To think about laughter as the vector of cruelty asks something unusual. We tend to think of such a scene as obscene, one of the ultimate manifestations of evil. To laugh at the sight of another’s pain is somehow inhuman. That laugh, that cruel laugh, denies another’s humanity, refuses to acknowledge another’s pain.
It’s sobering to realize that any study of laughter would be incomplete without considering the function of cruel laughter. In fact, it’s sobering to consider that, to the untrained ear, a sound we might associate with joy and comfort arouses fear and shame.
Why begin this way? Shouldn’t a post titled “casual homophobia” open with a specific incident, demonstrate it is representative, denounce it, and end with a call for a better world? I like this formula, and have used it quite a few times. But not for this post.
Unlike many others, I have been fortunate in that my experiences of homophobia have never resulted in physical injury. What has followed me, instead, is the laugh, echoing in its many variations, haunting my every experience of laughing with and laughing at, being laughed with and being laughed at.
What lingers is the bitter aftertaste of taint.
And this, I think, is what I mean by “casual,” not simply the for-grantedness of homophobia, but how it taints the quotidian. One develops calluses in strange places.
Often, the laughter is not directed at me but at people like me, and this is especially true when it takes place in public, normative settings. Live comedy shows are especially reprehensible in this regard. Of course, I am humorless. I’ve yet to understand why misogyny and homophobia should be cause for laughter. And I have no patience with those who defend both.
Yet, that defense, often in the shallow form of “everyone was insulted, so you weren’t singled out,” is part of the strategy through which homophobia becomes casual. Not simply acceptable, but casual. While “acceptable” bears within it an implicit moral judgment, casual seems more removed from the world of moral judgment, and this is part of what makes casual homophobia so insidious.
The accusation that one is “humorless” silences critique and shames one into being part of a community that can “take a joke.” As an aside, this is why I find the claim that the number one characteristic individuals seek in their partners is “a sense of humor” to be uninteresting, if not downright silly.
I have been thinking about cruelty because, unlike hate, which is often linked to homophobia, we seem willing to overlook cruelty. Any number of tv shows have the line, “children can be so cruel,” understood, it seems, as a fact of growing up, not a pattern of behavior that needs to be challenged, questioned, and remedied. In a strange way, where hate is difficult to sanction (and identify as such), cruelty often gets a pass.
Of course, the idea that one can be cruel depends on understanding the injured party as worthy of recognition, deserving of consideration. I need not rehearse here the many arguments that demonstrate how queering dehumanizes, removing the queer from the domain of the human. And we might argue that the cruel laugh participates in this process by refusing to register the queer feels pain or believing that the queer deserves pain.
One is presented with a set of impossible choices: laugh along and feel pain, laugh along and don’t feel pain, don’t laugh and feel pain, but never the option not to feel pain.
And this foreclosed option exemplifies what is most cruel about casual homophobia.