Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's just a joke

With the controversy still raging over the tragic consequences of a prank pulled by two Australian DJs personating the Queen for information on Kate Middleton's pregnancy, it's probably time to re-visit the ethics of pranking in general. It doesn't appear to be a matter of just a joke anymore.

First, consider that pranking is a very popular reality television model which people generally enjoy. From classic Just for Laughs Gags in Canada to Punk'd celebrity prank moments, pranking for entertainment purposes is a huge trend, with the internet and social media just making it easier. Pranks are also getting more elaborate, and let's face it, mean and crazy. Sometimes, they're even dangerous, putting unsuspecting people into potentially life-threatening situations, scaring the hell out of them- and then having a good laugh at them later.

The good clean fun of Just for Laughs Gags don't spark the same amount of controversy because they're usually obvious. Dogs driving the mail truck, or guys in gorilla suits in trees throwing bananas at unsuspecting people in the park- these are good for a giggle. The pranks that are borderline are the ones meant to illicit strong reactions from them, either by scaring or angering them or putting them in an awkward position. Even if that position or those emotions are staged, the effect it has on people are generally real.

Aside from embarassment, the potential to inflict real harm on people through pranks in a very public forum has increased. It's hard to justify how this form of media has become so popular in an age where people are increasingly sensitive to issues like bullying and political correctedness. We are contradicting ourselves when we say that we want to protect people from being socially polarized when we do exactly that by exploiting their fears and emotions for entertainment.

In fairness, it is not possible to fully understand the potential consequences of our actions. What some of us consider to be a harmless prank, others consider to be something more serious- provocation, for example, or intent to harm. We need to be mindful of these things when we set people up.

And perhaps we should re-think these shows and their so-called entertainment value. While some people think it's hysterical to scare the living daylights out of people by temporarily disabling elevators or putting spiders on them, it can be traumatic for prank victims. And as always, we only hear prank reprimands when they're already gone too far or if they have dire, unexpected outcomes. We should not only think before we act, we should think before we laugh.

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