The Decline of LaughterROGER SCRUTON
Laughter is not only a joy and a balm, it is the principal way we have of accepting the failings of our fellows.
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.
There are many joke-free zones in our religious literature. The Old Testament is full of them — think of that appalling Book of Joshua — and the Koran is as rigidly humorless as any document that has survived the efforts of humanity to laugh it off. But this points to another area in which humor has become dangerous. Christians, Jews, atheists, and Muslims, living side by side in acute consciousness of the divisions between them, are greatly in need of the religious joke. The Jews, through their experience of the Diaspora, living as strangers and sojourners among communities that at any moment might turn against them, have long been aware of this. As a result the rabbinical traditions are full of self-deprecating jokes, which underline the absurd position of God's chosen people, living on the margins of a world that does not know that that is who they are. Jewish humor is one of the greatest survival mechanisms ever invented — which has aided not only its own survival but the survival of Jewish identity, through an unparalleled history of attempts to rub it out.
It seems to me that we stand in need of a repertoire of religious jokes and a bold habit of expressing them. However, many Muslims have an exaggerated capacity to feel slighted, and there is scarcely a humorous remark to be made about Islam that will not instantly be read as an expression of hostility. Here too the censors are hard at work, depriving humanity of its natural way of defusing conflict, and forcing upon us all a kind of tiptoeing and apprehensive deference that is in fact far closer to hostility than any robust guffaw. Of course, religion is a sensitive topic, and the traditional British response, that it should therefore never be mentioned in polite society, is understandable. But in a world of increasingly belligerent affirmations of faith, the British solution is no longer available. Satire of the kind directed at Tartuffe by Molière is surely what our mullahs deserve. By satirizing them, we come to terms with them; we also distinguish their ludicrous self-righteousness from the gentle path of accommodation that ordinary Muslims want and need.
An outside observer cannot fail to be struck by the decline of that kind of humor in America. This universal human resource, which in the works of James Thurber, H.L. Mencken, Nathanael West, and other great exponents enabled America to weather previous social upheavals, and even to accommodate the new kind of American woman, is now marginalized or disapproved. A joke in bad taste can cost you your career, as Don Imus recently discovered — and any joke, however sophisticated, that touches on race, sex, or religion runs a serious risk of punishment. As a result, an eerie silence surrounds the great questions of modern American society — a silence punctuated by the hysterical outbursts of the humorless, whenever their factitious sensitivities are provoked.
We had such a class of journalists until recently in England. Throughout the left-wing takeover of the universities in the 1970s, journalists like T.E. Utley, Peregrine Worsthorne, George Gale, and Colin Welch would treat their readers to witty, disrespectful, and outspoken dismissals of the new intellectual movements. As a result, those movements gained control only of the universities and not of public opinion. Some of that bold class of journalists were on the left, like Alan Watkins and Hugo Young; some were on the right, like Utley and Worsthorne. But in the fight against the censors they stood together, united in their contempt for the puritan disease. As a result, each could be as rude as he liked about the surrounding sea of stupidity and still raise an accepting laugh from his readers.
Alas that most of those journalists are no longer with us, and reading about the Don Imus affair in the American press, I wonder whether they ever had their equivalent over here.
Roger Scruton. "The Decline of Laughter." The American Spectator (June 2007).
This article reprinted with permission from The American Spectator © 2007. All rights reserved.
Published continuously since 1967, sparring toe-to-toe with presidents and a generation of leading political thinkers, The American Spectator continues to provide its unique view of American conservative politics, with a keen sense of irreverence.
Copyright © 2007 The American Spectator
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.