February 2, 2008


The Decline of Laughter: Laughter is not only a joy and a balm, it is the principal way we have of accepting the failings of our fellows. (ROGER SCRUTON, June 2007, The American Spectator )

Laughter is not only a joy and a balm, it is the principal way we have of accepting the failings of our fellows. And laughter, though confined to rational beings, must be spontaneous if it is to be real. Willed laughter is a kind of sneer; spontaneous laughter is an acceptance of the thing that provokes it, even when, by laughing at something, you cut it down to size.

A society that does not laugh is one without an important safety valve, and a society in which people interpret crude humor not as the first step toward friendly relations, but as a mortal offense, is one in which ordinary life has become fraught with danger. Human beings who live in communities of strangers are greatly in need of laughter, if their differences are not to lead to civil war. This was one of the functions of the ethnic joke. When Poles, Irish, Jews, and Italians competed for territory in the New World to which they had escaped, they provisioned themselves with a store of ethnic jokes with which to laugh off their manifest differences.

Ethnic humor has been studied in depth by the British sociologist Christie Davies, and his findings — in The Mirth of Nations — are a salutary reminder of the ease with which spontaneous social solutions can be confiscated by the po-faced censors who seek to govern us. The jokes and teases that Christie assembles are gestures of conciliation, in which difference is made harmless and set laughingly aside. Yet everywhere in the modern world a kind of puritanical vigilance is extinguishing the ethnic joke, condemning it as an offense against our common humanity. What was traditionally regarded as a way to prevent social conflict is now seen as a major cause of it: The ethnic joke is accused of "stereotyping," and so tainted with the indelible stain of racism.

Even more sinful than the ethnic joke in the eyes of our moral guardians is the old comedy of the sexes. Despite all the ingenious labor of the feminists, ordinary people notice the very real differences between the sexes, and the very great need to accommodate those differences and to defuse the conflicts to which they might give rise. Humor has been the traditional recourse of humanity in this predicament, as men jokingly defer to their "better half," and women submit to the edicts of "his nibs." But who now would risk making a joke about sexual relations or the female temperament in a faculty lounge? You might think that the censorship goes only one way: After all, savage denunciations of men, and whole disciplines of pseudo-scholarship devoted to repeating them, are familiar features of academic life in America. But try making a joke of the masculine defects, and you will be in just the same trouble as if you had made a joke about the weaknesses of women. For the feminist the failings of men are no laughing matter. Not surprisingly, therefore, the literature of feminism is devoid of humor — and advisedly so, for if it ever were to employ this resource it would die laughing at itself.

What makes comedy so dangerous to ideologues is that it is primarily based in truthful observation and the exposure of absurdities.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 2, 2008 8:07 AM

I thought it was PC to make jokes about white males and Christians. Am I out of the loop or what?

Posted by: Bartman at February 2, 2008 8:53 AM

Yeah, I'm confused about that too. It goes:
1) White
2) Male
3) Christian
4) French

As a Christian White Male of French descent, I pretty much get the dirty end of the stick in the sex/race humor department. You can make fun of your own race and the French, so I'm getting gipped out of a race! I think the government should give me a special pass to make fun of one other race. Dealer's choice. If I draw some obscure race like the Yanomamo, I can work with that. They're so stupid, living in the jungle with a cord wrapped aroung their pupik!

I made the mistake of making an Irish joke in front of some friends of my parents (who are Irish) and you would have thought I had just eaten a puppy - even though I'm half Irish! Frankly, being Irish in this country doesn't really give you much oppressed minority status.

Posted by: Bryan at February 2, 2008 9:57 AM

To quote Homer Simpson: "It's funny 'cause it's true!!"

Posted by: Twn at February 2, 2008 2:07 PM