When a person is making a statement which demonizes, dehumanizes or infantilizes a category of people, does that mean that this person is joking? If the statement has no punchline, or has a punchline which aimed at the victims of the bigotry rather than at hypocrisy or at the bigotry itself, then the statement is likely to be a “Schrödinger's joke”: Just like the satirical “Schrödinger's cat” is neither alive or dead until you check, a “Schrödinger's joke” is neither a joke nor not a joke until you check. And then the answer depends on how people have been reacting to the statement:
- A.) If the entire audience seems to agree or at least accept the statement, then the person who made the statement proceeds to position the statement as having been genuine all along. Perhaps also a joke, but inn that case then a joke of the “it's funny because it's true” kind.
- B.) If anyone in the audience protests, then the person who made the statement proceeds to berate the protester for failing to understand that it was only a joke which of course shouldn't be taken seriously. The person who started it may then either drop it or escalate the situation, for example escalating by starting to make “jokes” about the person who protested, such as “jokingly” accuse them of belonging to the category which the original “joke” was about.
The systematic use of Shrödinger's joke servers to normalize bigotry as well as teaching people that it will have negative consequences for them if they disagree – at best being positioned as oversensitive and humorless, at worst being openly harassed. It also serves to give the user an excuse to deny the whole situation has having been nothing more than a misunderstanding. Which may still be useful no matter how implausible this excuse may be.
An example: The board meeting
While a Schrödinger's joke can be designed to also be funny, it fills its functions even if there is no real attempt or pretense of being funny. For example, imagine the following situation with a Shrödinger's joke against for example homosexuals, fetishists or Jews:
A new board has been elected for an organization which has been suffering from quite a bit of instability. Everyone knows that if any conflicts erupts then this would threaten to destabilize the organization further. Several of the board members are nervous, worried that the organization will fail or that their time as board members will be an unhappy one. A board member who we can call “Sarah” is well aware of this situation, and she also resents the fact that the rules of the organization forbids open homophobia. Seeing how nervous and prone to avoid conflicts the people around her are, Sarah puts on a predatory smile and a menacingly “cheerful” voice as she she suddenly says: “I have heard that there is something called... gaaay people! HA HA HA!” Note that she's not laughing, she's simply saying “ha ha ha” loudly in her menacing tone of voice. In the awkward silence which follows after her could-be-alleged-to-be-a-joke comment, she stare her fellow board members down one by one. Nobody wants to be the one to start a fight, and she smiles in triumph as the chairperson simply changes the topic by moving on to the next point on the meeting's itinerary.