“Dark Humor” and the Facilitation of Hatred

By: Elizabeth Collins.

Written as part of the First-Year Seminar “The Power of Language Ideologies”

1. Introduction

Although social media outlets such as Reddit promote participatory media practices which provide grounds for productive, democratic discourse, these sites also have the potential to foster discourses of hatred against marginalized groups, especially given the anonymity these sites provide. (Topinka 2017: 2). Humor and irony can be ‘powerful tools’ of hatred and repression, because the joke format provides a socially accepted means of breaking taboos (Billig 2001: 268; Simpson & Mayr 2010: 133). When performing the speech act of a joke, the teller adopts a ‘humor footing,’ which indicates a shift from referentialism. Referentialismis an ideology that assumes that if the function of language is to ‘reference’ or signify objects in the real world, then the speaker’s choice in words should reflect what he or she believes to be true (Hill 2008: 39). Humor, particularly irony, uses reverse referentialism, which is the interpretation that the ‘validity claim of the joker is insincere’ – that is, the joker’s words are not to be taken as reflections of the joker’s true meaning or beliefs (Simpson & Mayr 2010: 78). Offensive communities on Reddit take advantage of this ideology behind irony in order to promote hatred. The Reddit community /r/ImGoingToHellForThis actively propagates and participates in racist, sexist, and transphobic discourse through visibly offensive ‘jokes’ and the meta-discourse of community guidelines under the guise of satirical and humorous intent.


2. Characteristics of the reddit community.

            2.1. How reddit works.

Reddit is a cluster of sub-communities known as subreddits, and is used by anonymous users called redditors. Subreddits are run by unpaid users called modswho can define the rules they want and do not want to enforce. Moderation style varies for each subreddit, and mods create sidebarswhichidentify community rules and guidelines.Users can opt to subscribeto a subreddit, which means the user wants consistent access to its content on his or her feed. All posts on Reddit are voted on by users with either an upvotewhich indexes that the post is interesting, funny, or contributes to the conversation, or a downvotewhich indexes that the user does not like the post, or the post is irrelevant or does not contribute. The overall score of a post is determined by adding upvotes and subtracting downvotes. Voting is anonymous, given the anonymity encouraged by Reddit.

Mods of subreddits are required to adhere to Reddit’s newfound content policy, which governs prohibited content that are enforced by paid Reddit employees known as admins (Reddit 2015: Content Policy). In cases where mods ignore or circumvent these rules, Reddit reserves the right to quarantine, remove content from, and ban subreddits (Reddit 2015: Content Policy). Quarantined subreddits are communities that produce content that the admins deem ‘extremely offensive or upsetting for the average redditor (Reddit 2017: Quarantined).’ Quarantining the subreddit involves applying a set of restrictions to access the community such as email and age verification, as well as a pop-up requiring users to ‘opt in’ to view the content (Reddit 2017: Quarantined). Some users feel the exist simply for the purpose of encouraging redditors to stop using the subreddit. For instance, u/T_Dumbsford comments, ‘I can’t name a single quarantined subreddit that is still thriving (u/T_Dumbsford 2015: r/reclassified).’ Frustration with the new Content Policy and user-perceived ‘censorship’ likely contributes to the popularity of offensive communities. This is significant given 35% of complaints from extremely dissatisfied users on a recent survey were about heavy-handed moderation and censorship (Reddit 2015: Upvoted).

2.2.Characterizing /r/imgoingtohellforthis.

/r/ImGoingToHellForThis[1]is a notoriously offensive subreddit with 733,498 subscribers that visibly perpetuates racism, sexism, and transphobia as a form of dark, edgy ‘humor.’ In the sidebar, the mods describe the subreddit as the welcoming home of ‘tasteless, politically incorrect, dark, offensive, & twisted humor of all types,’ and present rules. Rule VII commands the community to ‘downvote any whiteknighting, moral faggotry, and general agenda pushing.’ Whiteknightingis an offensive anti-feminist term that refers to men who ‘ride to the rescue’ of women ‘under attack’ on the internet (Roberta 2015: reaxxion). Similarly, a moralfagis one who ‘expresses moral dissent, especially in an amoral community (Wiktionary 2017: Wiktionary).’ Therefore, the rule can be translated as, ‘make offensive jokes and reject any notions or protection of morality.’ Also, a key attitude is presented with the rule’s rejection of ‘general agenda pushing.’ This is the first indication of the subreddit’s frustration with a perceived societal constraint not only on freedom of speech, but also on freedom of thought, likely perpetuated by the new Content Policy. Additionally, the sidebar claims that ‘moral crusaders will be banned.’ This banning of others from the subreddit indicates that the subreddit, while ‘troll-y’ in nature, does not in of itself troll. Trollingis understood as actively interrupting and provoking opposition in moralistic forums through comments (Coles & West 2016: 234). While the subreddit certainly seeks to offend the average redditor by rejecting notions of political-correctness, it does not interrupt spaces for other, non-offensive forms of discourse. These community guidelines encourage the creation of offensive jokes, which is significant given online offensive articulations are ‘shaped by in-group norms, not only norms of political correctness (Malmqvist 2015: 735).’

It is probably most important, however, to analyze the meta-discourse of the site, particularly its use of disclaimers (Billig 2001: 270). In form with other sites promoting hatred through humor, the subreddit is careful to indicate to users that ‘any posts, comments, or users that are encouraging harm against others or general hatred without any attempt at humor will be removed,’ with emphasis on ‘without any attempt at humor (Billig 2001: 270).’ Billig’s recognition that these disclaimers never indicate that the ‘jokes’ are ‘only jokes,’ stands in this case (Billig 2001: 274). Instead, the defense ‘only joking’ is used to contrast the appropriateness of ‘joking’ with the inappropriateness of being seriouslyracist/sexist/etc., ‘without any attempt at humor (Billig 2001: 274).’ /r/ImGoingToHellForThis is overt with its offense, and the defense “we are only joking” is not in response to charges of inappropriateness, but rather to the charge of ‘inciting violent behavior’ and serious (non-humorous) racism (Billig 2001: 275). Therefore, the ‘intent of humor’ is intended to disclaim assertions that the ‘humor’ of the subreddit ‘encourages harm or general hatred.’ This meta-discourse of the site cloaks and permits redditor’s creation of offensive ‘jokes.’ However, an analysis of the ‘jokes’ themselves is necessary to fully understand the racism, sexism, and transphobia of the subreddit.


3.Analysis of overtly offensive ‘jokes.’

     3.1.sexist ‘jokes.’

/r/ImGoingToHellForThis uses its ‘humor’ footing and ‘ironic’ mockery of political-correctness to cloak the visibly sexist discourse perpetuated by its posts via claims to the reverse referentiality inherent to irony.[2]For instance, one image posted by u/nersha shows a comment thread. An unidentified commenter first complains, ‘What the f*** don’t make rape jokes…’ The successive commenter asks, ‘What’s wrong with a rape joke,’ and proceeds to write a classic ‘walks into bar joke’ in successive comments adding ‘and then she got raped lmao’ to the end as the intended punchline. u/nersha’s comment on the image was, ‘Wanna [sic] hear a rape joke? No? That’s what she said too.’ The subreddit justifies this ‘joke’ through an appeal to the subreddit’s edgy ‘humor’ footing, especially because the original commenter ‘pushed an agenda’ by claiming the type of ‘joke’ is wrong. Also, the post uses low burlesquewhich downplays the gravity of serious topics, rape in this instance, by treating the topic with levity (Simpson & Mayr 2010: 27). This creates the conceptual incongruity necessary for interpretation of an ironic ‘joke’ (Simpson & Mayr 2010: 26). However, there is a larger comment being made about women, in that it suggests raping women should not be taken seriously. Similarly, a post by u/TheSheepdog shows an image that implies a progression of ‘awareness’ beginning with ‘there are a spectrum of genders’ as the lowest form of awareness and ‘there is 1 gender, women are objects’ as the highest form of awareness. Here, the post is, again, excused and enjoyed by the subreddit via claims of ‘ironic intention,’ whereby the validity claim of the sincerity of u/TheSheepdog is rejected (Simpson & Mayr 2010: 132). Even if the ‘ironic intention’ of the post is accepted, the propagation of sexist ideals cannot be denied. Because the performative nature of jokes requires hearers to consider the idea that ‘women are objects’ in rejecting the validity claim of the teller in order to understand the ‘joke,’ the ideas of sexism are re-ingrained into the consciousnesses of those who view these posts, which, in turn, perpetuates sexism (Willis 2002: Making Sense of Humor). Lastly, an image of an obese woman sitting on a beach receiving 46.2k upvotes was posted by /u/Exanero with the comment ‘If you upvote this picture, it will show up when you google stranded whale.’ This is an example of a ‘no-joke,’ whereby there is not incongruity yielding humor in the image and accompanying text, but rather solely an ignition of ridicule (Billig 2001: 276). The worst part is that the post achieved its goal – now, when googling ‘stranded whale’ the image of the woman appears. This demonstrates that the redditors are not ‘only joking,’ but perpetuating sexism.

            3.2.Racist ‘jokes.’

The subreddit also disseminates racist discourse through blatantly offensive visual images and commentary, which the subreddit excuses through appeals to the reverse referentialism associated with ‘ironic’ and ‘humorous’ intention.[3]For instance, /u/Im_no_imposter posted an image showing cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants looking down while speaking to Sandy that says, ‘When the black kids start talking to you in broken English and slang… Sorry I don’t speak welfare,’ where welfare is in bold. The racist discourse of this ‘joke’ is two-fold. Not only does it consider African American Vernacular English (AAVE) ‘broken english’ spoken by all ‘black kids,’ but it also comments that it is the language of ‘welfare’ recipients. The argued conceptual incongruity in the ‘joke’ is associated again with the low burlesque used to discuss the serious topic of welfare. However, the subreddit argues this ‘humor footing’ in order to obscure the larger commentary made by the ‘joke’ – that is, black people are incompetent because they rely on ‘welfare’ and speak ‘broken English.’ The subreddit follows a similar pattern with a post by /u/dwrussel which shows an image of a black man dressed up like an Egyptian pharaoh. The image has the words ‘claims he trace [sic] his lineage back to King Tut… Doesn’t even know his father,’ and the caption ‘We wuz kangz.’ Again, the subreddit claims humor through its use of low burlesque in regard to the problem of fathers abandoning children. However, the caption ‘we wuz kangz’ and the fact that the black man only ‘claims’ to have ‘lineage to King Tut’ makes a more racist comment that, because of his skin color, the man could never have come from anything. Thus, again, the ‘humor footing’ is used in an attempt to cloak the ‘actual’ racism evident in their ‘jokes.’ However, sometimes the subreddit does not even attempt humor, but appeals to the meta-discourse of the subreddit to justify its racist discourse. For instance, one image posted by /u/spacelemon is an advertisement for a car with the description, ‘Good running car, 148800 miles… Mexicans and blacks will not be considered… don’t want some thug niggering up my grannys car.’ This ‘joke’ does not take advantage of any low burlesque or conceptual incongruity. Instead it simply perpetuates not only the stereotype that Latino and Black people are ‘thugs,’ but does so through the ultimate hate word. When challenged, the subreddit would likely refer to its disclaimers that it does not encourage ‘harm or general hatred.’ However, there is no attempt at humor, and, given the performative nature of humor, re-ingrains this stereotype in viewers of the ‘joke.’ Therefore, the subreddit, again, attempts to obscure its racist dscourse through appeals to its humorous intent not only of individual posts, but of the subreddit itself.

3.3.Transphobic ‘Jokes.’

Lastly, the subreddit attempts to exempt its discourse of transphobia by, again, exploiting the reverse referentialism that forms ironic and ‘humorous’ intent.[4]For instance, one post by /u/bautidastud shows a Facebook post:

The year is 2025. News Anchor: In tonight’s top story, a bi-sexual genderqueer gluten free man who identifies as a straight woman and a free range self-proclaimed feminist who was born a woman but identifies as a pansexual man and author of book, ‘he raped with his eyes and got away with it’ have given birth to a healthy baby Xi who they claim, at 2 weeks old, identifies as a lime green Crayola crayon.

This post attempts at humor through its ridiculousness. However, in this ‘humor’ there is a strong transphobic claim that trans people identifying as genders different from their born sex is as ridiculous as identifying as a ‘lime green Crayola crayon.’ However, the posts clear ‘humorous intent’ is used to excuse this transphobia. Similarly, an image posted by /u/dennynukes shows a cartoon child dressed as a peacock exclaiming ‘I’m a dog.’ Subsequently, the caption is, ‘how trans people celebrate Halloween.’ /u/methheadhitman continues this ‘joke’ with the comment, ‘Every day is Halloween for trans people.’ The post ‘attempts’ humor through the ridiculousness of someone whose costume is a peacock claiming that they are a dog. However, the post’s transphobia is two-fold. First it claims that trans people identify as genders that they could not possibly be, and, second, it equates identifying as trans with choosing a costume to wear on Halloween. The transphobic discourse is again cloaked by the subreddit’s ‘humorous intention.’ Lastly, a post by /u/schoolboy43 shows a picture of the door of a women’s restroom that features trans woman Caitlyn Jenner. He captions it, ‘this restaurant doesn’t have a women’s restroom.’ This post, again, indicates the belief that trans people cannot identify as different genders by continuing to assume Caitlyn’s gender as male. This post does not demonstrate a clear incongruity, but simply comments that Caitlyn Jenner is not trans, but a male pretending to be female. Thus, the subreddit’s transphobic discourse is revealed by removing the ‘cloak’ of humorous intent.


4. Conclusion.

/r/ImGoingToHellForThis visibly continues discourses of hatred through appeals to the humorous intent and structure of the posts themselves in addition to the humorous intent claimed by the subreddit itself. Although understudied, analysis of racism, sexism, and transphobia cloaked by ‘humor’ is essential to understanding the overt and covert perpetuation of hatred. Specifically, analysis of the discourse and associated images of the subreddit provides grounded examples of the continuing hatred marginalized groups of society face today.


[1]The content of the subreddit can be found at this link: https://www.reddit.com/r/ImGoingToHellForThis/. Additionally, the content of the sidebar is collectively written by the mods of the subreddit, whose names can be found after subreddit suggestions.

[2]All of the sexist visual ‘jokes’ and commentary can be found in the order of presentation in Appendix A.

[3]All of the racist visual ‘jokes’ and associated commentary can be found in the order of presentation in Appendix B.

[4]All of the transphobic visual ‘jokes’ and commentary can be found in the order of presentation in Appendix C.


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