Posts Tagged ‘humor’

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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