Thursday, 2 April 2015

Humour is Worthless

Provocative, misleading title! Bam!

But not that misleading, just lacking some parameters.

I remember a time, when I was younger (say, approximately, the first 31 years of my life, though most especially around early adolescence) that I found humour to be a useful escape mechanism. The less logical, the less structured, the better. I stroved (I was striven?) to be as odd and peculiar as I could. I've long been aware that I have an awkward comedic heritage. My mom's sense of humour is what I'd call British: Absurd, in the big, obvious Goon Show/Monty Python sense. And my dad's sense of humour is harder to label, because I know nobody else who shares it, but the underlying premise of all of his jokes is simply that he is aware of an untruth that you are not, and the longer this state persists, the funnier he finds it. It's a terrible match for my parents, because 32 years later, my mom still can't ever tell when my dad's joking, and they're both going deaf too, so it's really more of a farce now, which isn't the comedy of choice for any of us.

But I digress. The hybrid sense of humour I got from both of my parents is a sort of stealth absurdity. I like it when I've said the most nonsensical thing possible AND you haven't realised it (and the fact that you haven't yet spotted the single biggest joke in this piece fills me with red herrings of delight). It's a bit of an anti-social form of humour, it causes me trouble with many people, and so I've been motivated to understand humour for a long time, to avoid that trouble. Asimov wrote a little about it, and The Road to Mars was probably my first exposure to deep analysis of comedy (as well as a generally excellent novel). But the single most influential bit I have yet read on the topic was a short anecdote by Douglas Adams, about how he found a joke so scientifically inaccurate that it forced him to re-evaluate his own commitment to the value of comedy, a thing he'd built his career and reputation on.

I found that Adams piece extremely liberating. Previously, I had felt obliged to push my humour out as a sign of my wit, my social relevance, my humanity. Zizek, I'd discover much later, sums up this compulsory enjoyment in another way too, but Adams, in explaining his own (partial) rejection of it gave me licence to (partially) reject it myself.

Since then, my enjoyment of comedy has increased, both as I learn more and get more jokes, and as I feel less personally challenged to top each joke competitively. At the same time, my interest in upholding humour as the most valuable creation of humanity has decreased. Like Douglas Adams, I've realised that "It's a joke" is not an all-fitting sabot for stupid statements, and I don't have to accept them.

So, there are two big things to break up. First, humour is a form of power. Second, there are more important things in the world than humour.

The first big thing shouldn't be too tricky to accept. Humour is a form of speech, and speech has power, depending on who hears it, how and when. Even the innocent pun is a form of this, as it relies on the punster having knowledge of the double-meaning that the audience has to first work out. So the punster has the power to compel others to waste brainpower, OR retains power by knowing something the audience doesn't (my dad's preferred style of joke).

But humour is different from conventional speech in that we treat it as if it's inherently false, an isolated micro-fiction, even when we actually believe its premise to be true, and so it's often had a special role, allowing controversial statements to be slipped into public discourse as if they weren't really there, or weren't really controversial. The jester can tell the king he's a dick, but, ha ha, just kidding!


But, as with all power, the fact that it can be used by the oppressed against the privileged, doesn't automatically mean that's its most frequent use. As with most expressions of power, the reverse is, by definition, true most the time, with the powerful using humour to pick on the powerless and keep them in their place. Hence Irish jokes (by the British), blond (woman) jokes (by the patriarchy), van der Merwe jokes (by British-South Africans), British dentistry jokes (by Americans), jewish jokes (by European and American christians), black jokes (by whites), gay jokes (by straight people), Nicaraguan jokes (by Costa Ricans, apparently), etc., etc., et-fucking-c. The common form of all of these is:
1. Group X has power over group Y.
2. Group X exerts this power by "joking" that group Y'ers are stereotypically bad in some way (stupidity seems to be the most common jab, though emotional violence and miserliness are frequent enough stereotypes too, in my experience).
3. Group Y either submits to the joke, or reacts, giving an excuse for further suppression by group X.

My mom taught me as a kid to avoid this kind of humour, with the explanation that "it's only ok for Irish people to tell Irish jokes", on the assumption this allows a group Y reclamation of their own stereotypical identity on their own terms. I think that's maybe a little more complicated, depending on context. If the joke is being told to group X, for group X's enjoyment, then it's just a form of submission, doing the hard work for them. But if group Y tells a group Y joke to group Y? Is that self-oppression, or an ironic parody of group X's humour? It's complicated.

More complicated interactions happen too, of course, as illustrated here by Zizek recalling how jokes at the expense of a third party can help to build social capital between two people. Is that a good or bad thing? Aren't there less counter-productive ways to improve relationships? Zizek certainly didn't like it, in the next anecdote, when his colleagues were the butt of the (more powerful) doctor's joke, so it looks like he had failed to avoid a double-standard. I clearly remember very obvious joke pecking-orders at school, where I hated being mocked by some, and considered it an achievement, not a right, to convince them not to. But I still felt free to mock others, until they'd "earned" a reprieve from me. (A swung fist earned it pretty quick, a reasoned argument often did not, unfortunately.)

And this all leads us into the second big thing, the notion that humour is inherently worthless, and that there are more important things in life. We all like to throw in a little joke to keep a tense situation more bearable, and it's great to have that ability. Comedy makes my life better every day, and it would be great if that were so for everyone else too. But that's not a biological necessity, and specific forms of humour even less so. And yet, I see people reacting extremely angrily whenever a joke's validity is questioned (especially publicly): "It's just a fucking joke, lighten up!"

Rejection of humour has become a sort of taboo for some, and my initial impression is that this Cult of Comedy, the enforcers of the taboo, consists mainly of the over-privileged, who want to retain their jokes for the same reason they want to retain wealth, status, all other kinds of power. The lie here is that we should ALL value ALL jokes equally, no matter who they're putting down or who they're serving. It's presented as a "free speech" issue, when it's really the opposite, a refusal to accept criticism or speech that rejects the joke. I think it's no coincidence, for example, that feminists are often linked with the adjective "humourless", as if that automatically cancels out all of our arguments in one mighty blow. (In reality, most of the feminists I know are extremely witty, though that's neither here nor there to the real point.)

The crux of the Cult of Comedy is that humour is inherently valuable, that we should all automatically accept a joke because it is a joke. This is bullshit. A "jk" at the end of an insult does not magically make it not-an-insult. The sly, undermining sarcasm of the oppressed does not justify or equate to the bullying taunts of the oppressor.

A slightly different angle is that, if the joker truly believes that a joke is trivial, harmless, unimportant, then they should have no qualms about retracting it. By refusing to retract or denounce a joke that they can admit has been fairly criticised, they're effectively saying that they want to retain their power over whoever was the butt of the joke. Interestingly, this same thing comes up outside comedy too: The whole premise of gamergate is that misogyny in games is trivial and unimportant, because they're just fuckin' games, but don't dare question or change our games, because they're vitally important pieces of cultural significance! (The real message being, do not mess with the status quo, keep looking away, no matter what your argument against it is.)

At the risk of making this post at all topical, this Cult of Comedy thing was seen very obviously this week when Patton Oswalt went on a rant defending Trevor Noah's sexist jokes from around 2012. I like Noah, and I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that it was just a stupid phase he won't repeat, but Oswalt's defence was quite literally that all jokes must be accepted, no matter what. That is bullshit, not to mention total overkill.

Similarly, a lot of the supporters opposed to the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson (for physically assaulting a colleague) boiled down to "but he's funny!". And yes, I'll agree, he often has been funny, but so what? What's that got to  do with physical violence and the law? How many jokes do I have to tell to get away with literal murder?

As a far greater comedian than either Noah or Oswalt put it just this week, not all jokes are equal, not all jokes should be put up with:

(I've been writing this piece for months, struggling to get it right, and I'd been thinking about the basic idea for much longer, so it's mighty convenient that all these useful examples have suddenly sprung up now, just as I'm nearly ready to hit the publish button.)

Even removing the subjective obstacles of personal taste and ethics, we seem to already accept in a more objective manner that there are contexts in which humour is not a good idea, that the negative consequences of comedy in, say, the pursuit of science, are not really worth the little chuckle we'll create. So we can already say that the Cult of Comedy's attempt to paint everything funny is not universally accepted, even, I'm sure, by most of them.

After decades of amateur study, I still don't feel I'm any sort of real expert on humour. There is doubtless plenty I've left out. But one thing is obvious to me: Good jokes are valuable because of their relative rarity, their unexpected appearance. Real comedy must be earned, both by the comic and the audience. Telling us that we must unquestioningly accept anything labelled 'JOKE' as such is a lie, and it spoils the value of real humour. Using it as a form of power, as a way to oppress people, forcing them to laugh with you, seems obviously wrong to me, but also at odds with what makes a real joke really funny.