Posts Tagged ‘humor’

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

May 23, 2020
  1. Objections to Bergson’s Theory

But what if Bergson’s initial claim, that humans alone are “the animal which laughs,” is completely wrong? Studies indicate that apes, and perhaps all mammals “laugh” in some form.[1] Several species of mammals have been observed making distinctive “happy noises” when play-fighting, and have been observed tickling and enjoying being tickled. Scientific studies of non mammalian humor are rarer, but I am aware of several apparent incidents of humor among parrots. My wife’s black capped conure enjoys peek-a-boo, and even says something that sounds a little like “Peekaboo” when popping out from hiding. Another pet owner says her parrot calls the cat using their owner’s voice, then barks like a dog when the cat appears. Another friend told us one day her parrot requested to be sprayed with a mist bottle: “Showie? Showie?” When she got the bottle to give her a shower, the bird hid. As soon as she put it down, the bird again asked for a shower. It seemed to be a variation of the game humans play when they offer something and then pull it back. But the most elaborate story I heard was from my late father, about his African Grey named Smokey. As he told it:

 

 

When Smokey got lonely he’d call for me using (his wife) Debbie’s voice, or he’d call me using her voice. We would call down and ask, “Is that you?” and if we didn’t get an answer we’d know it was the bird. One day I was upstairs and I heard my wife calling, “Waite! Waite!” I called down, “Honey, is that you?” After a few seconds, I heard more insistently, “Waite! Waite!” So I rushed downstairs, Debbie was no where to be found, and that bird laughed at me——-IN MY VOICE!

 

 

The most human-like humor probably has come from Koko, the sign-language using gorilla, who engaged in puns and who once tied her human companion’s shoelaces together and then gave the sign for “chase.” One common element of all of these is some degree of social awareness. This is particularly seen in the parrots and Koko, who engaged in some sort of linguistic or communication-based humor. These relied on physical or audible signs which the animal knew would give a predictable response; sometimes the animal seemed to enjoy frustrating the response, while at other times the invited response was part of the payoff for the animal, but always there was some social reasoning involved. In the tickling or rough-housing behaviors, the “laughter” seems to be a signal that everyone is enjoying it and it’s not serious. For example, among rats there’s a certain sound made when rats of roughly equal sizes play-fight, but when one is much larger it apparently becomes a lot less fun and the rat-laughter ceases.[2]

I personally don’t think of tickling as “humor,” but more as one of a range of laughter-producing stimuli. Some people laugh due to some neurological condition, and scientists can evoke “laughter” from rats by electrical brain stimulation as well as by tickling their tummies. Among animals, we would say it seems more like “humor” when it is playful, “all in good fun.” Laughter is an expression of pleasure, and humor the art of provoking laughter in others. Humor would seem to require empathy, in that either knowing when the other is trying to be funny rather than threatening or knowing what the other will find funny requires some sense of how the other is likely to perceive things. A sense of humor may be a subcategory of the sense of the other as other. If Bergson is wrong about his view that humans are the only animal that laughs or is laughed at, that would in turn suggest that humor may be part of intelligence. Any animal can perceive when its needs are met and find some sort of pleasure in that; as Beethoven’s 9th symphony states, “even the worm can feel contentment.” The more sophisticated the brain, the more joy and more varieties of joy the animal can feel; and at some point this becomes what we would recognize as “humor.”

If Bergson is wrong about humor being the property of humans alone, then it seems likely that he is mistaken about his claim that it is purely intellectual and opposed to feeling, since his claim about the intellectuality of humor derives from his belief that it is strictly human. The claim that humor is social is less obviously dependent on either of the other two principles; but I think we have already seen good reason to try again and see if we can develop a theory of humor from a different starting point.

The humor of nonhumans is an interesting area of study for scientists, and they can derive truths that fit all reasonable definitions of objective truth; but the experience of nonhuman animals is so alien to us that it is of limited philosophical use. Children, on the other hand, are a much better source of data: in many ways more animal than person, or animal moving towards full rationality and personhood, and much easier to observe and to interrogate. Bergson’s considerations are based almost exclusively on the experiences of adults; where he does consider children at all it is in reference to the theory he has developed in reference to adults.[3] But if we are looking for the source of humor among adults, where better to start than with the source of adults themselves—that is, children?

Babies laugh. It is true that we begin able to cry from birth, but must discover how to laugh; and perhaps this says something about our condition in the world. But still, babies laugh; and they do not so much “learn” to laugh as they do discover the ability. They don’t learn to laugh by imitating adults, as they learn so much else; if they did, they would first laugh when the adults were laughing and would try to laugh at those things. Rather, the laughter of a baby seems to be a spontaneous expression of joy. Something makes the baby happy, and the baby laughs. If tears are the instinctive response to deprivation, then laughter seems to be the expression of something even greater than the contentment when all needs have been met, and satisfaction overflows. Is this social? Babies seem to smile trying to imitate the smiling faces around them; perhaps they laugh because they are happy to have those around them. But I don’t think so. I’ve seen my two-year-old grandson laugh like a mad hatter at something which was funny only to him: the picture on his watering can. For the first several days that he had this new toy, he would stop, look at the picture with its bright colors and smiling sun, and laugh. Why? I don’t know. But I doubt it was because, as Bergson might say, it made him think of a human who was behaving mechanically. Children generally don’t distinguish sharply between what is living versus inanimate. Piaget tells a story about a child who picked up a rock and put it with the others because it looked lonely. His sadness and subsequent desire to help the lonely rock was no different than my grandson’s laughter at his watering-can; and neither was moved by “ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS … WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.” (caps Bergson’s)

Pain is reflexive. You hurt; you grab your knee, roll around, scream obscenities and loudly proclaim that you’ve broken the fornicating joint. A baby is hungry, or in pain, or has some other need; the baby cries. There is no thought; it is purely animal. Any creature that cares for its young has an instinctive way for those young to signal they are in need, and some sort of instinct of adults to respond; though parenting is also leaned, so knowing how to respond effectively is something that is taught or modeled for many animals, particularly us. This begins to point towards Wittgenstein’s observations about pain-behavior.[4] We do things reflexively, instinctively, in reaction to pain, At some point in our lives, though, we develop a social sense, and begin to realize that others act as we act and assume they, too, feel pain, based on their actions. Unless we are psychologically damaged, psychopaths or narcissists or whatever, we care; as Hume said, the instinct for sympathy seems to be as primordial as the instinct for competition. Even the person who doesn’t “feel another’s pain” still finds use for knowing what hurts others and in signaling his or her own pain as well, even if only to deceive and manipulate them. Pain-behavior and pain-language has uses in society; so we learn to interpret one another’s pain-behavior and to respond more effectively, we learn to signal more effectively so we receive useful help (or perhaps to hide our pain from real or supposed enemies), and so on.

Laughter can be understood as joy-behavior. Babies laugh and, according to some scientists, some animals laugh; so it seems to be an instinctive response to something more than mere contentment. But laughter is social in a way pain is not. We like to see others happy. The instinctive response to a smile is to smile back; behaviorists say the smile evolves initially out of the primate fear-signal of baring the teeth, becoming a signal of “I am not a threat to you” and then evolving to a more positive “I like you; I am a help to you, and I hope you feel the same.” It causes a feeling of joy to see another smile or hear another laugh. My father loved to tell the story of when I was an infant in one of those bouncy-chairs they hang from door frames. So, picture the baby, too young to walk but aware of his environment and the people. He’s bouncing up and down on the spring when, suddenly, he stops and pulls his ears. It’s such an absurd thing to do that his parents laugh. The baby sees that they laugh, and he likes that, so he does it again. And again. And now it’s not unexpected so it’s a lot less funny to the adults, but the child knows only that everybody laughed and was happy and that felt good.

We are hard-wired to want others to smile at us. Thus, laughter is even more social than tears. We feel sad when others are sad, as a rule, but we don’t want to feel sad so we either try to help or try to avoid them. And we feel happy when others are happy, we get a little shot of dopamine when someone smiles at us or laughs, and we are thus encouraged to try again. Babies and toddlers do what seems to get them smiles and laughter and approval from adults. As we get older and come to value peers more than the opinions of elders, we want to get them to smile and laugh. And thus comedy is born, from the joy-behavior of the baby and the toddler up through the class clown, the life-of-the-party, the raconteur, and all the other varieties of amateur comedian (it is worth remembering at this point that the word “amateur” is derived from “love;” the amateur comedian is one who strives to be funny for the love of the laughter). As we get older and the society we engage in becomes more sophisticated, we need to learn what is funny to those around us, and thus humor becomes increasingly rooted in the shared cultural values and meanings of the comedian and the audience.

Bergson treats the adult as the type, adult humor as the defining standard of the comic, and examines childhood humor (such as toys) under those categories. I wish to start with the child and the child’s experience with laughter, and see what we can discover about the adult’s humor. But still, I must face the question: why does the adult laugh at the child? When asked, adults often have no more answer than “it was so absurd.” The baby bounces, grabs his ears for no reason, and the adult laughs. Other times we laugh because the child says or does something that is quite appropriate, though the child has no idea why. My grandson had been experimenting with a new phrase: “Not yet.” When asked if he had done something, rather than saying “yes” or “no,” he would sometimes answer “Not yet.” Last week he was sitting between my daughter and me on her sofa and she asked, “Did you pee-pee your pants?” He answered, “Not yet.” Everybody laughed, and then he laughed too though his laughter seemed a little forced. It seemed to me that he had no real idea why everyone was laughing but wanted to join in; the adults were laughing because it sounded as if he were planning to wet the sofa, but didn’t really. If they had really thought he intended to soil the furniture they wouldn’t have laughed; they would have rushed to get a diaper on him. What he said was funny because it wasn’t true, but could have been; it wasn’t a non sequitur. Sometimes the child is apparently trying to be funny, and succeeds. When my daughter was verbal but still in diapers, I got up with her one night to change her and thought she felt warm. I got the thermometer and found she had a fever. I said, “Congratulations! You are one sick puppy.” She said, “Arf!” In short, when we laugh at babies, it seems to be for a variety of reasons: sometimes because they say or do something that seems very “adult,” other times when they do something that seems like it was an attempt to be “adult,” other times when it is just absurd but struck us as funny.

Perhaps there really is nothing more to it. The baby laughs because he or she is happy; why must the adult have any other reason? I haven’t done a survey, but I suspect most widely-spoken languages have different words for “funny” versus “pleasant” or “makes me joyful.” It does appear that there is an intellectual component to “funny.” For example, people who are particularly good at mental tasks like estimation also prefer more complex jokes.[5] We often use similar language about humor and play; for example, people who disapprove of humor may say it is “frivolous,” or say “quit clowning around,” while those who approve may say the joker is “fun” and “playful.” We even refer to “word-play” for a particular sort of humor. Perhaps, just as some sorts of play are fun because they provide a physical challenge and the pleasure of using one’s muscles, other sorts of “play” are pleasurable because they challenge and stimulate brain cells and neurons that needed a little exercise. Most humor requires seeing something from two or more angles simultaneously; even the pratfall has to both appear to be a fall but also appear to not actually cause harm (unless the laugher is a real jerk, which is another issue).

I know of no culture that does not have some concept of physical play, such as racing or jumping competitions or other “non-serious” physical activities. While there are cultural variations (“Waddya mean I can’t use my hands?”) the concept itself is pretty universal. Humor seems to have more cultural variations. A 2002 study surveyed 1.5 million people from 70 different countries, asking them to submit jokes they thought were funny and then to evaluate what jokes they thought were funny. In total, 40,000 jokes were graded, and some cultural differences did emerge. Americans (and Canadians) seemed more drawn to jokes that implied a certain aggression or put-down than were other cultures; for example:

 

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard Graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay— where are you from, jackass?”

 

Europeans were said to be more likely to enjoy surreal humor:

 

A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”[6]

 

They were also said to like jokes about death, like this one from Scotland: “I just want to die quickly and peacefully like my grandfather, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” And it makes sense that humor would be strongly affected by culture. Humor is social, and anything social is at least partly learned. The capacity for humor and the instinct to want to make others laugh may be universal and innate, but every comedian knows you have to “read the room.” Any group is going to have learned patterns of behavior, standards of what is acceptable, utterly serious, titillating and so on. The lead researcher, Dr. Richard Wiseman, also noted that, in addition to cultural differences, there were simply different reasons for something to seem funny, saying, “Also, we find jokes funny for lots of different reasons. They sometimes make us feel superior to others, reduce the emotional impact of anxiety-provoking situations or surprise us because of some kind of incongruity.”[7] And how humor is used or appreciated varies between cultures and particularly between East and West, despite physiological and psychological factors that appear universal.[8] This affects even how adults will perceive a child’s humor, which in turn would affect what the child learns and become a self-reinforcing cultural trait. A Westerner is likely to consider a humorous child to be clever, creative and social, so the child’s early attempts to provoke laughter are likely to be rewarded; but a Chinese is more likely to see such behavior as disruptive and unsocial, so the child will get less positive reinforcement.

At a minimum, then, this sort of pragmatic, genealogical approach to understanding humor has several advantages over Bergson’s approach based more on the structures of society. It accounts for children’s humor and for nonhuman humor, areas Bergson neglected in the first case and didn’t recognize in the second. It is able to accommodate the well-known cultural variations in humor as instances of generational transmission, while still also accounting for the universality of humor as a phenomenon. This approach does not rule out the validity of Bergson’s theory entirely, but it does contradict it at some points and expand the range of humor it is able to discuss. One thing it does not do, which Bergson does, is attempt to define what is “funny.” Many things are “funny” to one person and not to another. This is not that unusual; taste would seem to be a biological reality and important to the survival of the individual, yet one person or culture may enjoy a taste that another finds bland or even repulsive. Perhaps too “funny” is one of those fuzzy concepts, with multiple related meanings, so that philosophy will never be able to find a universal theory of the comic. That does not mean, however, that philosophy need remain mute on the subject; there is still much philosophy can learn from examining humor and much to discover about its implications.

[1] Joseph Castro, “Do Animals Have Humor?” LiveScience Nov. 6, 2017 (https://www.livescience.com/60864-do-animals-have-humor.html) see also Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, “Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor? New Evidence Suggests All Mammals Have a Funny Bone;” Slate March 26, 2014 (https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

[2] McGraw/Warner

[3] Laughter, chapter II, sect. I

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, 286-312

[5] John von Radowitz, “Revealed: The Funniest Joke in the World;” The Guardian October 3, 2002 (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/oct/03/3)

[6] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2014/03/07/287250640/what-is-the-funniest-joke-in-the-world)

[7] “Revealed”

[8] Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, Yubo Ho, “Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage and Implications;” Frontiers in Psychology January 29, 2019 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00123/full)

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

January 2, 2020

Comedy as the Anti-Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

——-H. Frankfurt

Aside from Bergson’s essay, there has been relatively little philosophical discussion of comedy or the comic. There has been even less serious discussion of bullshit; in fact, there has been only one book on the subject, which itself was based on an essay by the same author. What is “bullshit,” and why should we care? Our initial thought is that we should not; one calls something “bullshit” to say it does not deserve our attention. Harry Frankfurt’s argument is that it is valuable to consider the concept of “bullshit” even if bullshit itself is not worth considering. ( Harry G. Franfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)) My humble opinion is that the concepts of bullshit and the comic have several connections, and understanding these helps clarify the meaning and significance of both.

Bullshit is not lying, though it is related and they can be confused. Sometimes we say, “That’s bull!” when what we mean is, “You’re lying!” But as Dr. Frankfurt points out, the two seem to be something different. The liar is deceptive about the facts. The liar wants you to believe something about the world is one way when in fact it is another. The liar knows what reality is; as they say, it isn’t a lie if you actually believe it (or more accurately, you’re not a liar if you believe it). The bullshitter is aiming at something else. The bullshitter wants to deceive about his or her self, motives and character. Let me suggest a relatively uncontroversial example. Suppose you heard your father loudly proclaim how wonderful your mother is, how smart, how funny, how she did a wonderful job raising you, how lovely she is and so on. And (for the sake of argument at least) suppose you agreed with everything he said. You wouldn’t say “It’s al lies;” it’s true. But suppose you know that she cries herself to sleep because of his numerous affairs, how he stays with her because the property is in her name, and how he privately shows little appreciation for her at all. Then you may say “It’s all bullshit!”——not that what he said was false, but that he was false in saying it, as if he cared. It’s not that he wants to deceive anyone about what his wife is like; he only cares that he deceive them about what he is like, so that they believe he’s a good, loving, loyal, appreciative husband.
The liar cares about the truth. The liar knows what the truth is and is engaged with it, specifically to avoid it. The concept of “lie” depends upon the concept of “truth;” you cannot have have a lie without there being a truth, and the lie can’t exist unless it is mistaken for a truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth at all. (Bullshit, pp. 33-34) The bullshitter just wants to project an image, and says whatever suits that purpose. The actual content is irrelevant; the bullshitter need not even know what the truth is. If the lie is deliberate miscommunication or false communication, then bullshit isn’t communication at all. ( pp. 42-43) It is “false communication” in a second sense: not the communication of counterfeit truth, but a counterfeit of communication itself. (pp. 54-55) It suits the bullshitter just fine if we all give up on the idea of distinguishing between truth and falsehood completely; the bullshitter simply says whatever is useful to serve the purpose of the moment. Bullshit attacks the very existence of truth itself, and the relevance of truth to discussion. In this regard, Frankfurt says, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than is lying.  ( pp. 60-61)

Comedy has elements in common with both lying and bullshit. One thing on which the philosophers and psychologists seem to agree is that comedy is based on contradiction. Something happens which is surprising and false, but in a way that gives pleasure. Roman occupiers executing a hundred people at a time is horrible. Those hundred people singing  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is hilarious.  The contradiction between the painful situation, the total painlessness of the people, the cheerfulness of the song, and the nihilistic lyrics presents something that has truth in it (“life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word”) in a way that takes the pain away. This bouncy tune, those words, and that situation just don’t go together. Kierkegaard might have said they mutually annihilate each other, as the different elements of irony do ( Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony: with continual reference to Socrates; edited ad translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] p. 248). Much comedy comes from pain, presented in a way that renders it painless by rendering it absurd, thus meaningless and insignificant, unworthy of consideration. So lying, bullshit and comedy all rely on contradiction: lying on the contradiction between truth and what is claimed, bullshit on the contradiction between the real and purported attitude of the bullshitter to what is said, and comedy between what is said and how it is said.

     The liar and the comedian both rely on the truth. The liar wishes to avoid the truth, and produces a falsity which can be presented as truth. The comedian wishes, in many cases, to present truth but in a way that is not entirely true. The comedian may produce something outrageous in a way that evokes laughter rather than outrage; but still, as John Oliver said, “Any joke is worthless if it’s built upon a lie.” (David Folkenflik, “John Oliver on Facts, Donald Trump and The Supreme Court for Dogs;” Morning Edition (NPR, February 10, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/10/514152562/john-oliver-on-facts-donald-trump-and-the-supreme-court-for-dogs) ) Even in cases where the comedian is telling a story, what makes it funny is if it is relatable, that is, true to the human experience of the audience. And in the case of political humor in particular, that also means it needs to be factually true. A Hegelian might suggest that both lies and comedy are antitheses of some truth, and thus presentations (perhaps mirror images) of the truth. The difference is that the comedian intends to present the truth, though perhaps in a false way; the liar intends to hide the truth. But both differ from the bullshitter in that bullshit does not intend either to reveal or avoid the truth at all.

     Comedy also has elements in common with bullshit, so much that sometimes the two are confused as here. In both cases the performer is more concerned with the reaction of the audience than with the truth of the statement. There is a contradiction between what the performer says (or writes) versus the actual intentions. If you believe Huckleberry Finn or Blazing Saddles seriously mean the racist statements they contain, you find them horrifying (or, if you’re racist, perhaps not) but if you understand the joke and see the disconnection between the comedian’s words versus intentions, you see them as a satire on the racism of the characters and find it funny—-though, as they say, “funny because it’s true” as a true(ish) presentation of racists. The difference is that the bullshitter wants to be perceived as serious, while the comedian wants to be perceived as “just joking” even when he or she may in fact care a great deal about the message hidden in the joke.
Comedy can often “call out” real evils or real problems when a straightforward denunciation might be mistaken for bullshit. The bullshitter, after all, wants to be taken seriously even when he or she is in fact not serious; the comedian says, “Don’t take me seriously” even when saying very serious things. The parallels with Socrates are obvious even without the character of Comicus. Charlie Chaplain’s work is particularly striking in this regard; even without the spoken word, films such as Modern Times pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of early 20th century capitalism, while The Great Dictator called out Fascism at a time when many of America’s political and cultural leaders were praising Hitler.

     This is the real difference between comedy versus bullshit, and the real power of comedy. Bullshit relies on the covert contradiction. It appears to be communication, but it is not; it is just “hot air,” empty exhalation. The bullshitter wants to be taken as sincere, as caring about the words he or she is expressing. If it is seen to be what it is, it loses its power. Comedy, by contrast, relies on the explicit contradiction. This is true even of physical comedy, which appears for a moment to be painful or fatal but then is revealed to be harmless. Verbal comedy in its most frivolous forms (such as puns) depends on the hearer hearing one thing and then realizing that what was actually said and meant was something else. The pleasure comes from the realization of the contradiction. If the contradiction isn’t recognized by the audience, they are said to “miss the joke.”

     The lie gets its power from the concealed contradiction, in presenting a false claim as true. Bullshit gets its power from the concealed contradiction that the bullshitter doesn’t care and may not even know what the truth is, but wishes to seem sincere. Comedy gets its power from the revealed contradiction. This is why it is inherently comic to expose bullshit. When, in the classic fairy tale, the Emperor is tricked into walking down the street naked, what is hilarious is not the nudity. If it had been an act of religious humility, his society would have honored it; if he’d barely escaped from a fire, it might have been embarrassing but also fortunate. What makes it funny is that he was conned by a liar who saw he was vacuous, pretentious, or in short, bullshitting the people. The “tailor” was a straight-up liar, spinning not cloth but only tales of magical clothes that cannot be seen by fools. The Emperor, being a bullshitter, wanted to be seen as wise and was thus too ashamed to admit he could not see the clothes. The courtiers too were not trying to deceive the Emperor about the clothes; unlike the “tailor,” they believed the magical clothes existed, though they could not see them. They only wished to deceive others about what they themselves actually knew. When an ignorant, unpretentious child came along, and blurted out what everyone knew but was afraid to admit, the Emperor was exposed in more ways than one. It is the shame of being shown to have been a fool pretending to be so superior that he could see this magical suit, when actually there was nothing to see, that made the situation so hilarious.  Likewise, there’s nothing terribly funny about the Bible’s anti-gay statements, about a cleric denouncing homosexuality, or about a person living in the closet for fear of being rejected by family and friends, and possibly fired or otherwise harmed if his or her homosexuality became public knowledge. But when a stridently anti-gay preacher is outed by being caught up in a police raid on gay sex in a public bathroom, it becomes the fodder for countless jokes. What makes it funny is the revelation, showing that all that preaching and fulminating was nothing but bullshit.

     Bullshit is an essential tool of dictators and would-be dictators of all stripes. Whether their policies are in fact wise or stupid, they depend primarily on the people believing that the Dear Leader actually gives a damn about anyone else, or about the nation as a whole. That is why authoritarians hate real comedy; the bullshitter is a joke waiting to be made, and knows it, and thus fears being laughed at more than anything else.  Maybe that is part of why we seem to judge comedians more harshly than we judge our so-called “role models” and “pillars of society.” Today even the most conservative, subservient, obedient and reverent citizen these days has decided that the legal, political and religious leaders of society are just bullshit artists, and that even if the policies they advocate and carry out are good, they themselves are phonies. But the comedian is the one who is supposed to expose the frauds; to find out that the comedian is possibly also bullshitting is just too much. If that is the reason, then the real question should not be why we judge comedians so strictly, but why we don’t judge the others at all.

 

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

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