This essay discusses laughter. There are two ways of laughing. There is laughter by those who have power against those who do not. There is laughter that is meant to keep people in their place. This is the laughter of the adult at the child who mispronounces a word, the laughter of a man at a woman who does not know how to avoid a kiss or a fondle….
There are two ways of laughing. There is laughter by those who have power against those who do not. There is laughter that is meant to keep people in their place. This is the laughter of the adult at the child who mispronounces a word, the laughter of a man at a woman who does not know how to avoid a kiss or a fondle, the laugh of an employer at an employee who comes in late because his car has broken down, the laughter of a master at a slave. This is a form of laughter that sets up boundaries, that excludes the person being laughed at from membership in the group belonged to by the person with superior power.
And there is laughter engaged in by those without power against those who have it. By the teenagers who use their own argot to laugh at adults. By blacks laughing at whites. By Jews laughing at an anti-Semitic society. By immigrants laughing at the native-born. This too is an exclusive kind of laughter, laughter meant to draw lines around one group and to keep it safe from another. But it is very different in kind than the laughter of the social superior, for it has in it an element always of defensiveness, an acknowledgement that while one group of people is as worthy of power as any other, equality is not something that this society has to offer. This is laughter like the joke told walking by a cemetery at night: A talisman meant to keep powerful malignant spirits away, even though one knows that the power of talismans is limited. This is the kind of laughter that marks both Apache jokes about whites and is related to the wordplay of the Ghinnawa poetry of the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin of Egypt – a connection that in fact exists between these two examples of spoken texts and a number of others in a variety of cultures.
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