I’m fascinated by psychology, so when I shared a meme that inadvertently offended one of my followers, I decided to look into what exactly it is that make offensive humour funny to some but not others. Why is it that sick jokes will make one person laugh but offend somebody else?

Part of being a blogger is managing multiple social media accounts (my most hated part if I’m honest – this is my single greatest reason for hoping to become super successful: so I can afford to pay someone to do it for me). But I recently encountered an interesting impasse, and actually I’m surprised it’s not occurred sooner. I shared a (somewhat) sexist meme which I found amusing. The majority of the reactions aligned with my intent, but one person was offended.

So, how does one define comedy and humour? What is it that makes sick jokes tickle one person whilst offending another? And, as a decent human being, when it comes to what I share as being simple lighthearted fun, versus enabling a patriarchal/sexist/any-other-current-hot-topic system – or even just hurting the feelings of somebody sensitive to a given subject – where should I draw the line?

There’s also a line which allows us to have values that align with, say, patriotism – and rightly so. Yet if you overstep this invisible line, you’ll find yourself labelled as racist.

Sick Jokes and Offensive Humour – Is It Funny?

There’s yet another line which allows us to call a spade a spade: stereotypes are such because there’s truth behind them, and statistics don’t lie. But be careful because ascribing humour to them could have you labelled as prejudiced…

Do you ever think that political correctness has gone absolutely crazy? Is it even possible for it to co-exist with common sense these days? And where do we draw the line with sick jokes and offensive humour?

I’m being cynical for the purposes of the discussion, but I do feel that our personal values are becoming saturated with progressive red tape. The procedures are there for the wellbeing of the vulnerable – something I applaud – but has it gone too far? Where does it end?

Okay, time for a geek-out. I’m genuinely interested in the offensive humour thing: what does make something funny? And why does it vary between people? Apparently, it’s about something called benign violation theory. Stay with me, because this is fascinating and absolutely rings true…

The Psychology of Sick Jokes and Offensive Humour

Basically, for us to find something amusing it needs to meet two conditions:

  1. It should violate our expectations of appropriate behaviour or beliefs;
  2. It should do so in a non-threatening way.

This is where we will each have our own limits as to what’s funny and what strays into ‘offensive’ humour territory.

It’s the reason why men on building sites find sick jokes about rape fair game for ‘banter’, and I categorically do not: rape is vastly more threatening to women than it is to men. And that threat is something we live with on a daily basis, whilst most men never have to think about it from a victim’s perspective. (I’m obviously not suggesting it doesn’t happen to both sexes, but the reality is that women cannot physically cause equivalent harm to men. Jeez, see how there’s a need to qualify everything for fear of causing offense?)

I’ve given it a lot of thought, in case you hadn’t noticed. I was fortunate enough to discuss the issue on my Facebook page I referred to earlier, as a grown-up, with other grown-ups. Rather than allowing our different perspectives to cloud our conversation to the point of bitterness, we had an open and respectful dialogue which helped me to reach this conclusion:

It comes down to intent.

The power of language should not be underestimated, but its weight is derived from its meaning, and its meaning from its intent.

Take curse words as an example; they carry power and aggression – but only because of the meaning and intention historically attached to them. The reality is that they’re merely an arrangement of letters – it’s their connotation and the context behind them which makes them so provocative.

It took me a while to get my head around this one, but Harriet of Toby and Roo fame explains it well here (I think Nomipalony said it first, but I can’t find where!):

Let’s talk about the F-Bomb. ? More specifically children swearing. ?? I’m a notorious potty mouth (oh you didn’t notice? You must be new?), I have been known to raise my husband’s eyebrows from time to time… ?but children and swearing? How do I feel about it? ? I’ll tell you: I don’t mind. ? Let’s think about it logically, swearing is (in my oh-so-humble-opinion) a form of self expression and provided it’s not used to be aggressive then it’s no big deal. ??‍♀️ I’d rather my kid said fuck than hurt someone’s feelings intentionally. I’d rather my kid said shit than hit. (Poetical finery??). I’d rather they were kind, thoughtful, opinionated and brave than constantly worrying about a few words that society has deemed bad. ✌? We never really question WHY its bad either, do we?? Often it’s steeped in a historical misogyny or other oppressive reasoning – thanks @nomipalony for putting that into the right words for me ??. Did you know the original word for female genitalia is now considered one of the worst words in our language? Uhhh-huh. ?? Language evolves. Language adapts. Don’t get me wrong, I teach my kids there is a time and a place, and that as children they have no need to swear, that it’s something grown ups do??. If they swore at school it would be inappropriate and they would be in trouble so I’m not one to create a rod for their backs. Incidentally the swears we have had from Reuben have been words I don’t use that he’s picked up from peers. Now I’ve had this little soapbox moment, I’m going to tell you that you are the foreplay to @itv Good Morning Britain where I will be discussing this exact topic in the morning! ??? So what are your thoughts on kids and swearing? Is it THAT big a deal? #PottyMouthMummy

A post shared by Harriet Shearsmith (@tobyandroo) on

The Paradox of Imposed Liberalism

My husband made an interesting and valid point whilst discussing this very issue. We’re encouraged to be liberal – something I endorse. Yet the truth is that to a greater and greater extent the liberalism we so advocate is thrust upon us. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in equality, of course I do. (If you don’t then quite frankly you’re a degenerate twit and you’re welcome to close down your web page and never visit my site again.)

I don’t – obviously – want to see our tolerant society returning to the conservative, inflexible attitudes of times gone by. But might there be a sweet spot? One in which we’re not incessantly gagged or censoring ourselves for fear of offending?

I’m a great believer in the saying that offense is not given, it’s taken.

As with most things, I feel that if there’s innocence behind words, or (what I perceive to be) a harmless meme, then the default reaction should not be to take offense (it’s a choice) and to vilify the perpetrator – but it is a great opportunity for education.

Going back to the meme I shared, with hindsight I imagine that the reason it didn’t offend me or most others is that we’re in the fortunate position of having respectful partners who don’t undermine us because we’re women. For somebody else who is battling that issue, or perhaps it’s not their partner but a boss that’s creating the problem for them – that is what would prevent them from reacting in the same way we did:

I’m not personally threatened, therefore I can be amused.

Sick Jokes and Offensive Humour - Couple Play Fighting With Vegetables

As for my social media presence going forward, after giving the subject plenty of thought because I care about my reputation and how my actions and words affect others, I came to a decision about how I’ll manage my page in the future:

I’m not a bad person, and I don’t wish harm to others. My page is a reflection of me and my values, and I hope to attract like-minded individuals. If I see something which I find amusing then I’m going to share it. And if somebody who has previously found themselves aligned with my values doesn’t appreciate it then I invite them to discuss it with me.

You may just change my opinion.

How do you feel about sick jokes and offensive humour?

An award-nominated blogger and author, Kate is a huge advocate of personal growth, focusing on journaling to increase positivity and facilitate mindful motherhood. With a wealth of experience in breastfeeding and CMPA, Kate is also an expert baby sleep chaser. Her writing has appeared on Mothercare, Huff Post, and BritMums.

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