Sunday, January 11, 2009

Different Types of Humor and their Implicit Ideology

Fireworks show that includes a smiley face
I have always liked the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword” for three reasons mostly: one, I love the act of writing and consider literature and the arts extremely relevant and beneficial for our lives; two, I am generally against violence and subscribe to Gandhi's mandate of non-violence; and three, I think it goes hand in hand with another saying knowledge is power and puts free speech on a democratic pedestal.

But there is something that actually surpasses the pen. Something that people in power have historically feared the most, and it is the terror of many religious conservatives no matter what your denomination. I am referring to the invincible power of humor.

Now humor can come in forms of writing, but it is much more elastic than that. It can happen anywhere really. In a café or restaurant, in somebody's house, in the form of a comment or gesture, on a television program or movie, or on a theater stage. Humor is much vaster and hence much more difficult to control.

Dictatorships generally do not like humor. Yes, they do lack any sense of humor, or humanity, for that matter. Could you see yourself going out for a beer with Hitler or Stalin and having a good hearty laugh with them? Rather have constant chills and beads of perspiration since any inadvertently “wrong” comment can be your last.

Because they have to take themselves seriously – which they mostly do anyhow – what they fear most are satires. When people are making fun of the leader, flaws or peculiarities are revealed and come into the open and the power structure suddenly changes.

The one who laughs is usually the one in charge. When someone laughs at you, you most likely feel belittled. It might be an act of foolishness that you hoped would go unperceived. Or it might be a comment on flaws within your personality or being, the way you dress or speak or look. Yet in all of those cases, you are on the losing side, whether the laughing person is in the right or not.

Laughter in this sense is dangerous for religious authorities as well, something that Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose demonstrated in a chilling manner. The abbot believed that laughter equals disrespect towards the holy and, in particular, towards God. As a result, it had to be suppressed, even if that implied the use of force because only solemnity and seriousness advocate respect of authority. For example, what happens if a soldier laughs at his superior? I would not recommend it for the sake of the poor soldier.

Historically, religion has been no laughing matter; there have been Crusades, the Holy Inquisition, witch hunts, charges of blasphemy, Indexes of prohibited books. It is only in more liberal times like ours where a movie like Life of Brian is even remotely possible without hovering death sentences over film-makers and spectators.

But humor is multi-faceted, and there are many sides to it. The comment one is laughing with and not at somebody implies that not all humor is intended to be evil. Sarcasm and irony generally imply an air of superiority, of taste, of education, of upbringing. But an inoffensive kind of humor can spring up from good-natured chats between jolly people who simply enjoy life. That would be the Buddha or the Dalai Lama whose laugh is rather life-affirming and contains no hidden judgment or prejudice.

What I am interested here are the differences in philosophical and ideological grounds when it comes to humor. As to the intentions and worldview of humor, we can establish two distinct forms, one of them being pessimistic and a sign of resignation, whereas the second is imbued with faith and confidence in the world, such as the latter example of the Dalai Lama.

The first type is a kind of neurotic laughter. It is a person being either overburdened or estranged by reality. Woody Allen would be a perfect fit here. He is constantly struggling with reality and human relations and is self-consciously and nervously looking to adapt to the world around him.

But the world with its social or romantic dimensions is hard to figure out and causes distress. Communication among people falls apart and misunderstandings rule. Underneath the fool's cap of most of Allen's movies, there is a serious undertone of resignation and hopelessness of man confronted with an uncaring, ambiguous universe.

The second type is a more positive and life-affirming humor. Here people laugh because they have faith in powers that surpass the ordinary world. It is a confidence that is not shattered despite the cruelty and horrors of life. It is Buddha seeing through the world of Maya and understanding the underlying reasons for suffering. It is Job who never lost hope despite the horrible cruelties he had to experience. It is laughing into the face of misfortune, not as a nervous gesture, but fully and heartily because deep inside we know that everything is all right.


Chandira said...

THat's why most medieval courts had a Court Jester. He was allowed to mock the King, poke fun at, and generally keep him on track. He wasn't just a comic, but a sharp-shooting political commentator, designed to help the King find that place, and stay on top of his game, rather than give in to the fear that people like Stalin and Bush gave into. A bit like John Stewart or Steven Colbert.

It's a pity W never had a Court Jester, Rove could have been so much more useful in that role.

Arashmania said...

Thank you for your comment, Chandira! It's absolutely true; kings used to take the advice of their jesters often "seriously". It was a kind of unbiased, independent opinion.

In the case of W, he actually "is" the jester himself, don't you think?

Chandira said...

Yes, and thankfully, today he is no more!!!! :-)

John Myste said...

I have always liked the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Hmmm, though profound in its way, it seems to miss the joy of running someone through with a sword, and until you have done that, I am not sure it is fair to have an opinion. I find it exhilarating!

If we are ever unfortunate enough to face each other in a duel, I will definitely hope we each get our weapon of choice.

By the way, I like the saying also and agree with it 100%. An ape is often far stronger than a human and can easily win a battle, but in war, the ape does not win except on TV. Mightiness is overrated by those who lack more powerful means to win.