Laughing Up, Laughing Down

I’m still thinking about when laughter is good and when it is dangerous. It’s hard for me to even admit it’s danger, because I’m such a fan of laughter. But it’s there.

One of the distinctions may be the direction of the laughter.

Laughing up – playfully disregarding would-be authorities – seems necessary. A man before a tyrannical tribunal making fun of the interrogator’s shoes.

Laughing down – cruelly mocking someone’s struggle – seems dangerous. A group of boys mimicking or snickering at a less coordinated classmate.

This isn’t to say it’s all about physical power or status. Laughter can healthily cut across all of these. But it’s more about your subjective position in the moment than any kind of objective social hierarchy. When you are in the more vulnerable or absurd position, you are laughing from below. When others are more vulnerable or absurd, you’re laughing from above.

This isn’t a perfect rule. For example, sometimes one of my kids trips and falls. Everyone is silent for a moment as their pain and embarrassment hangs in the air, until someone starts laughing and it makes the person who tripped laugh at themselves and the tension is relieved.

But maybe these exceptions prove the rule. The kid who trips is as likely to get offended by the laughter as to join it.

If laughter implies “It’s funny because it reveals that you are lower than me” it’s probably dangerous. If it implies, “It’s funny because even though I’m in a lower state, you (or I, or this) seem silly to me.”