Posts Tagged ‘Jon Stewart’

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 1)

May 21, 2020

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter”

 

 

  1. Bergson’s Theory of the Comic

There has been relatively little written by philosophers about humor. We have Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics, and we have discussions of beauty, but not much sustained discussion of humor. Wittgenstein said it was possible to write an entire philosophy text consisting of nothing but jokes, but he never wrote such a book. And there have been many forays of philosophy into humor. I heard Steven Wright tell a joke about burglars breaking into his house and stealing all his stuff and replacing everything with exact duplicates. Police were baffled. A few years later, my professor told me that Wittgenstein had asked once what it would mean if someone thought people were stealing his stuff and replacing everything with duplicates, and I concluded that Wright must have gotten the idea from Wittgenstein. Steve Martin majored in philosophy, famously saying, “I studied just enough philosophy to fuck me up for the rest of my life.” Woody Allen’s comedic writings were littered with references to Kierkegaard, among others, and Craig Ferguson frequently mentioned Kierkegaard on his television show. Most recently and notably would be NBC’s “The Good Place,” a series that featured four deeased souls trying to avoid everlasting damnation by posthumously learning to be “good,” largely by taking classes on moral philosophy. But while comedians talk humorously about philosophy a lot, philosophers more rarely philosophically analyze the concept of humor.   The most famous sustained philosophical treatment of humor is Henri Bergson’s Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.[1] I would like to use this as a starting-point to philosophically discuss comedy, to see if more recent studies and other perspectives might lead us to additional insights.

Bergson writes, “The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN.”[2] He claims that only humans laugh, and that when we laugh, we laugh at other humans or things that in some way remind us of humans. A landscape can strike us funny because it looks human in some way: “the brook sounds like it’s laughing; but the old tree looks sad.” Or, he says, a hat may seem funny, but only because we know some person chose to make it look that silly, intentionally or not. Thus, Bergson says, humans are not only animals that laugh, but also animals that are laughed at.

He further writes, “Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter.”[3] To feel strongly about something is to take it “seriously;” to laugh at something or someone is to step away emotionally and find the comic; “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” Bergson thus sees laughter as a rational phenomenon; a society of purely intellectual beings would have no tears, but might still laugh, whereas a society of very sentimental and emotional beings would have no concept of laughter or the comic. To be able to laugh is to stop feeling strongly about the object of one’s laughter. I recall an incident on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the day naturalist Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin was tragically killed while diving with stingrays. He was a beloved personality worldwide, and even Stewart seemed to be grieving. His interview for that show was fellow comedian Norm MacDonald, and they began talking about the death of Mr. Irwin. MacDonald began musing about two crocs sharing the news: “You remember that guy who used to poke us all the time?” asks the first croc.

“What about him?” asks the second.

“He died. He was killed!”

“Really! Who got him?”

“Man, you don’t wanna know. Some fruity fish!” (At this point the audience, including Stewart, were laughing uncontrollably.)

“Please don’t make me laugh at this,” said Stewart, unable to stop.

For a few moments, the sadness that everyone was feeling, the sense of loss, was annihilated as they laughed about the absurdity that a man who had brought joy and knowledge to millions by his capturing and training of enormous saltwater crocodiles (some of the most massive and dangerous predators alive) should have been killed by a fish that is generally so harmless that tourists dive with them regularly.

Bergson’s third preliminary observation is that while the comic is a realm of intelligence rather than emotion, “This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences.” The comic has a social dimension. This is why, he says, a group of travelers may laugh among themselves as someone tells a story which an outsider finds either incomprehensible or merely unfunny; the third party lacks the frame of reference. Even when we laugh to ourselves, it is as if someone else were telling us the joke, or we imagine telling it to another. Bergson concludes, “The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence. “ Comedy must be human, it must be aimed at the mind rather than the emotions, and it must be social. Having established these elements, Bergson moves on to ask what it is, more precisely, that catches our attention, that “strikes the funny bone,” and makes us laugh.

Bergson argues that the comic element emerges when humans behave “mechanically” rather than in a human, rational fashion. He paradigm is absentmindedness. The absentminded person acts on habit even when it is inappropriate to the circumstances, or forgets what he or she was doing or saying, or forgets where something is or confuses two things. One of my professors said he resolved to quit smoking the day he suddenly realized he had a cigarette in his right hand, a cigarette in his left hand, and was struggling to light a cigarette. He also regularly walked around with shirts with holes in the pocket because he had put a lit cigarette in his shirt pocket again. If we saw that in a movie, it would be hilarious; and Bergson says the reason is that it is so funny is that in that moment what was most human about this absent-minded professor was that he lost the intelligence that defines the human and became a sort of zombie or automaton. His reason failed him precisely because of that other human trait, his character, as if his mind was undermining itself; and we are amused by the fact because we observers are employing our intelligences to spot the incongruity and to note its failure.[4] Likewise, Bergson claims the comedy of the pratfall is when the body betrays the person; his intellect sought to walk down the street, but he stepped on a banana peel or got splashed by passing car. Or, when we see a character in a play put acting absurdly because he or she is overwhelmed with jealousy or some other emotion, we again see the rational person ceasing to act rationally and instead being pushed along by outside forces, like a leaf in the wind, except that the leaf and wind are both elements of the jealous one’s own personality. Similarly, we treat society as a person, and may laugh when we see the entire collective society engaged in absurd and “mechanical” activity, Bergson says. Social ceremonies are important to social cohesion and as expressions of collective values, but when divorced from that context and just seen as actions they can quickly become comic, Bergson says, “from an ordinary prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice.” During the waning days of the Cold War my father went with a group of doctors to visit Russia and learn about their achievements in eye surgery. While there, he was given a medal in a public men’s room by the attendant, apparently for “marksmanship.” To the Soviets, any expression of approval by the Party was meaningful, both because of the power the State had to do one good or ill, but also because it was an expression of one’s social worth as a productive member of society. Russians were frequently given these rather cheap medals for minor achievements, and someone must have thought them meaningful. To an American, however, getting a medal for not pissing on the floor seemed like a joke, and if it wasn’t an intentional joke then it was a joke on Soviet society as a whole.

In much the same way, it is humorous when a person is swallowed up by his or her official status and seems unable to respond humanly. Bergson tells the story of custom-house officials rescuing survivors from a shipwreck, and then asking them out of habit, “Do you have anything to declare?” Or sometimes humor arises when someone filling a social post doesn’t quite succeed in hiding his or her all-too-humanness. There’s nothing very funny about an American not being able to sing our national anthem; it is notoriously difficult. But when Donald Trump, standing as the Head of State at a public event, seems to not know the words or has to be reminded by his immigrant wife to put his hand over his heart, it becomes funny because while it is one thing for an ordinary person not to know the words or to neglect to cover his heart, it’s quite another when the nation’s leader is standing publicly as the representative of the national spirit and seems to be, in fact, only a rather mediocre citizen.

Another source of comic contradiction, says Bergson, is when the body betrays the mind.[5] This can happen when the body lacks the proper human suppleness, and seems too rigid and mechanical—or, I suspect, when it seems too supple. Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is a good example of both physical and social humor. There is a great deal of comedy that comes from John Cleese, who is particularly convincing when playing a stuffy judge, businessman or government bureaucrat, meets with someone who is trying to invent a new silly walk, and the two of them talk as seriously as if a would-be engineer were applying to patent a new car engine; but when you add his physical gyrations and contortions that seem to go beyond what a human body should do or be capable of doing, it becomes hilarious.[6] As Bergson says, sometimes it is funny simply to be reminded that a person has a body, particularly when the body is not supposed to be relevant. This is likely why everyone thought it was so funny when, during the very first telephone hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, we distinctly hear a toilet flush.[7] In the 1960s society was so squeamish about reminders of physicality that All in the Family could regularly get big laughs by simply having an off-screen toilet flush. But when this reminder of our universal physicality occurs during one of the most solemn of our social rituals, a meeting of the Supreme Court, the juxtaposition of the almost otherworldliness of the situation with the very earthy event is humorous.

Chapter II of Bergson’s essay largely develops this line of thought and extends it to verbal humor. Just as he has said that contradictions between a subject’s humanity—that is, his or her autonomy and rationality—versus physicality or mechanical behavior, so in verbal humor there is a conflict between the human, the rational and/or the moral versus some other, more physical or automatic implication. I think one example would be confusing “greatness” as in a great man or Great White Shark. As Bergson writes, “The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.”[8] Bergson sees this same sort of automatism at the root of both physical and verbal humor, from the pratfall to the pun to the most witty social satire.

The essay’s third chapter deals with the comic element expressed in character. Since, Bergson says, we started with the comic as a human and social phenomenon, we were already pretty close to character to begin; we need now only return to the original source of humor, which is humanity. After all, as he said earlier, humans are the only animal that laughs and, essentially, the only animal which is laughed at, since whatever we laugh at is only funny insofar as it reminds us of the human. Furthermore, we laugh as what does not essentially move our emotions, since emotions such as love or pity are undermined by humor. So, what sorts of character or person would we laugh at, and under what circumstances would we laugh at another?

Drawing on his earlier discussion, Bergson claims that we can laugh at another only when we do not feel any emotion towards the other. To some extent, we have to depersonalize the other in order to laugh at him or her. Furthermore, what makes the neighbor funny is some behavior reminiscent of a machine: behavior that is unnaturally rigid, inflexible, seemingly preprogrammed, unresponsive or out of sync with the actual circumstances. Thus, the most comic character is one that is not a real person, but more of a type. We have to feel as if we know this person, or know them well enough, but not to sympathize with them. Thus, the more depth with which the character is depicted, or the more backstory, the less comic he or she is likely to be. The knowledge we need of the character must be superficial. Thus, neither great monologues nor bold actions are comic, but rather gestures. A gesture can flow naturally from the character and reveal what sort of character lies at its root, but for all that is relatively meaningless. The NBC series The Good Place illustrates this idea quite well. The series is about four people who have died and find themselves in the afterlife, which turns out to be a planned community resembling a crossbreeding of Beverly Hills and Disneyland Main Street. Our first introductions to the characters are through gestures rather than statements or conscious acts. When Eleanor can’t remember the name of anyone she’s talking to or anything that person is saying, or when she steals shrimp at a party so she can take them home and scarf them later, we can see she is a completely selfish person. When Tahani compulsively drops names with sentences like “This is as upsetting as the time when my friend Kanye got in a fight with my good friend Taylor over my best friend Beyoncé,” we instantly know that she is obsessed with everyone knowing how important she is. The comedy of the show is largely driven by the flawed, shallow characters of these people, and their reflexive behavior. And as a result, they are also fairly unlikeable; and this is not good for a television series that wants repeat viewers. Thus, sometimes the writers give us flashbacks showing how someone’s horrible parents or toxic friends led them to become the sort of silly, incapable person they are now. This gives the viewers reason to sympathize with the protagonists and to want to see them struggle and overcome their obstacles and hopefully become better people; but these moments are rarely funny. Bergson would say this is exactly as it should be and as his theory predicts: we can sympathize with the protagonists or we can laugh, but we can’t do both at the same time. At best, we can alternate between the two. The funny moments are where we see them as The Social Peacock, The Antisocial Egoist, and so on, and see them saying and doing things quite mindlessly which reflect and flow from these types.

From what we have seen to this point, it is not surprising that Bergson sees something aggressive in comedy.[9] Bergson says that there is always a social element to comedy; we laugh at others, and among ourselves, so laughing defines the group of laughers versus those who are laughed at. We laugh at some sort of rigidity which marks the other as eccentric and not naturally fitting into society. Bergson likens it to a kind of hazing or “ragging,” which at its best is meant to gently chide the object of the laughter into coming to his or her senses, seeing that he or she has become laughable by becoming unnatural and mechanical, and thus perhaps waking up to the need for a more spontaneous, natural and aware life. This can happen when we mock the other as falling into a type, allowing some character trait, usually a vice but possibly a virtue, to cut one off from social life. [10] It is the unsociability of another that provokes our laughter, rather than the fault per se, so that even a virtue can become laughable or a vice, if it provokes violent emotion such as anger, is not. Sometimes the “type” is not a character stereotype at all, but a social one.[11] Every profession has its own standards, patterns of speech and thought, values and in short is a subculture within the wider society. Mocking these different groups can be a way to call them to account when some member of the profession begins to think his or her group is superior or self-sufficient. One example that seems to particularly reflect this sort of humor is Monty Python’s “Merchant Banker Sketch.” The Merchant Banker, busy extorting fees and concessions from a “Mr. Victim” seeking a loan, is approached in his office by a Mr. Ford who is collecting money for charity. Try as he might, The Banker cannot grasp this concept:

 

 

 

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

Mr Ford: Well, yes you are.

Banker: I am! Well, what is my incentive to give you the pound?

Mr Ford: Well the incentive is to make the orphans happy.

Banker: (genuinely puzzled) Happy? You quite sure you’ve got this right?[12]

 

 

Any normal person understands the idea of charity, but the Merchant Banker is not “normal;” he describes himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich,” while introducing himself with “Er… I forget my name for the moment but I am a merchant banker. “ He is literally so caught up in his job and his wealth that he cannot understand anything else. Bergson would be pleased by this satire. At the same time, this is only funny because the Banker is unsympathetic but also nonthreatening; his exaggerated miserliness and abuse of others renders him unrealistic, so while his type is recognizable and seen as deserving a good drubbing, he is not personal enough to evoke genuine fear or anger.

To summarize, Bergson sees comedy as uniquely human and thus rational, aimed at the head rather than the heart, and primarily as serving a social function of (usually) gently punishing unsociability which results from an undue rigidity or mechanical behavior in another.

[1] Henri Bergson, Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic posted July 26, 2009 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm)

[2] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. I

[3] Laughter

[4] Laughter, chapter 1, sect. II

[5] Laughter, chapter I, sect. III

[6] Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC1, season 2, episode 1 (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2hwqki)

[7] “Listen: Toilet Flushes as Supreme Court Holds Oral Arguments by Teleconference;” NBC News NOW May 6, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xB0bUtTvdCU)

[8] Laughter, chapter II, sect. II

[9] Laughter, chapter III sect. I

[10] For example, in The Good Place there is a character, Chidi, who is a moral philosopher and terribly indecisive. The audience is shown that he was unnaturally indecisive even as a child, but now his anxiety has been exacerbated by his morality itself. Faced with a simple question like whether to have a blueberry muffin for breakfast, he worries about the treatment of farm workers, what various schools of philosophy would judge to be better or worse, and becomes paralyzed. As a result, he makes everyone who cares about him miserable, not through any malice or immorality but by an excess of virtue: he is too thoughtful, too afraid of causing offense or violating his duty, and thus constantly offends and annoys and fails to do his duty or anything else.

[11] Laughter chapter III, sect. III

[12] “The Merchant Banker,” 2014 MontyPython.net (http://www.montypython.net/scripts/merchant.php) video here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2u4ggn

UPDATE: Rumble 2012 review

October 18, 2012

UPDATE:  Rumble 2012 review—-fake news vs. real news

 

Last night I was watching the Nate Silver interview on The Daily Show (10/17/2012, see http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-17-2012/exclusive—nate-silver-extended-interview-pt–1 and follow the links for the web-only portions as well), and heard an Actual Guy Who Knows Things making the same point I reached by the end of my review of the O’Reilly/Stewart debate:  that the 24 hour news cycle has erased the distinction between “fake news” and “real news.”  I think I can safely say, read my review:  there’s something worthwhile in it.

As a philosopher, I’m interested in the whole process of distilling “truth” from “facts,” and how we can, should and do navigate our way through the Disinformation Age.  Any thoughts?

The Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium 2012: O’Reilly vs. Stewart (review)

October 17, 2012

The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium:  O’Reilly vs. Stewart 2012

A Review

 

 

When I realized that I was one of the few people who had actually managed to watch the entire debate when it was broadcast live, I decided I should write something about it in my blog for the benefit of those who didn’t get to see it.  But then I couldn’t get it to download or to re-stream, and I hadn’t taken notes during the first showing, so I waited until I could watch it again.

First, let me provide a little background for anyone who might read this and not know what the heck I’m talking about.  On October 6, 2012, FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly and The Daily Show’s fake news anchor Jon Stewart held a live debate in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  Anyone expecting a real spoof of politics and debate would probably have been disappointed; while both disputants showed considerable humor, the debate was real.  It was moderated by E. D. Hill, currently an anchor for CNN and formerly a reporter for FOX News, who seemed determined to keep a tighter reign than did Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate three days earlier.  The first hour was done in (relatively) formal style, with both disputants standing at podiums responding to questions posed by the moderator, as well as replying to and rebutting one another.  Following precedent established with candidate Michael Dukkakis in the 1988 Presidential debates, the shorter disputant was allowed a boost; O’Reilly is somewhere between a foot to a person taller than Stewart, so he had a powered platform behind his podium to allow him to appear as tall or taller than O’Reilly at will.

It would be pointless to simply describe the debate, and beyond my powers of recall, and also a bit immoral.  The interview is still for sale at $4.95 (go to http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html for details), and half the profit goes to charity; so telling all the jokes would possibly spoil the experience for anyone who might purchase the download, and if it served as an alternative to purchasing then it would deprive those charities as well.  So I will confine myself to an evaluation of the three major participants, and their positions.

E. D. Hill took her role about as seriously as she should.  Yes, she introduced Jon Stewart as “a hobbit-like 5’7” tall,” but she also posed the questions and sought to hold the disputants to the time allotted for each topic.  This was before the Vice Presidential debate, but after Jim Lehrer had been trampled by Romney and Obama both; she was more assertive than Lehrer and perhaps less so than Martha Raddatz.

O’Reilly and Stewart showed their moderator more respect than did Romney and Obama, even when mocking her; in the context of the “real” debate O’Reilly’s expressions of contempt seemed more like parody than disrespect.  Both of them ignored the first question in order to give their opening statements; and in many ways I found the opening statements the most telling part of the evening.  O’Reilly is a staunch conservative, but is also a fairly independent mind.  He did not attempt to ignore or support Romney’s “47%” statement, but instead modified it; and that modification lies at the heart of his overall position.  O’Reilly stated that in fact there is about 20% of the nation who truly are lazy, feel entitled to free stuff, and couldn’t care less about the consequences for others.  He also said that number was growing, and that this represents a significant danger to our nation.  His primary concern, therefore, is irresponsibility.  He feels that Democrats should stop whining about Bush, who has been out of office for four years; after the first two years, you need to own up to your own responsibility for the state of affairs.  He claimed that liberals are fostering an entitlement mindset, and that it is necessary to curtail government services to force everyone to take personal responsibility.  Taking from the rich to give to the poor means taking from the responsible people to give to those who might not be responsible; and if the poor are to be helped, those that have should take responsibility to do so without being compelled by the government.  If the government gets involved, it will simply foster irresponsibility while delivering goods inefficiently and for political ends, and ultimately destroy the very producers it was counting on to fund things.

Stewart’s statement did not reply either to Ms. Hill or to Mr. O’Reilly.    Instead, he presented a long monologue describing “Bullshit Mountain.”  Its inhabitants, he said, live in a world where normal rules of facticity and logic do not apply.  On Bullshit Mountain, everything was wonderful until about four years ago, when a Kenyan-Fascist-Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Radical Racist was elected President and began destroying everything.  Before Obama, Congress and the President were bipartisan and effective and the economy was solid and we were respected in the world and every individual wanted nothing more than to work hard and lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and he could; now, totally because of one man, we’re polarized and paralyzed and lazy and worthless.  The real problem, Stewart argued, is a failure of our problem-solving mechanisms and the ability of the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain to perceive or acknowledge reality.

In short, the two men were talking across each other.  O’Reilly was arguing ethics and Stewart epistemology; O’Reilly was arguing values and virtues while Stewart was arguing facts and history and practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  When they began to give real solutions, the two actually were fairly close on a number of issues.  O’Reilly was asked about partisanship, and blamed “haters and assassins” in the media who know they can make a lot of money simply by saying inflammatory things, regardless of truth.  He didn’t name any names and didn’t state any one ideology to which the haters belong.  I’m sure Stewart would agree; he has said much the same thing.  O’Reilly was specific enough to denounce the people who hate Obama and think he is evil and traitorous; he claimed himself to like Obama, while thinking his policies are misguided.  In this, he is clearly distancing himself from Hannity, Limbaugh and most other right-wing pundits, as well as the left-wingers he would describe as equally close-minded.  Stewart would agree with O’Reilly that the profit motive in news broadcasting has created a toxic atmosphere, where truth is second to showmanship and illuminating minds less important than enflaming passions.  Likewise, both men support our military and have taken concrete steps to help the troops in the field and after their return.  When I was a child, a “liberal” was someone who referred to our own soldiers as child-killers and rapists.  By those standards, there are almost no “liberals” left.  There are definite differences between the two; O’Reilly supports trickle-down economics, while Stewart supports a single-payer medical system.  But compared to the ideological schism of the 1960’s, today we hardly seem to be divided at all.  Both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, and at least some on both sides are God-fearing people.  Many of the liberal ideas of today, like the individual mandates in the Affordable Health Care act, were conservative ideas yesterday.

But the real difference between them was their agendas.  O’Reilly wanted to talk about values; on those grounds, he and Stewart were not identical but were not very far apart.  Stewart wanted to treat O’Reilly as “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” as if he were identical with everyone else at FOX News and the right-wing echo chamber.  O’Reilly sought to distance himself from some elements of the Right, but Stewart wanted to have that conversation and used O’Reilly as his target.  Stewart’s claim is that the Right exaggerates the problems America faces while simplifying the solution.  While America faces serious problems, they are the same sorts of problems we have always faced:  economic challenges, enemies abroad, questions of social justice and the nature of the social contract.  We have always had a large “entitlement” culture, from the time Europeans arrived in America and thought they were entitled to land occupied by other people.    But the Right speaks as if this never happened before, as if the world has gone completely to Hell just in the last few years, as if we are two weeks away from complete national collapse; and that if we simply give tax cuts to millionaires all these problems will be solved.  It is a combination of factual falsehoods about the past and present, and dubious (or magical) predictions and hopes for the future.

This strikes me as typical of the political debates today.  The so-called Left talks about solving problems, based on what has and what has not worked in the past.  Paraphrasing Stewart, I’m not for smaller or bigger government; I’m for better government.  The “Left” is the party that believes the government can solve problems, and that its job is to solve problems.  For this reason, Stewart emphasizes the need to know facts, to face facts and to act on them.  The Right is not really interested in the facts; the primary problem is not a problem of information but of values.  If we have the right values, we will solve our problems; therefore, we should have good values and then believe those truth claims that support our values.  O’Reilly is not really “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain.”  He does seem to choose to ignore the past failures of supply-side economics because it is most consistent with his ideal of individual responsibility; but in many cases, he is more interested in facts than many conservative pundits, and he is quite aware of this.  The leading citizens of Bullshit Mountain are people like “the assassins and haters,” birthers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and the congressmen who sit on the House Science Committee while disbelieving science, and openly state that the reason they reject science is because it contradicts their values; for example:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”[1]

 

It’s not that he has different evidence; it’s that he’s chosen to ignore evidence.  Like a good postmodern nihilist, he’s choosing which language-game he wants to play; and it isn’t the Science Game.  He is choosing what will count as believable based on what supports his religious values, not on the laws of cause and effect that govern in science or in normal daily experience, or the opinions of the vast majority of scientists.  That is the real key to “Bullshit Mountain.”  In Harry Frankfurt’s definitive tome on the subject, “bullshit” is defined as the assertion of facts in order to win arguments or status or some other reason, but regardless of whether what is said is true or not.  It isn’t a lie; the liar knows what the truth is but seeks to hide it for some reason.  The mistaken person thinks he or she is asserting the truth, but is simply wrong.  The bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is.  I’m not sure what Paul Broun is engaged in qualifies as “bullshit.”  Is he trying to persuade, or to score points?  Or is he engaged in some other, completely unrelated activity?  It does seem clear that he is not making his judgment that these scientific foundational beliefs are “lies” is based on his superior knowledge of physics or biology; it is based on a theological/dogmatic judgment.  He wouldn’t say he was oblivious to truth; he would say that science is oblivious to real truth, ethical-dogmatic truth, while he is concerned with these important truths.  He wouldn’t say he is uninterested in solving problems facing the nation and world; he would say the most important problems are not nuts-and-bolts questions like what government policies will give the best possible lives to the most people, but rather the question of how to please God.  When Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on feminism and Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, he clearly had a different strategy for solving the problems of protecting our nation from terrorism and natural disasters.  While the “liberal” believes that these things happen for strictly natural reasons and can only be addressed by a government that is robust enough to muster the physical resources required, Rev. Robertson believes these problems have a supernatural cause and can only be fixed supernaturally.

Stewart appears to believe the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain are all willfully deluded for ideological gain; the world was wonderful, Obama ruined it, regardless of all possible facts to the contrary, so let’s get rid of Obama.  O’Reilly does not seem to be that deluded.  He doesn’t think Obama is a Kenyan or an al Qaeda infiltrator or anything of that sort.  He does have economic views that are disputable, but not insane.  He does believe small government and individual liberty are better.  But his initial impulse seems to be the moral concern.  That was his opening point and his recurring theme.  In that his primary interest is moral rather than factual or pragmatic, he has some kinship to the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain.  And he does work at FOX News.  Stewart is more concerned with establishing a shared reality, something he quaintly calls “facts.”  His argument with the Right is not whether or not America is worth loving.  To some extent, it is over just how to love America best.  But really, Stewart has made a value judgment, the judgment that facts matter and that objective reality trumps what we think “ought” to be true.  Again, when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that there was one reality which we all had to accept was considered a conservative notion; but now, it is the liberals who seem to be demanding everyone accept “the facts” and the conservatives who say, “I have my truths and you have yours.”

I cannot end without remarking on the greatest oddity of this debate:  that it took place.  Technically, it is true that Bill O’Reilly is part of the “entertainment” programming on FOX News.  But that is still FOX News.  Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central.  The fact that these two are treated as somehow equivalent is truly bizarre.  The line between “fake” news and “real” news has been obliterated.  O’Reilly has a good sense of humor, but he is professionally described as a “pundit.”  The dictionary definitions of “pundit” are either an expert, or someone who speaks authoritatively as if he or she were an expert (as when a college dropout with a history of drug abuse becomes a pundit and an authority figure).  In O’Reilly’s case, he is educated and intelligent, though not really an “expert” on all the subjects he comments on.  But he is not a “comedian.”  A comedian is one whose job is not to be right, or to be authoritative, but simply to be funny.  Somehow, right-wing pundits working for news organizations (whether FOX News, talk radio or both) came to be seen as morally and functionally equivalent to comedians, without anyone reflecting on the fact that the latter are professional fools while the former supposedly are not.  When Rush Limbaugh is criticized for saying something stupid and sexist, he is defended by supporters who say, “Well, look what Bill Maher said.”  An honorary member of the Republican Congressional Caucus, whose bust is in the Missouri State Hall of Fame, called by Ronald Reagan “the Number One voice for conservatism,” among his many accolades and awards, more powerful than many Republican elected leaders, who have more than once been forced to publicly apologize after getting on his wrong side—-this man is compared to a stand-up comedian and the male lead in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”  This is considered a defense!  When one praises or defends one’s “pundit, i.e. expert and/or authority” by comparing him or her to a “comedian, i.e. a professional entertainer who uses various verbal and physical means to be amusing,” one really insults the pundit.  Or rather, one reveals that we no longer draw a distinction between those who speak from authority and expertise versus those who speak from ignorance and foolishness.

The O’Reilly-Stewart debate did show that when ideological disputants are willing to attempt to find and abide by the same reality, and who are willing to respect their opponents and to laugh at themselves and admit at least some fallibility (in their allies if not in themselves), it is possible to have a civil and substantive discussion.  In that case, it might be able to find solutions to problems that give both sides what they need, at least sometimes.  As Stewart said, the problem-solving mechanisms of our society seem to be broken; but this debate showed that is possible to fix them.


[1] Dan Gilgoff, “Congressman Draws Fire for Calling Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies from the Pit of Hell,”, CNN, 10/16.2012 (http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/national/congressman-draws-fire-for-calling-evolution-big-bang-lies-from-the-pit-of-hell)