What Can Laughter Do for Social Justice?

The feminist scholar bell hooks wrote a passage on laughter that I still think about regularly. The paragraph is from her 2004 book The Will to Change. In it, she tells the story of standing up in front of an audience and using the phrase “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our social system. Her listeners burst into laughter. It would be easy to take their reaction as a gesture of mockery, but bell hooks doesn’t. Instead, she observes, “No one ever explained what about the phrase was funny…I choose to interpret their laughter as a sign of discomfort.”

According to scientific research, she’s right. Studies show that “endorphins secreted by laughter can help when people are uncomfortable.” Because laughter is a social lubricant that strengthens human bonds — an evolutionary advantage our primate ancestors developed 10–16 million years ago — Homo sapiens are especially likely to laugh when they sense a threat to their social order. Of course, as bell hooks points out, our current social order grants more power to white people, wealthy people, and men. By naming these phenomena for what they are — examples of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy — hooks distances herself from these social structures and suggests a division between caucasians and people of color, the wealthy and the poor, the male and the female. The easiest way to smooth over potential ruptures in the audience as a result of this statement? Laughing.