Thursday, 9 May 2013

No Laughing Matter

     The other day, I was reminded of a joke I had the good fortune, years ago, to use with almost perfect effect. I was at a philosophy seminar in grad school where one of my colleagues was advancing the theory that humour is a weapon of oppression, while I was arguing that it was more effective as a weapon against oppression. At some point in the discussion, I asked the question: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? Fortunately, my colleague had not heard the joke, and it was delicious watching her struggle with her ideology and her desire to hear the punchline. Finally she gritted her teeth and said, "All right, how many?" clearly prepared to object to whatever I offered. When I delivered it, with a moralistic glower, "That's not funny!" it completely deflated her argument.
      (To her credit, she did not then complain about how this was just another instance of patriarchy using humour to ridicule and silence the voices of women.)

      The occasion that reminded me of this joke was the reaction to short piece on The Onion about how a heartbroken Chris Brown always thought Rihanna was the one he'd beat to death. Not surprisingly it was immediately met with harsh criticism, with the usual admonishments that domestic violence isn't funny. Well, duh. Of course it's not funny. But such objections miss the point of the joke, and more fail to understand the role of humour generally.
      The mistake is to think that one cannot take something seriously if one jokes about it. Sometimes this is true; we even use "just joking around" as an antonym for seriousness. Certainly much humour is solely aimed at mere amusement. So, too, is a lot of music. That hardly means that a composer who writes a requiem is making light of someone's death. Music is a powerful expressive medium, and the fact that it can be light and cheerful doesn't mean it can't be somber and profound as well.
      The same is true of humour, though perhaps not as obviously so. It's true that humour usually involves some sort of ridicule, or observation that something is absurd, but the crucial thing to recognize is what the real target of the ridicule is. I suppose you could say that's what the sense of humour is all about: being able to sense where the humour lies.
      People with little or no sense of humour may recognize that there's humour somewhere nearby, perhaps not by sensing the humour itself but by recognizing the contextual cues that indicate a joke is being made. But lacking the ability to directly perceive the humour, they may think it's targeted inappropriately, and I think that's what's happened with the Onion piece. The critics failed to notice that the real target of ridicule here was not victims of domestic abuse, but the perpetrators, who surely deserve a great deal of ridicule. The sheer absurdity of claiming to love someone, while expressing that "love" through violence, is something we all should recognize, and the Onion's joke zeroed in on that with ruthless accuracy.

     Ridicule is a tremendously powerful memetic weapon, when properly used. (Poorly used, it's pretty pathetic.) I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, about the dramatic decline in violence over the centuries, and one possible contributing factor he mentions is the role of humour. Films like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, or even Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, effectively lampoon the insanity of leaders who would take us to war over imagined slights or lunatic ideologies. Leaders who take themselves too seriously. These were very funny movies, but not because war is funny. Indeed, the true depth of the humour of these films depends on the audience's appreciation of how horribly evil a thing war is. And, as bad as domestic violence is, war is many orders of magnitude worse.

     I understand the sentiment. After all, who can argue with the statement that domestic violence isn't funny? Of course it isn't. But there is a danger, I think, in saying that certain topics must be treated "seriously", especially topics involving violence: generally speaking, violence is used by people who are trying to be taken seriously. We need it to be firmly  established in our culture that violence does not earn you respect. That applies equally to guys who beat their wives or girlfriends and to losers who set off bombs in public places.
     These people desperately need to be ridiculed, because they are ridiculous. The fact that they are also dangerous only makes it that much more important to reveal how ridiculous they are.

1 comment:

  1. Your post reminds me of this one I read a while back: