By Horus Alas
Day by day, human knowledge and areas of inquiry broaden. This week, NASA announced the discovery of three exoplanets that might be able to sustain life, for example. But for all our scientific study and restless investigation, we egregiously overlook a key component of human life without which our lives would be outright boring and miserable.
What I’m referring to is humor. We all seem to dig it. We all seem to be either attracted to it or want to be a source thereof for others. And sure, Aristotle wrote about it as “educated insolence” in the Rhetoric¸ but for the most part, our great thinkers and discoverers have been silent on the subject.
The first of these treats humor as something that arises mostly out of scorn or disdain. In the Passions of the Soul, Descartes writes, “Derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred, which proceeds from our perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it; we have hatred for this evil, we have joy in seeing it in him who is deserving of it…”
Out of these three, the theory we’re most familiar with is Incongruity. This is where someone sets up a joke with a story that prompts certain expectations and then purposefully undermines them with an off-kilter punch line. The Ancient Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero wrote, “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh” in On the Orator.
“Why does Dr. Pepper come in a bottle?” I asked a listener.
“I dunno,” she replied.
“Because his wife died.”
She considered for a few moments, then cracked a wry smile, and with her hands clasping her face, shrieked, “That’s wrong!”
The preceding exchange goes to show that even when orator and audience find a joke funny, there will always be gradations as to how well it’s received. I, as the orator, enjoyed the joke thoroughly and told it gleefully, and even though my audience found it amusing, they still walked away from it with a hint of revulsion.
Humor can often either offend—or not.
Consider the following paraphrased joke from the movie The Boondock Saints, in which a character named Rocco relates how:
“There’s these three guys—a Mexican, a black guy and a white guy.
“And they walk along the beach, they see this pot, they rub it, genie comes out. Genie says, you know, ‘You wish for anything you want.’
“So he asks the Mexican what he wants, and he says, ‘I want my people to be happy and free and in Mexico.’ And so, genie—Poof! And all the Mexicans are in Mexico.
“And then he asks the black guy, and says, ‘What do you want?’ And he goes, ‘I want all my brothers in America to be back in Africa and happy and everything.’ You know? So genie goes poof! And all the black people in America are in Africa.
“So the genie goes to the white guy, ‘What’s your one wish?’ And the white guy goes, ‘You mean to tell me all the Mexicans and black people are out of America?’ Genie goes, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Well, um, I’ll have a Coke then.’”
On a surface level, this joke extracted from a movie pokes fun at race relations in America whereby white people would be happy if only minorities and immigrants would leave the country—and hence, these white people—alone.
But in the subtext, one picks up on an attitude on minorities held by certain white communities that can be outright malicious. While the most obvious intent of the joke seems to be to poke fun at the intolerance of those same isolationist communities, a case can be made that jokes like this normalize and sanction discriminatory attitudes from these communities against minorities.
My ultimate task here is not to set boundaries for what kinds of humor audiences find offensive or not—that’s ultimately best left for them to decide. Each of us has his or her own background in life and therefore unique sensibilities that we’d rather not have dealt with in a humorous context.
In general, humor is great. When we hear it from others, it can be a magical tonic that gets us through our otherwise tedious and bullshit-ridden days. When we deliver it, we can easily become the life of the party and the main focal point in any room.
But it would always behoove us to be mindful of who’s listening and who stands and delivers when it comes to things that make our lives more tolerable.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.