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Humour and International Challenges

Augmenting Problem and Strategy Comprehension through Psycho-Cultural Catalysts

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The Union of International Associations is in process of maintaining and developing profiles of over 30,000 world problems and some 29,500 strategies in response to them. Other databases linked to these include human development approaches, human values and metaphors. This material is largely derived from some 20,000 international organizations that are profiled in a related database. These databases are made available in publications such as the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential and the Yearbook of International Organizations. CD-ROM versions are available and the data is also increasingly available on the Web (see

The Encyclopedia data is being extended under a contract (1998-1999) with the European Commission in relation to biodiversity conservation. This contract explicitly calls for enhancement of user access through multi-media facilities. Funds are currently being sought from the World Bank to further extend information relating to development. These initiatives are designed to encourage widespread participation of users in the further improvement of the data.

Preliminary Proposal

The Union of International Associations considers that there are strong arguments for offering users a fresh way of exploring problem and strategy profiles on the Web, namely through relevant humour. Given that the existing UIA information is highly hyperlinked, it would be relatively straightforward to build up a humour database that would link from and to particular problems and strategies. The procedure might be extended to human value profiles and to profiles of approaches to human development.

Users of the problem and strategy information would then have the option of exploring it through jokes. Humour is seen as a vital supportive aspect of the learning process. Humour would help to reframe some problems creatively -- especially for those who have been over-exposed to them. The existence of this facility would attract a wider range of users and would also evoke relevant new jokes.

It is hoped to strike up working partnerships with bodies that would find this somewhat unusual approach to be relevant. Examples of such bodies include: Association for the Promotion of Humour in International Affairs, International Society for Humor Studies, International Centre for Humor and Health, the International Society for Luso-Hispanic Humor Studies, and the World Assembly of Technical and Creative Humorists, as well as equivalent national bodies such as the American Humor Studies Association .

This initiative would also seek to take advantage of the considerable investment in humour by particular cultural and ethnic groups. A prime example of this is the Nasruddin learning stories widely disseminated by Sufis in the Middle East and the Islamic world. In this case, an appropriate partner in establishing links to specific humour might be the Institute for Cultural Research. Analogous humour from other cultures would also be sought.

Also relevant to this project would be insights from bodies such as the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. Research work required The work would focus mainly on identifying humour which provided insight into problems or strategies, as do the Nasruddin learning stories (eg Where such humour is available on the Web, a direct link could be made to them from the relevant problem or strategy. Where the copyright issues could be negotiated or avoided, jokes would be entered into a database to, and from, which links could be provided.

Some of the work would involve the administrative load of developing and maintaining partnership arrangements with interested bodies to facilitate the above task and to improve the quality of the jokes linked to specific problems, strategies or human values. It is expected that a significant, but useful, aspect of the work would involve negotiations with bodies sensitive to the political appropriateness of the humour used to illustrate particular problems and strategies. This challenge is discussed below.

As is widely recognized, a vast body of humour is available through the Internet. There are many sites that specialize in particular forms of humour. It is expected that those responsible for such sites might be appropriately challenged by the search for jokes relevant to problems or strategies.

Challenge: Political correctness

One of the main challenges is that much appreciated humour is "politically incorrect" in that jokes are often at the expense of stereotypes and scapegoats. This is notably the case with religious and ethnic jokes. More generally it might be said that most jokes are politically incorrect in some way, if only as a manifestation of speciesism. Careful attention is therefore required to this whole issue. It is also worth adding that absolute political correctness may be incompatible with a sense of humour.

Several approaches are possible:

A second challenge would be determining criteria for exclusion of jokes because they were "dirty", even though they might be a valuable illustration of a problem or strategy.


It is worth noting the limited-edition compilation entitled Wit and Wisdom of the United Nations: proverbs and apothegms on diplomacy prepared by V S M de Guinzbourg (Paroemiological Society, 1961). The Council of Europe was a sponsor of the International Humour Exhibition in 1995.

Importance of humour

Humour appears to be intimately related to deprived or stressed social circumstances (as are documented in the Encyclopedia) and often seems to arise from them. The vital role of humour has been recognized for people in oppressive regimes, conditions of social deprivation, prisons, ill-health and monotonous occupations, namely diminished quality of life. By introducing humour as a dimension this may therefore provide insights otherwise unobtainable.

The press release for a website on political cartoons makes the following points under the heading Learning through Political Cartoons: For students, it's a wonderful introduction to the use of symbolism, satire, metaphor and irony, and to the importance of humour in political and social debate. Adults who like cartoons and cartooning may find it hard to tear themselves away from the website, and they are funny and fun to read. ( cartoon.html)


Nancy K. Baym. The Performance of Humor in Computer-Mediated Communication. Department of Communication, Wayne State University [text]

J. Morreall. Taking Laughter Seriously. State University of New York, 1983.

Michael Mulkay. On Humour: its nature and its place in modern society. Cambridge, 1988

J. Polity Palmer. Taking Humour Seriously. Routledge; 1994.

Josepha Campinha-Bacote. Humor Therapy for Culturally Diverse Psychiatric Patients, 1997 [text]

V. S. M. de Guinzbourg (Ed.). Wit and Wisdom of the United Nations: proverbs and apothegms on diplomacy. Paroemiological Society, 1961

George Smilovici. Comedy and Political Correctness - Are they compatible? Australian Journal of Comedy, 2, 1, 1996 [text]

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