In reading the selections for today—a mix of humorous stories, essays on humor, and articles on social justice—I tried to look for a thread that runs through each and noticed the similarities in the way we talk about social justice and the way we talk about humor. The central problematic of contemporary social justice is, as Peter-Hans Kolvenbach puts it, “How can a booming economy, the most prosperous and global ever, still leave over half of humanity in poverty?” The stability of world-economic systems rests on incongruity: the working classes do not receive full compensation for their labor while the managerial class enjoys much more than it deserves; the rights that our liberal democracies guarantee to all are reserved only for the privileged; etc. All of this is, in a certain sense of the word, “funny”—peculiar, strange, unpleasant—and yet we seem, in Twain’s words, “innocently unaware that they are absurdities.”
Does humor enhance our perception of those absurdities, or obscure them further? Often humor takes the familiar and twists it. In the Woody Allen pieces for example, a man pays a prostitute for intellectual conversation, not sex; and Death plays gin rummy, not chess—and loses, at that. What happens when we extend this twisting of the familiar to a broader social world? Kierkegaard suggests that the Aristotelian approach to humor often “bring[s] us into collision with the ethical,” and also notes that what has become familiar can no longer be funny unless its features are exaggerated. Maybe it’s the humorist’s duty to take the familiar problems of the modern world and rephrase them.
One particular issue in modern cities, and certainly an instance of incongruity and perhaps of injustice, is gentrification: once untouchable neighborhoods transforming into playgrounds for the rich and privileged as former residents are further displaced, geographically and socioeconomically. A recent McSweeney’s piece, “Vignettes from Season 6 of The Wire” casts the once-derelict characters of the popular HBO drama as well-off patrons of hip restaurants and beergardens. (We’ve seen it in the real Baltimore too: a 1998 City Paper article titles “Uneasy Street” asks: “Can Old Hampden Coexist With The New Avenue?” More than fifteen years later, we can answer: not really. Many of the local workingman’s favorites that are mentioned in the 1998 article have since vanished and given way to trendy bars and cafes, while places that cater to both the old guard and the hip newcomers are few and far between.) Is the McSweeney’s piece promoting the idea that gentrification “solves” the problems that The Wire put forth? At its best, satire makes us more aware of harsh realities. At its worst, it ignores them completely or makes them appear inevitable. Can humor really help in the fight for equality? Or does it just make inequality a little less painful?