Ivo Nieuwenhuis
Ivo Nieuwenhuis

Can you joke about anything?

From Guido Weijers joking about Princess Amalia’s stature to Thierry Baudet walking out of a talk show after a joke by Martijn Koning: not all jokes are appreciated. While humour often connects people, jokes also often lead to strong reactions and heated discussions.

“Humour seeks the boundaries and sometimes crosses them,” argues Dutch Language and Literature expert Ivo Nieuwenhuis. He studies jokes and the strong reactions they sometimes elicit. “Jokes can perpetuate certain forms of social interaction, exclude people in all sorts of ways, and even suppress ideas or opinions. These are things we don’t like to hear about humour, because surely, it’s all good fun and hilarious, and it should be allowed, right?”

While jokes can quickly give people a sense of connection, they can also lead to division. “In recent years, there has been a lot of debate around sexism and racism, which makes jokes about groups such as women or people of colour more controversial,” says Nieuwenhuis.

The fact that humour can lead to scandal is not new. “In the 1960s especially, there was a lot of controversy,” says Nieuwenhuis. “The church, politicians, and the royal family were recurrent targets of ridicule.” It was a time of great social change. “Comedians became cruder and increasingly sought confrontation with the ruling powers.”

Just as then, humour has increasingly been put under a magnifying glass in recent years. “Many jokes are about things that diverge from the norm, and in this way, they confirm existing norms and values. You can see this with racist prejudice, for example: if someone makes a racist joke, people may be led to believe that it’s OK to talk disparagingly about certain groups of people.”

What does the law have to say about jokes?

Does the law set limits on the kinds of jokes you can make? According to Michiel van Emmerik, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law, you are allowed to say a lot in the Netherlands. “We have the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution. An important limit set by the government in this context is that jokes may not be racist or incite hatred or violence.” Although jokes sometimes fall into a grey area, Van Emmerik believes that judges have enough guidelines to decide what is allowed and what not. They mainly consider the specific situation in which a joke is told.

An exception is sometimes made for comedians and columnists. “The context in which a joke is told is very important,” says Van Emmerik. “If comedians and columnists wish to highlight or overtly ridicule something, they are not immediately punishable. Unless they call for hatred or violence; that’s where the boundary lies.”

Can you sometimes not believe your ears when you hear a joke? Like our other senses, our ears can fool us. Would you like to find out why you can't always trust your ears? Or are you curious about the science behind sound, music and dance? Come and join us for Radboud Sounds, on Friday 12 May 2023 at Doornroosje, for a festival full of music, lectures, dance, and more. For more information and the programme, see here.

100 Years of Radboud University

In 2023, Radboud University celebrates 100 years of playing a significant role in the life of our students, researchers, and staff, as well as in the world around us. For more information on the University’s 100th anniversary, see here.