Humor and Humanity
On the power and grace of laughter in trying times
“Laughter is a human thing, a virtue belonging only to humanity and God, that perhaps God gave to humans as consolation for having made them intelligent.” – Marcel Pagnol
“The grins of the people are the nightmares of dictators.” – Liu Xiaobo
I mentioned in “Why Inquire?” that one thing I’d like to do for subscribers is to go beyond my admittedly rather dour analysis of our general global upheaval and offer up some potentially more positive thoughts on living through turbulent and dehumanizing times.
I want to begin a series to that end with a dead serious exhortation to embrace humor. By this I mean recognizing humor as not only as a form of amusement or distraction, but as a quality that’s absolutely vital – including to the conservation of sanity, hope, and indeed humanity itself.
In fact, I’ll make a further proposition: that humor, and the appreciation, vibrancy, and toleration of its expression, is perhaps the surest indicator of a healthy society and civilization. And, whatever time or place you’re living in the world, the suppression of the jokesters is necessarily a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong. This leads to a corollary: to head back toward a better place, individually or collectively, try humor.
That’s because there is a power and meaning in humor that runs far deeper than most people may have considered.
But how so, and why? First, because real humor – and satire in particular – acts as absolute kryptonite to authoritarians, totalitarians, theocrats, and dangerous utopian moralizers of all species. Many, regardless of culture or political persuasion, recognize this intuitively, understanding like Saul Alinsky did that “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
But why? The most obvious answer is that ridicule undermines authority. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is inherently destabilizing to brittle, illegitimate, undeserving authority. Hence why, as Milan Kundera put it in The Joke, “No great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes everything it touches.”
For as G.K. Chesterton explained just before famously quipping that “it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it,” poorly structured philosophies and weak creeds tend to crumble under even light ridicule, while the strong ones can bear a little prodding with good humor and emerge no worse for wear.
The same goes for organizations and individuals, and we understand this instinctively. It’s why, for example, peer groups (male ones, anyway) so frequently feature a habit of relentless interpersonal ribbing and roasting: it serves to not only weed out the unreliable (whose fragile egos could pose a danger to the group) and increase cohesion, but to subconsciously instantiate and clarify an organic charismatic leadership hierarchy.
In contrast, leaders who owe their position only to force, fear, deception, or bullshit are in a far more fragile position: they cannot afford to tolerate any degree of ridicule, lest their weaknesses be revealed or sources of authority be undermined. As Joost Meerloo put it in The Rape of the Mind, “We must learn to treat the demagogue and aspirant dictators in our midst… with the weapon of ridicule,” as “the demagogue himself is almost incapable of humor of any sort, and if we treat him with humor, he will begin to collapse.”
The second half of that statement – that the dictator or demagogue “himself is almost incapable of humor” – raises another question, however: why would that be the case?
The answer strikes to a much deeper insight: genuine humor is utterly reliant on its connection with the truth. As any good comic could explain, the best jokes play off the gap between expectation and reality; or between propriety (social pretense) and reality; or on irony, the gap between words and their real meaning; and so on – in all cases the most effective humor functions through revelation.
As the sociologist Peter Berger put it in his book Redeeming Laughter:
“The comic experience provides a distinctive diagnosis of the world. It sees through façades of ideational and social order, and discloses other realities lurking behind the superficial ones… [It] reveals that things are not what they seem… For this reason, the comic is always potentially dangerous.”
In other words, to actually be funny, humor has to be based – in touch with the real. (Hence why it has become a central weapon of the reality war.) And, much as in the parable of the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes, the humorist is a mortal threat to the dictator or the totalitarian system precisely because his tongue is a sword that cuts through lies.
And because all totalitarian systems are fundamentally constructed out of a web of falsehood, it is possible, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so memorably taught us, for even one man who refuses to “live by lies,” and who instead merely speaks the truth, repeatedly, without fear, to bring such houses of cards crashing down.
But the path of the truth-speaking dissident is a hard, grim, and isolating one. Which is why the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, in his 2006 essay “Political Humor in a Post-Totalitarian Dictatorship,” emphasized how it was in fact more often “truth-telling and joke-making [that] have worked hand-in-hand to dismantle” such regimes. It was the humorists that chipped away at the foundations of the regime, cultivating the popular spirit of irreverent solidarity necessary for the people to respond to the more serious and direct truth-speaking dissidents with more than fear. “Without the truth-tellers, there would be no open expression of popular resistance or of moral courage,” Liu wrote. “Without the jokesters, the words of the truth-tellers would fall on barren ground.”
It’s no coincidence then that, by the time Stalin died in 1953, some 200,000 of the 2.5 million Soviet citizens imprisoned in the Gulag were there for telling jokes.
Nor perhaps why, pearls firmly in hand, a 2021 EU report literally titled “It’s Not Funny Anymore” warned breathlessly that, by “blurring the lines between mischief and potentially radicalising messaging,” the “transgressive humour” of online “meme culture” threatens to expose people to such amorphous “far-right” and “extremist” notions as “anti-elite arrogance and condescension,” or jokes making fun of those who “do not question the information that comes from mainstream press and politics.” And why, decrying that “humour has been weaponised as a form of resistance against a political culture that is supposedly curtailing free speech,” it called for increased global efforts to “monitor” and “quarantine” such humor in partnership with tech companies and “progressive communities.”
But humor’s intimate relationship with the truth also explains why the authoritarian is typically incapable of it. If the punchline of a joke is not the revelation of the real but simply the reiteration of the lie, no genuine laughter – of the kind that seems to well up unbidden from deep within the listener – can be produced. Hence why most mainstream comedy has long since replaced laughter with “clapter,” why the left can’t meme, and why the EU report bemoaned the fact that “attempting to counter extremist humour with a form of alternative humour has proven very difficult.”
They are unlikely to ever fare much better in that effort than the dull Soviet state satirical magazines like Krokodil, whose official mission was to “correct with laughter” by making fun of the regime’s ideological enemies – whether the foreign capitalist or the dumb, backwards rural peasant. As Ben Lewis recounts in Hammer and Tickle, there soon simply appeared “two kinds of humour: official and unofficial – the written and the spoken, the public and the private. In the censored void, a culture of the spoken joke would develop, a collective satirical work produced by the whole population.” Today such unofficial humor has simply moved to the internet.
But this insight also points to yet another layer of humor’s power. For an unofficial “private” humor to simultaneously be collective, there must exist a mutual understanding between individuals, derived from a social web of shared experiences, beliefs, knowledge, and associations. Without this shared understanding, no one can get the joke. But if this shared understanding between the people is inchoate and weak, humor can also help develop and strengthen it as the joke begins to serve as a common, memetic cultural language. In doing so, unofficial humor bridges the private and social spheres and reinforces them against encroachment by the public – that is, by the political state. So, while the regime would much prefer to rule over isolated individuals for whom there remains no private life separate from the public, humor helps deny this totalitarian dream.
Yet humor’s value runs deeper still. For political humor to function, those appreciating it must, as Chesterton noted, possess some recognition of what would be right and what has gone wrong. Or as Liu Xiaobo explained, humor proved that in China “people’s consciences were still alive.”
Moreover, as most humor is in essence an exploration of human folly, it can channel empathy for the enduring reality of the “crooked timber of humanity” that we all share. Thus to Chesterton every joke was really a “grave theological matter,” because every joke is really about the fall of man.
This then is the ultimate reason why the sparkle of laugher is a sure sign of a healthy, humane, and well-ordered society. Rooted in the reality of our nature, humor is, deep down, a recognition of the truth of our shared humanity.
And if, in the end, humor even seems then to resemble, in its highest expression, nothing less than a combination of logos and love, is it any wonder that some have identified it as a reflection of the divine?
Or why this defensor hominis can and has been found everywhere, in even the most dark and trying of circumstances, from the trenches of the battlefield to the concentration camp? It is after all in such times and places that it is most needed.
And in our current era, when the gathering darkness of the totalitarianism we face seems to be nothing less than a Faustian effort to deconstruct everything it means to be human, the power and grace of humor is one hope we would be wise to keep ever close to heart.