Laughter is not only a joy and a balm, it is the principal way we have of accepting the failings of our fellows.
Reason shows itself in all our attempts to understand the world and in all our ways of relating to each other. It is displayed in our choices, and also in our involuntary reactions. Only a rational being can weep or blush, even though weeping and blushing lie outside the reach of the will. And only a rational being can laugh. Hyenas make a noise like laughter, but it is not a sign of amusement, nor does it have the social function that laughter has — which is to make light of our differences and to rejoice in what we share. 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.
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.
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.
That this is an unhealthy situation surely goes without saying. More depressing, however, is its effect on ordinary morality. In the past it has been axiomatic that faults are forgiven, if followed by a clear intention to mend. This axiom does not, it seems, apply in the world of American censorship. One remark judged to be "racist," "sexist," "stereotyping," or "homophobic," and you must leave the community of the saved forever. It is the end of your prospects in any career over which the censors exert their control — and that means any career in education or government. You can grovel as much as you wish, like Don Imus; you can perform the equivalent of King Henry II's barefoot pilgrimage to Canterbury, and it will make no difference. One fault and you're out.
And it doesn't matter if it is not a fault: Your remark may have been misunderstood, your joke may have gone unintentionally wrong, you may have made a slip of the tongue — you may, like the hero of Philip Roth's great novel The Human Stain, have merely used in its traditional meaning a word that, in some novel usage, has been placed on the political index.
What is needed, it seems to me, is a seriously rude, arrogant, and well-educated class of journalists, who would lend each other support in ridiculing the pretensions of the censors.Moreover, the ability of the self-appointed censors to discern ideological sins and heresies has been vastly enhanced by their daily exercises in resentment. Such accusers know how to discern racist, sexist, and homophobic thought-crimes in the most innocent-seeming small talk. And they know no forgiveness, since they are cut off, like all humorless people, from the process of self-knowledge. The desire to accuse, which brings with it a reputation for virtue without the cost of acquiring it, takes over from the normal flow of human forgiveness, creating a wooden personality familiar to all who have had to deal with the lobbies that now control public opinion in America.
What should be our response to this? It is easy to say that we should laugh at it. But losing your career is not a laughing matter; still less is it a laughing matter to be put on a list of targets by the Islamist offense-machine. What is needed, it seems to me, is a seriously rude, arrogant, and well-educated class of journalists, who would lend each other support in ridiculing the pretensions of the censors.
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.
Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2019) was a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books. He is the author of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, On Human Nature, The Disappeared, Notes from Underground, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton was a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2007 The American Spectator
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