Wednesday, October 13, 2021


Gallows Humor

Antonin J. Obrdlik, "'Gallows Humor'—A Sociological Phenomenon," American Journal of Sociology 47.5 (March, 1942) 709-716 (at 712-713):
People who live in absolute uncertainty as to their lives and property find a refuge in inventing, repeating, and spreading through the channels of whispering counterpropaganda, anecdotes and jokes about their oppressors. This is gallows humor at its best because it originates and functions among people who literally face death at any moment. Some of them even dare to collect the jokes as philatelists collect stamps. One young man whom I knew was very proud of having a collection of more than two hundred pieces which he kept safe in a jar interred in the corner of his father's garden. These people simply have to persuade themselves as well as others that their present suffering is only temporary, that it will soon be all over, that once again they will live as they used to live before they were crushed. In a word, they have to strengthen their hope because otherwise they could not bear the strains to which their nerves are exposed. Gallows humor, full of invectives and irony, is their psychological escape, and it is in this sense that I call gallows humor a psychological compensation. Its social influence is enormous. On many an occasion I have observed how one good anecdote changed completely the mood of persons who have heard it—pessimists changed into optimists. Relying on my observations, I may go so far as to say that gallows humor is an unmistakable index of good morale and of the spirit of resistance of the oppressed peoples. Its decline or disappearance reveals either indifference or a breakdown of the will to resist evil. I can remember that those who accepted the New Order as something final and unalterable refused to listen to anecdotes and usually attacked those who repeated them in their presence with sarcastic remarks like this: "You'd better stop making fun of yourself. This is no time to live on jokes." They did not lose their ardent nationalism, but their morale disintegrated—there was no will-power left to resist.

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