HUMOUR

There’s an important difference between twisted and sick. Dead baby jokes are twisted, but telling them at a SIDS funeral is sick. It might relieve the tension in the room, but I’d hold off unless you really know your crowd.

Schadenfreude too is to be shared only with those one can be sure would share it.  So until I know you better, rest assured that I took no joy whatsoever in the fall of Saigon, the Twin Towers, and now Kabul. But if I did, would that be sick or just twisted? 

The essence of humour is the juxtaposition of incommensurables. So let’s be honest. Sometimes what makes something funny is precisely that it’s anything but. Try, “What’s black and blue and doesn’t like sex? The four-year-old in my trunk.” This will get you either a look of total disgust, a polite smile, a suppressed smile, or someone down-on-the-floor holding his sides in agony. And what this shows is that humour is an indexical. Not unlike music or movies, it’s gendered, it’s cultural, and it’s a function of the hearer’s own personal history.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a story about the power of humour to subvert, and so the fear of that power. The SJW worries that even a little levity will take the wind out of her sails. She’ll use it to mock the system, but never herself. This is a mistake. If you can’t laugh at yourself no one will think you either twisted or sick. But they will think you scary. And scary is precisely the way not to win friends and influence people. So next time you join a BLM march, try doing it in blackface. 



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Humour, Social and Political Philosophy

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2 replies

  1. I happen to know where Viminitz heard the “four-year-old” bombshell. It came from the lips of a very gentle, compassionate friend who delighted in Viminitz’s gaping expression. Sometimes what makes a joke funny is the misfit between the content and the person telling it. In this case, a sketchy or unknown person telling the joke is more liable to raise the hair on a listener’s neck than a shocked laugh. One couldn’t tell if he meant it. Yet not all misfits work. A pre-school teacher couldn’t deliver this joke to one of her student’s mothers. Some of you will even cringe that I used this example. There is a mysterious list of who is allowed to tell what kind of joke and in which context. And we seldom need to consciously consult it. On this point I offer the following excerpt from a lengthy work that I am publishing online later this fall.

    In this excerpt you’ll see that I use the words ‘peeps’ and ‘tribe’ interchangeably. Both words refer, on my stipulative definition, only to the people one depends on for her survival, delectation, and companionship. You’ll also note that I use two US political figures, senators Jim Inhofe and Barbara Boxer, for an example. I’m not interested in their respective ideological camps, rather I am interested in the personal relationship they’ve developed over many years of working together. Finally, you’ll notice that I use the term “costly signal” (or “display”) by which is meant some indication of group membership far too metabolically expensive to use unless it indicates a genuine belief; i.e. you wouldn’t do this if you weren’t one of us. These displays are hard to fake, at least for long; i.e. they are, as Joseph Heinrich says, “practices that only deeply committed members would engage in….” :

    “Our peeps are tuned in to sniff out disingenuous gestures, often placing another on probation if the gesture is ambiguous. A panel of gossips usually forms the probationary board, and their verdict, true or not, can determine one’s tribal status, or revocation of that status. Even if absolved of wrongdoing, the stain of suspicion, like a faded tattoo, never fully dissipates, and, in the right circumstances, is brought to full shape and colour. The pressure of not being found out is a high cost to bear for too long, and so we usually conform ourselves to our tribes – however grudgingly. Costly displays aren’t just for recognition, they also serve a heuristic purpose. By observing others, we learn, tacitly and explicitly, which beliefs are acceptable or unacceptable for good standing with our tribes. That is, we play monkey see, monkey do. Humour is one such display.

    We often share ‘inside jokes’ with our peeps, a mechanism for reminding each other of something only you and I could have shared. And we can laugh at each other, and together at certain others, each with impunity from social disapprobation. In fact, not sharing a laugh at certain others can raise eyebrows about our tribal commitment. If you find creationists ridiculous, you will laugh at an article about the Noah’s Ark theme park. If you don’t laugh, I wonder if you really believe creationists are ridiculous. Then I might wonder, are you a creationist or what? If I can’t tell, I might decide I don’t want you in my tribe!

    We reliably know what, and who, is acceptable to laugh at within our tribe since getting it wrong can give both laugher and laugh-ee a painful jolt. Humour misfires when it challenges our tribal beliefs, particularly when deployed by rival tribes. James Inhofe, Republican senator (USA)and one-time chair of the EPA, drew both ire and mockery from AGW asserters when he brought a snowball to the senate floor to “show the eggheads (..) [that it’s unseasonably cold outside], once and for all, [disproving] climate change.” Yet teasing and playful taunts can be a bonding mechanism. “When senior Democrat [Barbara] Boxer got the [EPA] committee chairmanship in 2007, “writes Terris, “Inhofe gave her a mug that featured a picture of the earth, with icicles that melted when hot coffee was poured in.” In turn, Boxer gave Inhofe a polar bear tie which he promised to wear at his first hearing. Boxer and Inhofe can joke with each other about their opposing beliefs on AGW, even though they treat the matter seriously when working on policy and legislation.

    Now if only some people in my own hallway could do likewise.

    The same behaviour can elicit different responses from different individuals, depending on the relationships they desire to have or keep. This is why some groups will test potential new members to see how well they can take a joke. My husband called a fellow Jew a Kike for precisely the same reason. If one belongs, she will engage in the game. If not, an enemy might be made. Humour is serious business, and its use can go awry. As Aristotle notes when someone “[replies] with humorous levity when we are speaking seriously, for such behaviour indicates contempt.” And so some are offended when we joke about their beliefs; e.g. AGW, death, paedophilia. This level of intensity attracts the torches and pitchforks variety of membership, and the cost of admission is too high for all but the most committed to sustain for long. Conversely, angry behaviour often distances others from these tribes. Hence people tuning out the AGW debate, or qualifying their feminist identities with ‘but not one of those man-hating feminists’.

    The suppression of or abstinence from humour is also a costly signal, since damping down a desire to laugh takes effort; e.g. not joking about the prophet Muhammed for some who practice Islam. So, the permissibility or prohibition of humour are also tribal beliefs, and are laden with laudability and reprehensibility according to tribal dictates. The extreme end of prohibition is blasphemy, and some kill for the violation of its constraints. Among our peeps, we know the sorts of things that are no laughing matter. Yet dark humour, or gallows humour, is a mechanism that helps some people cope with trauma; e.g. first responders on accident scenes. Humour can be a psychological release, indeed a life-line, when shared with others who’ve shared similar traumatic experiences. Our peeps are with us through these times, and we joke about things no one else dares. Our good standing in our tribes often hangs on knowing how to use humour to display our beliefs, and so our tribal heuristic is quite in tune to getting it right.”

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