It didn’t take long after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order for the shelter-in-place memes and videos to start hitting the internet. I’m grateful for that because I, like most people, need a laugh right now.
My favorite meme so far is “Everyone please be careful tonight, there is a DUI checkpoint on the corner of hallway and kitchen … be safe,” and my favorite video is the one of the guy singing the Adele song “Hello” with his face pressed against his living room window.
However, scrolling through Facebook, it’s evident that some people are offended by these attempts at humor or think they reveal that people are not taking COVID-19 seriously.
While it’s obvious that some people don’t understand the severity of the situation, I think making fun of the coronavirus is just the latest example of gallows humor (humor that treats serious, frightening or painful subject matter in a light, satirical way, according to Dictionary.com).
In her article “Humor as Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve,” Nichole Force says that gallows humor was coined by the Germans (galgenhumor) in the mid-1800s and was considered to be “an expression of resilience and hope.”
Used primarily by the oppressed, gallows humor helped people cope with circumstances beyond their control. An example is this Soviet-era joke regarding whether Joseph Stalin or Herbert Hoover was the better leader: Hoover taught Americans not to drink. Yes, but Stalin taught Russians not to eat.
Because this form of humor was also seen as a “secret, subversive weapon” used by the masses, it was sometimes considered to be dangerous by those in control, said Force. Not surprisingly, anti-Nazi humor was outlawed in Germany during World War II and those who engaged in telling such jokes were punished, including being sent to concentration camps or death.
Despite this threat, gallows humor persisted even in concentration camps. Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night,” recounting his imprisonment in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, provides an example: “In Treblinka, where a day’s food was some stale bread and a cup of rotting soup, one prisoner cautions a fellow inmate against gluttony. ‘Hey Moshe, don’t overeat. Think of us who will have to carry you.’”
Such macabre humor “demonstrates the vital role it plays in resilience and survival,” according to Force.
COVID-19 is a serious, frightening, painful subject that has resulted in circumstances beyond our control. Joking about it helps us from being too depressed about it. Force theorizes, “In much the same way that the release of white blood cells is the body’s natural means of combating an intruding infection, gallows humor and humor in general could be the natural psychological means of combating an intruding depression.”
However, joking about self-isolation is different than making racist jokes about the source of the virus or that the death of older people from it might be a good thing, which have also popped up on the internet.
According to www.militarytimes.com, an Army social media manager was fired in March because of something he posted on the Army’s official social media account that his superiors thought was derogatory toward Chinese people. I haven’t seen any news releases about someone being fired for calling the virus a “Boomer Remover” yet, but just give it time.
Employers, managers and supervisors should respond to these jokes just as they would to any jokes that disparage people because of their race, age or any other protected characteristic. This response should include the appropriate corrective action (verbal warning, written warning, suspension or termination) based on the severity of the situation.
To the creative people who have helped us laugh about hand sanitizing, social isolating and toilet paper hoarding, I salute you. Laughing about it helps to ease the anxiety until we can go back to our lives.
Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.