The Sword and Shield Metaphor
and Other Perspectives
At its best, humor simultaneously hurts and heals, makes one larger from
a willingness to make oneself less.
The sword and shield metaphor has been used by more than one writer on stereotype humor because people typically think of stereotype humor as a weapon designed to ridicule and insult minority groups. All too often this has been true, but it is also true that such humor can be a shield serving the interests of minority groups. Most of us, scholars included, are not aware of this. Lois Leveen, for example, claimed that when doing research for an article on multiethnic literature, it came to her as a “shocking discovery” that jokes may be an effective way for people to demonstrate pride in their group identity. In short, depending on its context, such humor can be offensive, aimed at ridicule of a stereotyped group; defensive, aimed at protecting the group from ridicule; or both. Consider this not-very-funny joke: “Why are Jews not concerned about the abortion controversy? Because they don't consider a fetus to be viable until after it graduates from medical or dental school.” If the teller and the audience are gentiles, it could be taken as antiSemitic, a criticism of Jews for their arrogance and excessive ambition. But if the teller and audience are Jewish, it could be taken as an amusing expression of Jewish pride in the high standards they set for their children.
Lois Leveen cites another relevant joke concerning the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, when African Americans in the South were prevented from voting because registration required them to pass a difficult literacy test. After a highly educated black man manages to satisfy all the requirements, the reg-