I'm not setting up a joke, I'm asking (seriously, really) whether it's okay, or when it's okay, to joke about something so serious. And, from a scholarly standpoint, why we make such jokes.
First, it's probably never okay to joke about Ebola on an airplane. Then again, it's never okay to joke about anything on an airplane. After 9/11, the federal government ordered the surgical removal of a sense of humor from all airline pilots. Just don't go there.
I skimmed the social science literature, looking for guidance. Best I can tell, extending the research I glanced through to Ebola, we may joke about this terrible disease to:
- Cope. We do this with other diseases, and there's research to suggest joking about it helps, especially patients but also caregivers.
- Reduce Fear. Like coping above, we joke about it like we whistle past a graveyard at night.
- Bad Taste. Some people do it because it raises the ire of others. Call this the asshat effect. Or late-night host effect.
- Bravery. If you can joke about it, it's because you're not scared of it and you want everyone else to know.
- Healing. Kinda like others above, the notion that joking about something is the first step to recovery.