It is puzzling to see endless memes and jokes on the internet about something that caused harm to so many people. Can there be something funny regarding nearly 3,000 individuals dying in an attack on the U.S. involving jets flying into buildings? I chose to research why people joke about 9/11 and how these jokes can potentially minimize the long term effect of an attack on American’s perception of terrorists. On September 29, 2001, comedian Gilbert Gottfried joked: ‘I have to leave early tonight. I have to fly to LA but I couldn’t get a direct flight. I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.’ The audience gasped and booed and one man shouted out, ‘Too soon!’ Years later, it is still an emotional day for the U.S. and many still feel the effects of the attacks. With this in mind, I am wondering if there are any humorous reactions to terrorist attacks that have a positive affect. I will argue yes, there is an element of humor that leads to cultural resistance to a specific terrorist actor.
Through my research I seek to understand how, exactly, there can be a positive outcome from 9/11 jokes and how this can correlate to cultural resistance. In combination with social media, jokes and memes about attackers unite society in a way that allows ordinary people to “attack” those who have attacked us. My goal is to answer the following question: Why humor targeting terrorists should be considered a means of cultural-resistance. To do so, I will be analyzing how the continuation of 9/11 jokes has impacted people’s perception of the terrorists. Further, I will be researching the significance of laughing at terrorists and how humor minimizes the long-term cultural effect of a terrorist attack.
I found that jokes about 9/11 have continued to be popular despite the attack being over eighteen years ago and it seems to be a common conception that these jokes are a way to cope with the attacks. While I do believe these jokes encourage people to come to terms with the attacks, I think it is more important to distinguish how humor impacts the nation’s overall perception of terrorists and how this perception minimize the terrorists lasting impact.
My research has found that some people do agree that humor is a means to cope with terrorism and some found that humor is a way to weaken a terrorists reputation, yet what these arguments seem to miss however, is a deeper analysis into the lasting impact on American’s perception of that terrorist. To begin, I will define cultural resistance, the rise of social media, and the specific type of humor I will be analyzing. I will then use articles that individually discuss social media, cultural resistance, and dark humor jokes to confirm that humor is an effective response to terrorists. I will, however, go further to combine these ideas, because each article lacks something I believe to have a crucial element to my argument. Additionally, I will emphasis the difference between jokes about terrorists, which I will confirm are appropriate, and jokes about victims and the actual attacks, which are not appropriate. To conclude, I will summarize my findings and reiterate why it goes one step further than previous research done on this topic in hopes of proving that humor should be considered a means of cultural resistance.
Social media has many consequences on the status quo. It has given us a way to not only communicate with those across the state, but also unify with them against a common enemy. Social media, from its introduction, has shown that it’s ability to facilitate and encourage change. The sudden rise in social media usage and its entry into mainstream culture is a sign that it’s a robust tool for people to share their ideas and unify against ideas they do not agree with. Online humor, like memes, is clearly an important hallmark of democratic culture, with message receivers being granted democratic privileges to voice their opposition. Thus, general people become active producers of the web content, specifically, content that can lead to a unified resistance against a terrorist or events of a terrorist attack.
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Thanks to the advances of social media, cultural resistance has become more accessible and it is easier to unify in resistance to terrorism. Cultural resistance is a mode of expression that voices, on a wide range of platforms, opposition to, or criticism of certain political events or actors. Cultural resistance focuses on raising awareness of a problem and calls for justice; it does not exist for the sake of pity or sympathy. This resistance, I will argue, however, is not always an obvious means of social unity. It can come in the forms of memes and jokes that target a political actor or event such as 9/11. The popularity and escalation of these jokes send a message to the target of the jokes and/or the groups who follow that leader.
Jokes about terrorist attacks, as with most other disasters, have their own genre of humor; dark humor, appears to be a broader development that encompasses gibbet humor, because the recent discussions tacitly recommend. Dark humor is also same to aim at creating fun of things typically considered tragic, like death, sickness, disability, and extreme violence, or of the individuals concerned or subject to them. There are many social implications of humor and it has capacity to communicate ideologies have been widely discussed in sociocultural studies of humor in public discourse. “As many authors have argued, humor is a vehicle for relevant observations on the current sociopolitical events, which helps to communicate meanings on thorny, sensitive topics. The contemporary epitome of such topics is terrorism attributed to radical Islamic fundamentalists” (Dynel & Poppi 2018).
I will use a research paper titled “In tragoedia risus: Analysis of dark humour in post-terrorist attack discourse,” by Marta Dynel and Fabio Poppoi to elaborate on dark humor and why it is important to label it as such. They investigated the dark humor of on-line comments in response to a act of terrorism. They found that disaster jokes on the net are not the only humorous response to the tragic events of 9/11. They consider late-night television shows and cartoon strips in the post-9/11 United States, as “presenting humor as an instrument of resistance to the dominant discourses, whose hypocrisy it debunks” (Dynel & Poppi 2018). Overall, they concluded that dark humorous commentaries communicate ideologies concerning the sociopolitical scenario similar to thousands of non-humorous commentaries, in fact, many different studies report on the utilization of humor to spice up a message’s attractiveness. While this article does emphasize that jokes are not the only form of making fun of terrorists, it lacks a claim of cultural resistance. I do agree that there are other mediums of humor, but I believe it will be imperative to connect these to a means of cultural resistance which I will do when I present my theory.
In chapter two of “A Decade of Dark Humor,” Giselinde Kuipers analyzes the functions of laughter after 9/11 and how humor had changed after the attacks. Through research, Kuipers found three main ways 9/11 affected American humor: the suspension of humor, the call of humor as a means to cope, jokes about the attacks. Kuipers article correctly determines that songs and parodies like this shape American’s perception of the terrorist, what she missed however, was how this perception affects terrorists groups. Social media and the internet have given Americans the opportunity to connect, specifically, connect via memes. Like with the song above, as a culture, we find humor in events that have devastated our society.
In their research on laughter’s impact on terrorists, Charlotte Heath-Kelly and Lee Jarvis found that laughter performs “multiple social and psychological functions” and that laughter “emerges to fill a void of discourse” (Heath-Kelly, Javis). What is important in understanding the humor is the separation of the subject and object of the joke. “We laugh at the object of the joke, rendering it intelligible through its entrance into the field of knowledge. And, by laughing and appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the joke, we participate in terrorism’s consolidation as a particular form of threat: one that is variously depoliticized, tamed, and ridiculed” (Heath-Kelly, Jarvis).
In Politics, Religion & Ideology, Rawl describes the ways in which humor is used to resist terrorist threats as a society. “In addition to its entertainment quality, humor, in general, vents negative emotions and provides liberating feelings because it empowers people in expressing their frustrations towards the shortcomings of the political, religious, or social system” (Rawl 59). He argues that shows and jokes that mock terrorist groups function as “cultural, religious, and political resistance” to the terrorist group’s ideologies and their attempt to extend into the US (Rawl 61). Media may be considered a symbolic type of power attributable to its role in shaping reality within the minds of individuals. He further elaborates here by stressing that media may be a difficult human process attributable to its “symbolic power of constructing reality.’’
Thus, studies and research has been done on aspects of my argument as we can see above, however the lacking elements can be found in a combination of these ideas with a few additions that I will discuss.
Cultural resistance is manifested within the use of mediated humor, especially dark humor. It treats a morbid topic like 9/11 and its mediated savagery in an entertaining manner. During and after times of crisis, people tend to express their fears in generally comical ways like the case of popular culture in post 9/11 America. Indeed, media is considered an emerging social power as a result of the infrastructure of our modern society depends more and more on the quick circulation of data and pictures. In alternative words, media outlets are used as potential vehicles for power and counter-power. The internet provides a forum for those that are silenced or marginalized to express their views publicly in ways in which wouldn’t otherwise be available. Indeed, humor is considered an effective means of non-violent resistance, and it is a universal trait as the use of humor to express political and cultural struggle.
When Bin Laden died, teenagers started a meme for asking who Bin Laden was, jokes like this effectively combat the goal of 9/11 of having a lasting-impact on society. Of course, 9/11 will forever be a tragedy in America, however, joking about Bin Laden himself, has effectively served as a form of cultural resistance to many long-term effects of his actions. Thus, I will combine psychological evidence with media examples to confirm that dark humor targeting terrorists should be considered an effective means of cultural-resistance.
According to Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory, we interpret our own actions the way we interpret others’ actions, and our actions are often socially influenced and not produced out of our own free will, as we might expect (Bem 1972). A number of studies since have confirmed that self-perception theory exists, and furthermore, influences us in many unexpected contexts. An example that came to my mind was the following: one person borrows another’s phone and sees a message come through, that message is a negative meme about the person borrowing the phone. Whatever that message is, that person, per the self-perception theory, will not only impact how other people see that person but also how they view themselves. Thanks to social media, this severity can be multiplied infinitely. Now, a meme can be seen by billions of people within minutes, this has a much larger impact on one’s self perception than does a message seen by only a few.
As mentioned above, Dynel and Poppoi’s research shows that there are more than just jokes on the internet. I wanted to provide a specific example in order to show why this strengthens my argument. They focused primarily on jokes about the attacks to explain their effects on American’s views of terrorists which brought to mind a specific parody song that has been extremely popular over the last few years: “Finest Girl.” The Lonely Island, a comedic band led by Andy Samberg, has a very popular song that makes fun of his death. The lyrics describe a sexual fantasy of a woman who asks the singer to “f*** her like we f***ed Bin Laden.” Another line of the inappropriate song is the following, “she wanted to f*** me harder than the US government f***ed Bin Laden” which directly makes fun of the death of the terrorist by the government attack. This internet has become an outlet for ridiculing terrorists, this song that makes a joke out of a terrorist’s death, which for most, minimizes the threats these terrorists pose.
Even after his death, jokes like this continue to impact people’s perception of Bin Laden by minimizing the idea that he and his group are a powerful group we should live in fear of. In combination with the self-perception theory, followers of Bin Laden, and those who may have sought to do something similar, likely feel the embarrassment this song elicits. The song along with the years of jokes, mocks Bin Laden’s death rendering him as a joke. This has two benefits that I will mention. One, this likely impacts the goals of Bin Laden’s followers as the will not want to be hunted as such. Two, the farther we get from the attack, the generations who were not around for 9/11 will feel for the attack and it’s victims, but will more so find humor in this song and jokes that came from the attack.
Case Study on Adolf Hitler
Memes about Hitler Paragraph
Similarly to Hitler, Bin Laden will be a meme rather than something that elicits fear. In fact, a humorous law was created on the internet because of how frequently jokes and memes about Hitler are brought up. Godwin’s law, is the theory that “as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler, regardless of the original topic” (Godwin 1956). Based on the origin of this law and the growing popularity of joking about 9/11, the farther we get from 9/11 the closer we will be to having a similar law about Bin Laden.
Continuing with the comparison to Hitler, I will do a case study regarding a play and film, both very similar in everything but the name, that aim to mock Hitler. The play, Mein Kampf and the movie, Mein Führer, depict Adolf Hitler and use a satirical approach to relay a few broadly known facts. However, they both deviate from historical facts in order to allow viewers to engage more with the humorous representation of the Holocaust. Both works characterize Hitler as weak and pitiful and mock his reign.
In both works, it is the Jews who prevail and come out laughing. In Mein Kampf the play, wit and word play foreshadows the Holocaust without directly addressing the event. The absurdity of the plot serves as a contrast to actual historic events. The humor in the play is created by the absurdities of the situation and by the obvious allusions to history. The plot is loosely based on Hitler’s younger years in Vienna where was denied from the art school he dreamed of attending. The character transforms from a failed artist to a humorous dictator. The character begins to more closely mirror Hitler’s actual role in history, however it never directly makes note of the tragic event. The dark humor throughout the play allows the readers to laugh at Hitler’s character and offers an alternative way to study the historical events. It provides a mix of absurdity with historical facts, very similarly to the lyrics of Finest Girl. The rest of the song goes on to describe different aspects of Bin Laden’s killing that are accurate, but are mixed with an absolutely absurd story line. This, similarly to Mein Kampf, provide the audience with a new perspective on terrorists.
As seen evidenced above, I argue that humor plays an imperative role as a tool for discussing the Hitler and Bin Laden as well as for its remembrance for those affected by the tragic events led by these two actors. By mocking Hitler, they are making those who were inferior in the tragic event, feel superior when evaluating the aftermath, very similar to the song by The Lonely Island that I presented above. In both cases, humor is used to put a spin on an act of terrorism that helps the audience percieve those actors as pitiful and weak; “humor, particularly positive humor, can help us manage fear when we something frightening or disturbing” (No Kidding).
The psychology of humor includes the function of coping before the presence of fear. “If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in wellbeing,” says Andrea Samson, a postdoctoral student at Stanford University working with James Gross, professor of psychology.The Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) is the most recent model that incorporates success and failure of fear appeals. The EPPM suggests that individuals perceive threats in three ways: the disregard of the message, fear appeal message acceptance, and fear message rejection . According to the EPPM, “fear control processes are defined as primarily emotional processes where people respond to and cope with their fear, not to the danger” (Abril 2017). So, humor, as seen in both the works about Hitler and the song about Bin Laden, can be considered a message rejection, and thus a fear control response.