Incongruity and Provisional Safety: Thinking Through Humor

Cris Mayo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The aim of this paper is to reconceive safety as a form of relation embedded in particular ways of speaking, listening and thinking. Moving away from safety as a relation that is achieved once and for all and afterwards remains safe avoids some of the disappointments of discourses of safety that seem to promise once a risk is taken or a gap is bridged that thereafter relations among people will be easier and calmer. This bumpier version of safety suggests that humor creates the kind of instabilities in discourse that act, perhaps ironically, as an invitation to enjoy the difficulties of communicating complex and challenging ideas. Humor, then, creates a kind of safe space, not devoid of dramatic shifts or emotional response, but organized around those shifts as experiences that are moments apart from conflict. I explore the use of humor as a form of serious play in social justice classrooms, examining the strategies of indirect teaching, contradictory lessons, and jolting pleasure that more traditional pedagogical approaches are less able to create. I see in humor a complex form of address and interaction that plays on the multiple possibilities within an utterance or concept and by reminding classroom communities of those possibilities. Humor can erupt from shared moments and disjunctive understandings and can as easily be mobilized by teachers as by students. By reopening the possibilities of concepts and relations, humor shatters simplistic readings by literally playing out what might be said and what could be tried but often manages to combine a sense of safety via shared laughter with its disruptions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)509-521
Number of pages13
JournalStudies in Philosophy and Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 17 2010


  • Diversity
  • Humor
  • Safe space
  • Social justice education

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Philosophy


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