatory role in showing why the humor scale tilts in one political direction toward those who have a propensity for seeing things as possibly other than they are.

Regardless of one’s political philosophy, appreciating humorous aspects of tragic events can help cope with trauma and even inspire constructive action.

Of course, just laughing while watching Rome (and everyplace else) metaphorically burns isn’t a good idea.  People should feel and act on justified anger – and also look for humorous perspectives even when feeling woe.


John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE

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