In theorizing humor, it is the conclusion of several great philosophers – Plato, Hobbes, and to some extent, Kant – that comedy is generally a low-brow endeavor, and that truly high-minded individuals ought to resist laughter all together. These are thinkers who condemn mankind’s tendency to laugh at the weak. However, the effects of comedy are entirely different when the joke is used to subvert, rather than reinforce, the power complex. When the weak are able to use comedy to laugh at the powerful, humor has the capacity to reshape cultural norms and serve as a powerful instrument in the promotion of social justice.
Plato and Hobbes argue that comedy is for the simple minded. Hobbes, the harshest of the humor critics (and one of history’s most notorious killjoys) writes: “Men laugh at mischances and indecencies, wherein there lies no wit nor jest at all … men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated” (19-20). In saying this, Hobbes is building on the earlier argument put forth by Plato, who contended laughter was often malicious and a sign of self-ignorance. Mark Twain’s “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather’s Old Ram” is an example of the brand of comedy Plato and Hobbes would likely decry. The reader of this short story might find himself laughing at the idea of an incoherent drunk, rambling along and never quite getting to the point – an admittedly less than noble activity. However, while this may be one archetype of humor, it is not the definitive form of comedy.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits,” for example, the disadvantaged protagonist is no longer the target of the jokes. Rather, we are told the somewhat tragic tale of two African Americans dealing with issues of infidelity and heartache before being delivered the biting punch line: “Wist I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em” (518). This is an example of the use of contradiction to make a point, a satirical device outlined by Soren Kierkgaard in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Meanwhile, in “The Whore of Mensa,” Woody Allen employs the use of absurdity to laugh at our societal gender norms by playing on the notion that a woman’s intellect could ever drive the lust of men. In both of these stories, ingrained social inequities are called into question when the reader stops to ask, “Why am I laughing?”
In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. argues: “There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (2). The works of Hurston and Allen serve as examples of the way satire can cast light upon these tensions, forcing us to confront issues we often choose to ignore. The humor pushes us out of our comfort zones and heightens our awareness of injustices in society. This is one remedy for the problems discussed in Father Kolvenbach’s “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education.” Kolvenbach contends that we have lost sight of our “moral obligation” to make justice and social equity priorities. He laments: “Many of us fail to see the relevance of [these problems] to our situations” (24). Time and time again, however, humor has proved an effective tool for “bringing to surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” thus making it invaluable to the cause of social justice (King 5).