Somehow we have gotten this notion in the culture that humor is value-neutral. That something being a joke means it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't affect anything. But it's absurd. Humor has a powerful social function. Several in fact. It can help people bind over shared adversity. It can smooth over feelings of social discomfort around uncomfortable or uncertain events and ideas. In this last, a message about how to think about something is often included implicitly. But it also plays a very large role in social censure and definition of in/out group. As social censure it acts as an attack against people -doing- things that are culturally deemed unacceptable but not so bad that they warrant punishment(or where social systems don't exist to enact punishment). This can be very useful, as mocking those acting rudely or engaging in petty cruelty can help to correct those actions, or can be destructive if the taboos they enforce/reinforce are unjust.Mel Brooks/Groucho Marks:
But this same social censure can end up targeting whole groups of people along utterly arbitrary lines. And when they do they tend to create/reinforce and recreate in each new generation systems of social advantage/oppression. Humor is possibly The Strongest Inculcation Tool for teaching prejudice. Because it is a set of social cues we are primed to respond to without thinking. Because humor has such a strong group-bonding component, the social incentive to laugh along with the joke is high. And when you see others laugh with the joke, the incentive to tell similar jokes is high. And the group bonds over it, and the message sinks in without really ever being critically appraised. And eventually that message forms a baseline subconscious assumption about the world unless you run into a strong reason to actively work to weed it out.
It ends up playing a part in defining on a deep level who is and isn't fully worthy of empathy. Who 'deserves' abuse. Who should automatically be respected and who shouldn't. And these same things end up coloring how we see the world. How we respond to what people in various groups say and how they act. Who is given the benefit of the doubt and who is suspect. Who is assumed to be competent or worth listening to. What sorts of ideas are even worth consideration, because humor is extremely good at painting whole ideas as beneath contemplation and therefor dismissed -without ever being consciously evaluated-. Whose ideas are worthy of such thought.
Because the same mechanism involved in many of these sorts of jokes is the social tool we use to single out rude people, or liars, or people who cheat. It's never just a joke. It's a bit of prejudice you learned at some point that you never even noticed yourself learning, which you are passing on without realizing you are doing it. No one joke is going to just make a person prejudiced, but each little bit adds up. Because as rational and introspective as we might think we are, as humans we are all pretty impressionable, and worse we tend to be very blind to how we are being affected.
Think about your humor. What you laugh at. What jokes you pass along. And if you get called on a joke, instead of getting defensive, consider questioning the joke itself. Why you found it funny, but also what sort of messages it's conveying. You telling this kind of joke doesn't make you a bad person, you just picked up somewhere that it was funny. But it still has an effect, even if you don't see it.
Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.All humor is ultimately a pratfall, but most important the pratfall happens to "them" not "us." Think of any ethnic joke. OK you got one don't you? Now name your most important in-group. Your church, your school, your community. Now tell the joke with the ethnic group replaced by the in-group name preferably aloud in the in-group. Is it still comedy or does it become a tragic comment on the failing of the group, or worse it makes you rude to point it out.
The truth of the pratfall is irrelevant to the designation. You may claim it is ironic, or if it is perceived to be on them, satire but the message is clear: This is what they are/do and we must be careful that it never happens to us.
One of my favorite religious jokes is the poem
We are the world's sweet chosen few.Note the open sewer there. It may be simply a mud hole if you don't believe in Hell, but nevertheless if one of "us" fell into that mud hole all would rally around to rescue the victim, and the joke falls flat. The message for apostates is unmistakable and the message for non-believers is that you deserve the open sewer preferably sooner rather later, and "we" will be glad to help.
The rest of you be damned!
There is room enough in Hell for you,
We won't have Heaven crammed.
"It's a joke, son." is a way of defusing criticism of behavior that is not consistent with the mores of our tribe by associating it with another tribe, preferably one that is not too dissimilar but clearly not one of us. Interstate jokes being the most benign as the neighboring state is clearly a lot like us and only the worst of them indulge as the butt of the joke. The sharp edge remains however to remind "son" that we don't do things like that. If the cutting edge of the humor doesn't cause a bit of discomfort in the audience of the comic it probably was wasted and unsuccessful.
Humans laugh because they are uncomfortable but either unsure of the source of the discomfort or because the source of the discomfort is a trusted figure of some sort. Consider tickling. Tickling is a serious invasion of personal space. But only someone that has permission to invade personal space can be in a position to tickle. It is a restrained aggressive act, but protest would be inappropriate so we express our discomfort with laughter.
“Laughter is really interesting because we observe it across all human cultures and in other species,” says Carolyn McGettigan, a cognitive neuroscientist at Royal Holloway, University of London. “It's an incredibly important social signal.” ...
Subjects whose medial prefrontal cortex “lit up” more when hearing the posed laughter were better at detecting whether laughs were genuine or not in a subsequent test. (This brain region is involved in understanding the viewpoint of others.) “If you hear a laugh that seems ambiguous in terms of what the person means,” McGettigan explains, “it makes sense that you're going to try to work out why this person sounds like this.”
There is a lesson in this for those who persist in telling jokes that are offensive to some. They can tell that some are "laughing to be a part of the crowd" or to be polite. How they deal with that knowledge is an important social signal that can in an extreme situation be a reason for calling them out as an asshole that does not belong in the social circle they pretend to be in. If it is yours, kick herm the hell out. No Platform the asshole.