Monday, September 15, 2014

Constructive Humor

On an unexpected level, humor and social justice are inherently connected. Both Kolvenbach and King discuss the nature of social justice in a seemingly unjust world; while four of the earlier humor theories presented by Plato, Hobbes, Kierkegaard and Kant reveal how humor fits into some of the injustices present in society. MLK obviously lived in a time of unprecedented social injustice and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a call to end that system of oppression. He writes that freedom is never “voluntarily given by the oppressor” and that the oppressed must demand their freedom (King). This reveals the ever-present aspect of society of the oppressor and the oppressed. Countless times throughout history innocent groups of people have been marginalized because of race, religion, or gender. Kolvenbach sees injustice as a spiritual problem that can be fixed through proper education about injustice and concerted effort. He writes, “humankind, with all the powerful means at its disposal, might exercise the will to change the sinful structures afflicting our world.” (Kolvenbach 33). Both King and Kolvenbach have presented us with the societal issue of the strong vs. weak, in which the strong take advantage of and suppress the weak. This oppression can be traced into the damaging early examples of humor.

            Plato and Hobbes, like King and Kolvenbach, see the evil present in the world around them and they also see this evil present in humor. Plato argues that laughter is a mixture of pleasure and pain because it is physically enjoyable to laugh but it is painful to our souls because humor always arises at the expense of another person’s misfortunes. Plato believes men are typically unaware of the damage their laughter inflicts; yet they laugh nonetheless. Hobbes, on the other hand, sees it as a more malicious thing in which strong men laugh at weaker men because it makes them feel better about themselves. Both theorists offer interpretations of humor that are damaging to the human condition because laughter is seemingly always at the expense of other people.

            Kierkegaard and Kant offer a slightly more optimistic view of humor that I believe has translated fairly well into modern forms of humor. Kierkegaard argues that true humor lies in contradictions in which the pain experienced by any person is not essential. In other words, the negative effects of the contradiction are null or very trivial. He offers the example of a child calling another child “Lamb” and claims it is funny because both children are the same age and the contradiction lies in the fact that either child could be called a lamb. The joke is not made with the intent to harm either child, rather it reveals the ridiculous notion that one is higher than the other. Kant offers a different interpretation of language in which he argues true humor is the act of building up someone’s expectations only to remove them completely with the punch line of the joke. This brings in the idea of the absurd or the unexpected being funny because the humor comes in the form of the ridiculous. It is not at the expense of another person, it is simply funny because it knowingly defies rational thought.

            While Plato and Hobbes presented negative interpretations of humor, Kierkegaard and Kant reversed that trend to an extent. In my opinion, the final three examples of humor in Twain, Allen, and Hurston are also more positive in the sense that they do no attack or offend any group of people. Twain convincingly argues that “The humorous story depends for its effect on the manner of the telling.” (Twain 239). He believes that the truly humorous stories are the ones that come across as humorous simply because they are told in a manner that it is not supposed to be funny. Like Kierkegaard, Twain finds humor in contradiction; namely the contradiction of funny matter being conveyed in an unfunny manner. Woody Allen is more like Kant in the sense that he finds funny in the absurd. In his short story, “The Whore of Mensa,” Allen creates humor by twisting a story in an unfamiliar direction. His short story is humorous because it takes the cliché of a businessman visiting a prostitute for sex and turns into a businessman paying a student for an intellectual conversation. Like Kant suggests, Allen builds up our expectations by alluding to the man having an affair until it is finally revealed that he is actually paying for something far more innocent.

            There are many forms of humor, some that are offensive and oppressive and others that are not. The main distinction between the two types above is the manner of the humor and the target of the joke. As Kolvenbach suggests, we can start to break away forms of social injustice by restructuring society. One way of doing this could be to adjust to more playful forms of humor in which the jokes are not told at the expense of anyone.

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