Following the horrific East Village gas explosion that killed two men and leveled three buildings, many found the site of the tragedy to be a picture-perfect background for selfies.

One such selfie features a group of seven women cheerfully clumped together in front of the buildings that are literally still burning and falling, with victims of the explosion still missing. The New York Post deemed them “The Village Idiots” on its front page.

Another who exploited the tragedy was a woman named Christina Freundlich, a Democratic communications expert who previously served as Cominucations Director for the Iowa Democratic Party and worked on President Obama’s campaigns. Her expertise in communications is undermined, however, by one of her latest posts on Instagram, a grinning selfie complete with a peace sign at the explosion site with the caption “scene of the accident.” Freundlich later deleted the photo and publicly apologized, saying that “what happened last week in the East Village is not to be taken lightly and I regret my course of action.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the initial motivation behind Freundlich’s selfie. It doesn’t really seem like she thought the accident was funny, per se. But even if one would not define this incident as a “joke,” it is joking in that it makes light of something serious; that said, it’s fair to look at her selfie as jest.

One of the key things to think about when evaluating this selfie and subsequent behavior is the first comment on Freundlich’s Instagram post: “too soon.”

When we think of the idea of “too soon,” we think of an attempt at being funny that fails because the “something serious” being joked about was perhaps too recent and is not to be trivialized. One way to trivialize would certainly be to take a tourist-esque selfie.

Mark Twain famously said, “Humor equals tragedy plus time.” But how soon is too soon to joke about something, or maybe just make light of it as Freundlich did? This is undoubtedly a question not just for those who make comedy their living, like satire writers or the cast of SNL, but really for anyone who wants to make others around them like them by cracking a joke. Is it actually possible to analyze when quips about sensitive subjects lose that sensitivity and start to work?

When Hurricane Sandy began developing in the Western Caribbean in October 2012, a study was conducted on a Twitter account,
@HurricaneSandy, which had particularly coarse humor. At different points in time of the storm’s progression, online surveys asked participants to rate the humor level of the tweets on one scale and the offensiveness of them on another. One example of this account’s tweets is “JUS BLEW DA ROOF OFF A OLIVE GARDEN FREE BREADSTICKS 4 EVERYONE.”

The results showed that the participants thought that the tweets were the funniest when they were asked one day before the storm actually hit the ground. The funniness of the account, as one might expect, hit rock bottom in the middle of the storm, when the east coast saw millions without power, hundreds of casualties, and billions of dollars in damage. But as the trauma ebbed away, the humor ratings went up again, peaking at 36 days after the tragedy.

This study seems to show that it’s not so much “too soon” as it is how threatening the event was to actual people, which seems in accordance with how we think of human compassion. This disagrees with many major theories on humor that have been developed over the past millennia. Plato posited that people laugh to feel superior to others, while Freud guessed humor was for psychic relief. If the results of the study were to have supported the antiquated theories, participants would have found the tweets the funniest at the time of greatest human trauma.

The results of @AHurricaneSandy’s study instead follow the “benign violation theory of humor,” a theory developed by Peter McGraw (who took part in conducting this study) and Caleb Warren. This theory states that humor occurs when a situation is clearly wrong or threatening, but far away enough from the audience that people feel safe and okay. This explains why @AHurricaneSandy’s humor failed and was rated most offensive at the height of the storm, because the storm was clearly threatening, as opposed to the beginning of the storm, when the jokes did not seem as violating. The benign aspect of this theory alludes to the fact that months later, when many had moved on from Hurricane Sandy as it relatively affected them in their lives, the jokes were not funny because they were benign; there was no real violation in the joke.

The benign violation theory and the case of @AHurricaneSandy illustrate the importance of psychological distance in comedy as opposed to temporal distance. The expression “too soon” has less to do with time as we understand it, but more to do with what hits too close to home (or, conversely, what’s too far away for us to relate to a joke and actually care).

Of course, the way in which we cope with sensitive situations and events relates directly to how much time has passed and for how long we have grieved or reached acceptance. But it’s clear that downplaying a disaster, such as with a selfie, can’t be validated or invalidated regardless of how much time has gone by. “Too soon” just doesn’t cut it. Simply, if your humor affects someone in a remotely personal way, that’s where it becomes offensive.

Aibinder is a member of the class of 2018.

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