Laughter appears to be an evolved, involuntary social signal that means “continue play.” We laugh when an event or an utterance has the appearance of a threat, but when its presentation in the context of play causes us to interpret it as harmless. When we make this interpretation, we involuntarily signal to others that the apparent threat is no such thing after all. We experience relief that a threat has been proven illusory, and relief is a pleasurable emotion. That’s why we like to laugh.
But now we’re in this vast interconnected community full of strangers, so we’re never sure whether it’s appropriate to signal that everyone should continue to play. The safest, most self-denying position is to be utterly humourless and to avoid this type of pleasure entirely.
On the internet what we’re looking at could really be a threat, and sometimes it absolutely is, whether against ourselves or against a group with which we feel sympathy. We do like to play, but we also like to be loyal to groups; this too is an important part of most people’s psychology. Our judgements about which is which will basically never be unanimous even in small groups. Good luck in a group of a billion people who all come from different backgrounds and have different affiliations.
Racist humour appears to work as follows: The joke invokes the purported negative traits of a group. The existence of these traits calls into question the safety, dignity, and esteem of the members of the group. The hearer, though, is offered an escape: He or she can always interpret the joke as no real threat after all, and the signal can then be given that play should continue. The hearer can laugh, but at the cost of expressing a lack of empathy for the targeted group.
This laughter implicitly threatens others, but never the self. Play continues for the individual who lacks affiliation to the named group. Affiliations with the group are an obstacle to the continuation of play. Affiliations to the targeted group are also a barrier to a set of competing affiliations, namely those we form with the joke teller and the others who laugh.
It appears to be the case that doing humour in a much more public venue, with much more opportunity for instant audience feedback, is revealing how often many of us have previously and habitually expressed exactly this type of partial solidarity, and this manner of deflecting perceived threats.
The payoff for those of you who are still with me is that we have some reason to believe that this state of affairs is temporary. We are re-calibrating our expectations following a drastic change; there is little reason to expect that a process like this must continue forever. All but certainly it will not.