Previously in our seminar, we’ve discussed how humor could be utilized as a tool for justice. Paradoxically though, we also raised the question of whether humor and laughter can truly bring about any positive societal change, or if it merely placates the indignation of the oppressed sects by catering to their accusations of injustice without really addressing them in a substantial manner. It is my opinion that our readings for today are more of a testament to the latter classification of humor as an ineffectual medium for change.
The texts form Kasaipwolova, King, and Grace are all written from the perspective of a native individual who is disenfranchised to some degree by the intolerant ‘other’ who has colonized or altered their environment in some regard. Each of their narrators are viewed as primitive and somehow lesser by the new inhabitants; they are often, both figuratively and literally, laughed at.
In Betel Nut Is Bad Magic for Airplanes, the narrator is shown injustice in the form of racism. The humor the reader derives from this short story comes from the juxtaposition of the black character’s inner monologue, which is seemingly quite uneducated and backwards, and his speech when addressing the ‘white papa dog’ and ‘the important man,’ which contrasts dramatically in its eloquence. When the readers examine why they find this shift humorous, it implicates them along with the privileged white racists in the story, as they also (probably subconsciously) held the expectation that a native person is inherently less intelligent.
King’s story Borders also deals with the tension of identity in an environment that has been usurped and reconstructed. The guards at the American border who stop the narrator and his mother are initially amused by her identification as simply a ‘Blackfoot,’ but “It didn’t take them long to lose their sense of humor” as she consistently refused to adhere to the Canadian or American binary [King, 138]. Their preliminary entertainment speaks to a trivialization of these great issues of the native peoples’ sense of self and adjustment within a vastly altered world. It is only after the guards stop finding the situation funny that any development takes place in the plot. The character Billy in Ngati Kangaru explicitly laughs at the “more normal, more cunning crookery, something funnier- like lying, cheating and stealing” and the “high and holy work” of those in power [Grace, 27 & 28]. Laughter, in these regards, seems to facilitate the expression and acceptance of injustice.
The novel Candide ends with Candide, the naïve and trusting optimist, declaring about the state of his society: “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden” [Voltaire, 87]. This is a trifle of wisdom unexpected from the main character and something I think it integral to the study and implication of humor for social change. Voltaire is making an appeal to the use of humor in an imperfect world, but cautions that it must be done with the betterment of the ills it illuminates always in mind. There is a way for humor to be productive, but if not regulated properly, it can just as easily pardon the evils it brings to light.