Friday, February 7, 2014

"Iron this."

This blog post constitutes [a summary of / reading notes on] More than “just a joke”: The prejudice-releasing function of sexist humor. by Ford, Boxer, et al., 2008. Interested parties may wish to read the full paper.

Credit: Florida Division of Library & Information Services
(TL;DR: quoting the relevant article: Sexist humour may derive power to trivialize sexism and foster a sexist normative climate from the ambiguity of society's attitudes toward women.)

Setup: Participants were rated on hostile sexism scores according to Glick et al.'s Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, a 22-question battery featuring statements (to be rated on a 6-point agree/disagree scale) such as:

Women are too easily offended.

Women seek special favours under [the] guise of equality.

Feminists are making reasonable demands.*

* Naturally, scores for some of these items were inverted.

(The statements shown test for hostile sexism; others testing for benevolent sexism include Women have a superior moral sensibility and so on.)

The inventory was administered in the students' classrooms. Two to four weeks later the same students were (seemingly unrelatedly) exposed to a number of short role-playing scenarios. Buried in the middle of those were one of the following:

  • Sexist humour condition: A vignette consisting of various characters exchanging mostly sexist jokes (How can you tell if a blonde's been using the computer? There's White-Out on the screen!).
  • Neutral humour condition: A vignette consisting of various characters exchanging neutral jokes (What's the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack — Damn![...]).
  • Sexist statement condition: A vignette consisting of various characters exchanging sexist social commentary (I just think that a woman's place is in the home and that it's a woman's role to do domestic duties such as laundry for her man.).

(Pretest ratings indicated that the sexist jokes were considered just as funny as the neutral ones, and just as sexist as the sexist statements.)

Within the context of the role-play, the students were then asked how much of a fixed budget they would be willing to donate to a fictional women's organisation.

Result: In the sexist humour condition, students' hostile sexism levels predicted how little they would donate. However, in the other two conditions, students' hostile sexism levels did not affect donation amounts.

So what does that mean?

According to the authors:

These findings cannot easily be explained as merely a priming effect apart from the role of humor... For people high in prejudice, humorous disparagement can create the perception of a shared norm of tolerance of discrimination that may be used to guide their own responses in the immediate context.

In other words, sexist humor can serve as a releaser of prejudice. People with internalised sexism don't necessarily always act upon it, but they're far more likely to when other people are joking and creating a safe environment for them to freely act upon those values.

(Omitted: discussion of the second experiment in the paper which addresses some methodological issues with the above experiment (e.g. imagined versus real social groups; imagined versus real money).

Also omitted: the usual discussion about how representative undergrad sociology students are of their society at large.)

IRL takeaways

  • Even if you think you are not particularly bigoted yourself, making jokes at the expense of a marginalised group is absolutely not a morally neutral action. (No, not just gender.)

    (Obviously this assumes you believe that further marginalising marginalised groups is ceterus paribus bad. If you don't, that's a whole other discussion. Several whole other discussions.)

  • Jokes do not exist in a vacuum; they coexist with culture. Jokes are not just a byproduct of culture, they influence culture.
  • That thing they said in primary school about not making fun of other people? Still relevant.

Ford, Thomas E., et al. "More than “just a joke”: The prejudice-releasing function of sexist humor." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34.2 (2008): 159-170.
Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. "The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism." Journal of personality and social psychology 70.3 (1996): 491.