Thursday, February 26, 2015

If They Can't Take a Joke

Justin E.H. Smith:

What is wrong with wanting to talk about things? Feminist Bingo is about consolidating a group, through jocular means, around a set of shared values. These values concern the delimitation of acceptable forms of opposition: what a domestic partner, or a friend or a work acquaintance, may legitimately say. To the left of Jon Stewart, then, we witness a preoccupation with defining the boundaries of the group (if you don’t share the joke, it’s safe to say you’re out), and an extremely illiberal desire to narrow the limits of debate. There is a core ideological commitment here which holds that anyone outside the group who "wants to talk about things" really only wants to sneak in, within the belly of the Trojan horse of speech, yet another assertion of his unjust power.

...The earnest ones do what they can to build a perfect society, but always come up short. And so they panic, and come to believe that they can correct for the shortcomings by suppressing mockery of their effort. The mocker knows that that suppression is the very thing that prevents him from fully living, and resorts to humor as the sole available portal to the sort of freedom that the earnest ones see as a threat. The expectations one might have had for life prove to be strained, and collapse into nothing. Life is a joke. This is a disappointment, of course, yet there is liberation in acknowledging it. This is the form of liberation the earnest ones, the straight-faced state-builders and regulators, cannot even consider. And this is why they hate jokes, do not understand them, and are afraid of them.

It was difficult to choose which parts to excerpt, since the essay covers a fair amount of ground, and it's all good reading. Nonetheless, I think these two paragraphs convey what I feel is the general spirit of it. Our modern-day moralizers believe that humor can be tamed, yoked, and forced to labor exclusively for progressive causes. Wiser heads have always known that humor is a way of coping with the fundamental, inherent unfairness of life, and both the humor and the unfairness transcend any particular political agendas. The moralizers will either learn to relax and play along with the joke, or they'll become increasingly bitter, petty authoritarians.