Updated: Jul 31
Many people in Ukraine and abroad wonder whether jokes about the war are appropriate. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, there is a huge meme front — people create and share funny pictures, texts, videos, tweets, etc.
So, together with the St. Javelin team, we studied this topic, interviewed psychologists, and answered the key questions in this article.
Why do people make jokes about the war?
First, it happens naturally, without conscious intention, as a result of the human nervous system functioning. During stress, which is especially acute during the war, the body mobilizes and triggers defense mechanisms, one of which is humor. Through laughter, memes, and jokes, we get a positive emotional release and reduce the level of, for example, fear.
Secondly, humor often helps to look at a stressful situation from a different angle and perceive it as less threatening. In other words, humor can de-catastrophize terrible events. Thus, after a successful joke, we feel psychological and physiological relief.
Thirdly, shared jokes create a sense of belonging to a group, strengthen social ties and, as a result, give a sense of security.
Ukrainians have a sense of humor
Given our history, this is entirely justified. Because of Ukraine's geopolitical position and centuries of struggle against various oppressions and aggressions, Ukrainians have had to face a lot of stress. As a result, they have chosen humor, imagination, and art as coping mechanisms.
Are there any ethical norms regarding jokes about war?
They do exist. And they are set by society and specific communities. Usually, people condemn laughing at the grief, loss, and violence that war causes.
Today, we accept even the riskiest jokes if they come from soldiers or people whose work or lives are directly related to the war. Conversely, in relatively safe environments, we often don't feel confident enough to joke about war. This makes sense if we consider that society, wanting to be considerate and compassionate, grants the privilege of joking about sad or scary situations to those experiencing them. We assume that if we are not experiencing certain events, we cannot know the boundaries when a joke becomes offensive, disrespectful, or provocative.
That's why war memes are created and shared mostly by Ukrainians and much less by foreigners.
How to make sure that a joke is appropriate?
Dmytro Vakulenko, a medical psychologist, neuropsychologist, and social project manager, emphasizes that it is best when the requirements and standards for humor are consistent with the environment (atmosphere, situation).
Each site and group has its own specifics, problems, and needs, so a person from the outside, not knowing everything and not feeling the same way, may not be accurate — that's why we are usually careful about sharing jokes outside our communities. Accordingly, it is better not to impose jokes from peaceful areas on people living in frontline areas.
Those who feel like they are in the shoes of a person who’s made fun of have a conditional right to laugh because it is these people who need to cope with stress.
Soldiers can joke about "200s" and "300s" (military code words for transporting dead and wounded soldiers) because it allows them to cope with the harsh reality; meanwhile, those in a safe environment should be careful with such jokes
Sofia Terlez, a clinical psychologist and family therapist
Psychologist Iryna Filonenko explains that there is a difference between a joke that can relieve tension and a joke that sounds like offensive mockery.
When hesitating whether a joke is appropriate, we can try to recognize our need behind the desire to make a joke or share it.
And also, during the war, it is important to follow the news as there are definitely bad days for jokes.
Why do some people condemn jokes about the war?
First of all, some people cannot perceive jokes, particularly about the war, when they are in a state of grief (acute phase), experiencing difficulties, feeling miserable, etc.
Sofia Terlez emphasizes that fear can be the main reason for condemning jokes about the war, including the fear that such jokes can harm someone.
In general, as Iryna Filonenko explains, the sense of humor is subjective and is formed under the influence of each person's worldview and previous experiences. Therefore, what seems funny to one group of people may be incomprehensible and inappropriate to another due to different beliefs and ideas about the norms of behavior.
Dmytro Vakulenko notes that the fact that some people actively condemn jokes, thereby confirming the relevance and importance of the topic for discussion, indicates that these people have the resource to reflect on the issue of ethics. According to the psychologist, this is important, especially in the long run, as it helps shape and polish culture, education, and social norms.
On the frontline, people joke about death, injuries, and sex
Speaking about military jokes about the war, it is essential to realize that combat operations and their aftermath are a daily reality for soldiers. Naturally, civilians or even soldiers who have not been in the combat zone may not understand the humor of experienced soldiers
Military psychologist Major of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Victoria Kravchenko
At the same time, humor at the front is essential for survival and psychological resilience. Physical and mental health is what determines the quality and effectiveness of combat missions in the fight against the occupier.
Yes, jokes at the front are mostly black and cynical. Often they are directed at fellow soldiers: they joke about call signs, appearance, character, past life, etc.
At the front, for example, they joke about death and injuries, which is primarily a psychological defense against fear and an important element of accepting the horrific reality in order to exist and act in it. The soldiers also joke about sexual topics, thus partially satisfying their needs, at least through the prism of laughter
Was there humor in previous wars or other terrible periods of history?
Jokes in various forms have existed at all times and, of course, in the most difficult ones. For example, during World War II, caricatures of Hitler and the German military were created, and Charlie Chaplin ridiculed Hitler in the movie The Great Dictator.
No one should have been surprised by the rise of the USSR after World War II. I mean, there were red flags everywhere.
In general, history has preserved evidence of humor from the times of Ancient Rome, the Hundred Years' War, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War. All kinds of images, postcards, fables, and jokes were created. Funny, absurd situations, albeit colored by a sad or even cruel mood, were described in books, eventually becoming a consolation or valuable moment for reflection for many.
Why should we keep joking about the war?
Humor is good for physical and mental health. In particular, laughter increases the level of beta-endorphin, a neurotransmitter that has analgesic, anti-shock, and anti-stress effects. Laughter stimulates serotonin production and reduces so-called stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol).
Humor is like a support and lifeline that a person creates for himself or herself to maintain stability, common sense, and a positive attitude. At the same time, it should not be used as the only defense mechanism for all occasions. It is important to be able to experience different emotions, including negative ones (anxiety, grief, aggression), and to reflect consciously
Iryna Filonenko Compilated by Ira Hadetska together with Saint Javelin