“Many moral advances have taken the form of a shift in sensibilities that made an action seem more ridiculous than sinful, such as dueling, bullfighting, and jingoistic war. And many effective social critics, such as Swift, Johnson, Voltaire, Twain, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Tom Lehrer, and George Carlin have been smart-ass comedians rather than thundering prophets. What in our psychology allows the joke to be mightier than the sword?
Humor works by confronting an audience with an incongruity, which may be resolved by switching to another frame of reference. And in that alternative frame of reference, the butt of the joke occupies a lowly or undignified status. ...
Humor with a political or moral agenda can stealthily challenge a relational model that is second nature to an audience by forcing them to see that it leads to consequences that the rest of their minds recognize as absurd. ...
According to the 18th-century writer Mary Wortley Montagu, 'Satire should, like a polished razor keen / Wound with touch that's scarcely felt or seen.' But satire is seldom polished that keenly, and the butts of a joke may be all too aware of the subversive power of humor. They may react with a rage that is stoked by the intentional insult to a sacred value, the deflation of their dignity, and a realization that laughter indicates common knowledge of both. The lethal riots in 2005 provoked by the editorial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten
(for example, one showing Muhammad in heaven greeting newly arrived suicide bombers with 'Stop, we have run out of virgins!') show that when it comes to the deliberate undermining of a sacred relational model, humor is no laughing matter. (pp. 633-634)”
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined