Even Today, Humor Has a Place in Our Public Discourse
As Inauguration Day in the US approaches, public concern over right-wing extremist attacks is mounting. Many Americans worry about a peaceful transfer of power and whether the fabric of our democracy will be torn asunder. These are serious times.
On the day of the US Capitol attack earlier this month, I shared a silly humor piece I had written called “I’m Never Taking Off My Wearable Blanket” to my personal Facebook page. My Facebook post said, “Sharing some silliness by yours truly! I know things are heavy right now, and I hope this brings some momentary lightness,” by way of introduction.
Immediately, I received a private message from an acquaintance. “Just FYI, now is not the best time to be posting your humor. The country is in crisis, and it’s insensitive,” it read.
After a wave of indignation passed, I asked her to explain. From her perspective, humor serves as a dangerous distraction from the pressing social and political issues of our time. It leads us to bury our heads in the sand. Our conversation led me to reflect: What is the role of lighthearted, nonpartisan humor during a time of national crisis?
Humor Doesn’t Have to Be Political
One of the exceptions to my acquaintance’s “no humor” rule is political humor. She reasons that political humor engages us in salient issues. It has the power to skewer dictators and help overthrow authoritarian regimes. For example, political cartoonist Herblock drummed up public opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy and originated the term “McCarthyism.” For her, humor is justified if used as a political weapon or if it brings to light political issues.
Does that mean all other forms of humor, particularly the irreverent or goofy variety, have no public benefit? Does non-political humor only provide entertainment, which keeps us docile and complicit in the injustices of our time? After some reflection and research, I believe the answer to both questions is “no.”
“Nonpartisan jokes presuppose an observer who is capable of distance from life and its trials. The humor of such an observer is a kind of tonic, one that has nothing to do with tricks and maneuvering in the political arena. The political joke as a weapon is pragmatic; it inflicts wounds. The purely reflective joke stands above the fray; it heals.”
Nonpartisan humor can heal.
Humor Can Ease Our Emotional Burden
I’m certain if my Facebook friend saw me giggling in front of a screen watching the superbly silly Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the eleventh time, she’d lament my intellectual development. She’d look at me as if I were a character out of Idiocracy, hopelessly unaware of the derelict state of the world around me. Watching this type of humor feels weightless and mind-numbing. It does provide a momentary distraction, and I would argue that sometimes we need it.
Yes, our nation is deeply flawed. Many of us carry the weight of that knowledge on our shoulders. Our awareness of the precariousness of the US political situation keeps us glued to our phones and computers, awaiting the latest update confirming that we’re indeed on the precipice of disaster.
What I believe humor can do is allow us to set down the weight for a moment, take a breath, and appreciate the other elements of human existence before we hoist the weight back upon our shoulders. As Speier states in Wit and Politics, “Humor does not change … circumstances. It does not alter the life meanings of people or the forces that control them. It helps one only to bear somewhat better the unalterable ….” Sometimes we want to laugh because we don’t have the energy to cry anymore, or be angry anymore, or be disappointed anymore.
Humor is a temporary coping mechanism for facing the injustices we’re powerless to change at the moment. It’s not to say we should hide in our basements watching twelve hours a day of The Office until the pandemic is over. It’s not about giving up the fight. In RJ Newell’s essay Poking at Power: Can Comedy Be a Political Weapon? he reminds us that when the world is in a bad place, humorists can be “our pain relievers and fuel suppliers in our fight to make things better. Laughter … can empower our action.”
Nonpartisan humor gives us a much-needed break from the realities of injustice so that we have the wherewithal to fight another day. It can prevent social activism burnout. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we honor today, believed in the value of a well-timed pillow fight.
Humor Can Connect Us to Our Shared Humanity
Humor provides escapism, but it also connects us to our shared humanity. In times like these, we need to be reminded of our humanness, our fallibility, and the other parts of ourselves that existed before the pandemic.
Yesterday, I received a text message from a close friend: “Been thinking about you and worried about you and your family and what could happen in the next week with the Inauguration. I know you probably are too. Let me know how we can help you stay safe. This country is a shitshow.”
I was grateful for the sentiment behind my friend’s text — sending love and offering protection. Yet, her words terrified me. The subtext behind them is that because I’m one of the few Brown people in our 94% white community, my family and I might be in danger from alt-right extremists come Inauguration day. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to react? Is my only option to cower in my house and wait for an angry mob to get my family and me?
If I want to get out of bed in the morning, I have to believe that we’re better than this, despite ample evidence towards the contrary. I have to believe that people realize that there’s more to life than their party affiliation.
Social distancing is making us stir-crazy and amplifying our tribalism because we’ve forgotten what else is out there. It’s been almost a year without carefree family gatherings, concerts, theater, eating out, and traveling. We’re disconnected from each other, our interests, and other parts of our identities — as art-lovers or adventure-seekers, for example. These activities are part of what makes us human.
Humor can remind us that there’s more to us than this moment. It can bridge the gap — reminding us of our common humanness. We all fart and poop and have body odor and worry about getting older and worry about dying and wish we could hug Betty White, who can never die. This type of humor has a special name — affiliative humor. It’s the humor we find in everyday life. It brings us closer together by highlighting our common experiences. Seinfeld’s observations about double-dipping, regifting, and shrinkage are endearing because they are based on situations we all encounter.
In writing about never wanting to take off my Slanket, I’m reminded that there are many others out there who would prefer to spend their days buried under fleece — just like me. It’s a comfort.
Humor Can Make Us Receptive to Different Perspectives
Research and practical experience suggest that humor can lower our cognitive defenses and make us more open-minded to perspectives different from our own.
“There’s this mental delight that’s followed by the physical response of laughter, which, not coincidentally, releases endorphins in the brain.
And just like that, you’ve been seduced into a different way of looking at something because the endorphins have brought down your defenses.” — Comedian Chris Bliss in his 2012 TED Talk
For example, my 30-something husband and I should have no interest in watching The Golden Girls, which follows three sexagenarians (and one septuagenarian) living together in Florida. Yet, the hijinx between Rose (the ditzy one), Blanche (the slutty one), and Dorothy (the no-nonsense one) transcends generations. We enjoy the show, giggling at Sophia’s one-liners and rooting for all the women, no matter how distant we believe we are from their experiences. And after watching an episode, we usually remember to call our mothers.
Humor invites us to let our guard down and consider the lives of other people. Outrospection, a term coined by philosopher Roman Krznaric, describes our ability to empathize with people different from ourselves in the service of social change. Given the divisions in our country along political, racial, and socioeconomic lines, outrospection through humor is invaluable. When what divides us is more evident than what unites us, the bridge towards understanding becomes all the more perilous. As Krznaric argues, “true empathy begins with an individual that dares to rebel against his own prejudices …, and when he is able to … really put himself in someone else’s shoes, that leap has made the world change slightly, but perceptively.”
Humor Can Help Us From Becoming Numb to Injustice
The introduction to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson takes an unflinching look at the tragedies of the last four years: a white man in Kansas killing an Indian engineer and telling him to go back to his country, Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, the shooting of a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, and on and on and on. I am embarrassed to say that although I was infuriated by these tragedies when they happened, I had mostly put them out of my mind by the time I read her book this week.
I became numb to these injustices because the extent of my anger and heartbreak made them too much to handle. When we stay in a state of anger for too long, our emotional immune system kicks in and numbs us out. We can’t take it anymore and we shutdown, sublimating our anger until the next national tragedy.
What I believe, and what research claims, is that humor can provide a release-valve for our anger. It helps modulate it. Too much anger overwhelms us, but enough anger can spur action and change. Humor allows us to let off enough steam to keep a healthy level of anger — the kind of anger that spurs us to vote and demonstrate and write.
The fact that I choose to write infantile essays about hiding out in public restrooms during networking events doesn’t mean I don’t care about the world around me. It’s important to realize what’s happening in the country. There are plenty of other writers out there giving voice to these concerns.
In the meantime, what’s holding us together? Most of us feel powerless — those of us who stay in our homes and care for our families and hope for things to get better. My way of asserting power is to write humor. Maybe your way is consuming it. Either way, we’re not necessarily undermining or detracting from vital conversations. Sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves of what we’re fighting for — our common humanity, our shared experiences, and our ability to laugh at ourselves.