Humour is an overlooked tool in creating social change

Laugh your way to a positive future

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Someone is holding toilet paper rolls over their eyes like binoculars. They are straight-faced, and it’s a very funny-looking photo.
A good chuckle can really change the way you see things. PHOTO: Cottonbro / Pexels

By: Sara Brinkac, Humour Editor

Ah humour, a beauty of a concept and a wonderful spice to life. What’s there to say about humour that hasn’t already been said? It shows intelligence (sometimes), it diffuses tense situations (most of the time), and it brings joy to our lives (all of the time). Humour is so extraordinarily versatile in its social uses that we often overlook just how powerful it can be in enacting social change. But who can blame us? Humour is a famously elusive topic and it can be tough to see how a joke about an orange can change your perception of the grocery industry.

As both The Peak’s humour editor and general human being, I have spent a lot of time thinking about funny; I’ve always surrounded myself with funny, and (to some readers’ disagreement) I like to think I am funny. But despite my credentials, I’ve always had a tough time pinpointing what humour is exactly. What makes something funny at its core? Why is it meaningful? What makes up one’s sense of humour? 

In my reflections, I almost always come back to the social importance of humour. Chiefly, how humour allows us to look at a situation from many perspectives. Through a curated perspective on life, humour allows us to see absurdities in our actions — as demonstrated by the video works of John Wilson — or be surprised by shifts in our perspective. You see tomato, I see Tom: a toe — and he’s handsome too. 

The ability to look at an object in many different ways is invaluable for developing understanding, and with understanding comes dedication to change. A 2017 study from the American University compared the impact of traditional information based documentaries and the comedy series Stand Up Planet on viewers. “People learned more about the global development issues by watching the traditional somber documentary, but they felt more watching Stand Up Planet,says lead researcher Caty Borum Chattoo. 

While it goes without saying information and informed actions are crucial to social change, so is emotional engagement. We understand there is chaos all around us, but monotonous presentation rarely stimulates. Humour allows us to change the narrative and speak with a more nuanced social tone that we as a species naturally resonate with. It’s when we are confronted with the absurdities of our actions that we begin to recognize those patterns in our everyday life and make efforts to change with a lighter heart. 

A terrific advocate for mental health can be found in the off-kilter comics of Alex Macdonald. Known on social media platforms as alecwithpen, his works are at once deeply personal and charmingly funny — prompting us to reflect on our journeys towards mental wellness. Oglaf, a sex-positive comic, has won accolades for its depictions of LGBTQ2A+ people of various races; showing us explicitly that sex is both funny and worthy in whatever forms it may take.

Humour reminds us there is always a different way to look at things, and there is always room to be surprised. When we start making light of our situations we begin to accept that our initial perceptions and (perhaps pragmatic) rules of reality are not all that stands. We can go easy on ourselves and others — heck — we can even accept that others have a beneficial view on life we hadn’t previously considered. And you know what that sounds a lot like? Empathy. One of my favourite ingredients in a stew I like to call social change.