It's just a joke: the subtle effects of offensive language

20 July 2016

Clinical psychologist Dr Christopher Hunt draws on his research into sexism, as well as referring to research about homophobia and discrimination generally, to provide insights into the significant impacts of our words. 

Derogation... can create greater in-group cohesion, particularly when the in-group feels under threat.
Dr Christopher Hunt.
Dr Christopher Hunt

Clinical psychologist Dr Christopher Hunt. Main photo above: Craft beer at the Taedonggang Microbrewery No. 3 sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Whenever someone is called out for using sexist language, as in the recent case involving Collingwood AFL president Eddie McGuire's comments about journalist Caroline Wilson, the first line of defence is always, “but it was just a joke”.

Those who object to sexist jokes or other forms of offensive language are often accused of being wowsers, of trying to silence free speech – or, as Steve Price called fellow Q&A panellist Van Badham, of being “hysterical”.

But what impact can such language have? Are the objections really a case of “political correctness gone mad”? Or can such language have real consequences?

Just harmless fun?

Despite changing attitudes towards women and minority groups, sexist and offensive jokes remain common. In a 2012 report, the Human Rights Commission found sexist or offensive jokes were the most commonly reported form of harassment in Australian workplaces.

However, many people do not see the harm in such jokes or other offensive language, thinking it is all just harmless fun. It is also often pointed out that those who use offensive language typically did not mean to offend. This is reflected in research results.

A study I completed with colleagues on homophobic language among adolescents found most teenagers perceive the use of words like “fairy” and “fag” as being humorous or just a joke. Most teenagers in the survey did not link the use of such words to homophobia.

But even if the speaker did not intend offence, sexist jokes and offensive language can have subtle impacts we don’t even realise.

How it can impact

Sexist and offensive language can have an impact on those who hear it.

In work I completed with colleagues soon after Julia Gillard was removed as prime minister, we found being reminded of the sexist commentary that was directed at Gillard made most women reduce their interest in politics or leadership roles.

This change in attitude came not after women faced sexism themselves, but after being reminded of the sexism someone else faced. This highlights how sexist jokes and comments directed at prominent women can have the effect of making other women and girls fearful of speaking out, giving things a go, or putting themselves in the firing line.

Offensive language can also have an effect on those who use it. In one Italian study, differing impacts on attitudes towards gay people were examined based on whether they heard them described as “gay” or as “fags”.

When hearing the word “fag”, heterosexual people went on to display greater negative attitudes towards gay people than when the word “gay” was used. This highlights how using offensive language may have an important indirect impact on minority groups, as it may have an unintended effect of hardening majority group members' attitudes towards them.

Why are these comments even made?

Given so many people loudly object to offensive language, why do people persist in speaking this way?

In a study I undertook with a colleague, we asked men to select a joke from a series of pairs that included a clearly sexist joke (such as, “What is the difference between a battery and a woman? A battery has a positive side”) and a joke that was not specifically offensive to women (such as, “Why don’t oysters give to charity? Because they’re shellfish”).

We then had male participants believe they were interacting over a computer with two other students, one male and one female. In reality, the students they were interacting with were computer-generated, and we altered the reactions these fake peers had to the sexist jokes to see if this influenced how many sexist jokes the participants would choose to send.

The male participants were not influenced by whether or not a woman objected to sexist jokes. They were, however, highly sensitive to how they thought another man would react to them, reducing their use of sexist jokes if they thought a man would be object.

What these results show is these jokes appear to have a “male bonding” function – that, primarily, men make such jokes typically to impress other men. Other research has suggested a similar function for homophobic slurs.

Most likely, making jokes about women or using homophobic slurs work to enhance (straight) male bonding because women and gay men represent the “other”; they are what social psychologists refer to as “out-groups” relative to a heterosexual male “in-group”.

Research has long shown derogation of lower-status out-group members can create greater in-group cohesion, particularly in times when the in-group feels under threat. Often this threat may be unacknowledged or implicit.

This theorising is particularly telling given recent findings suggesting men feel threatened by the thought of dating intelligent women, or even former prime minister Tony Abbott’s confession that he personally finds homosexuality to be threatening.

Thus, male bonding through sexist jokes and homophobic language may be an unconscious attempt to deal with a perceived threat coming from the change in the relative status of women and gay men.

Taken together, these findings show two things:

  • First, language does matter. Sexist jokes and other kinds of offensive language can have an impact, even if that was not the speaker’s intent.
  • Second, the best way of stamping out such language is to work with high-profile men to send the message to their peers that it is not acceptable to talk in this way.

So, rather than calling those who point out offensive language “hysterical”, try to remember a little respect can go a long way.

This opinion piece by Dr Christopher Hunt, a clinical psychologist in the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology, first appeared in The Conversation this month.  

Vivienne Reiner

PhD Candidate and Casual Academic
  • Integrated Sustainability Analysis,

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