Friday, January 11, 2008

A question of humor

So, my friend Greg has this huge problem with a certain kind of humor among friends. The humor that seems to be belittling someone else. [For instance, the propensity, among a certain circle of my friends, to somehow or the other always bring my receding hairline into the conversation :)]. We had a long discussion about this over New Year's Eve. Greg couldn't get how this kind of sarcastic humor, or satirizing among close friends (especially guys) can be a sign, paradoxically, of affection.

He is, in fact, opposed to all mockery. He thinks mockery is intrinsically evil (everything he's said about it boils down to this claim at least), because it causes harm to the other by exaggerating a weakness or a fault to the point of distortion. The person becomes the fault or weakness. Such behavior can never be tolerated. In fact, he doesn't think any satire is legitimate.

He's been thinking about this since then, and we've been at it back and forth a bit over email, and I think are at the stage of clarifying our positions. I'm trying to articulate what it is he is missing here (without just saying, "loosen up buddy!")

He's also seeking some saintly aid to defend his position, viz. St. Francis de Sales.

So: what do y'all think? [Greg please let me know if I've misconstrued anything you've said.]

And let's not get sarcastic in the comments, shall we? :)

[He's also lead me to the delightful blog: the Ironic Catholic. She's posted his question there as well.]

[And, on cue, the reliable folks at Christianity Today have a profile of the hilarious evangelical-humor website, LarkNews. And a link to an earlier piece by Orthodox theologian, Frederica Matthewes-Green on humor.]


Mattheus Mei said...

receding hairline? oh come now we pick on you for a whole host more reasons than just your receding hair line I could name a few but in the spirit of not being sarcastic I won't - but know this... I am thinking about them!!! :) :)

Greg said...

I wouldn't say that satire isn't legitimate; just that it always implies contempt. Satire is meant to inspire change; comments about your hairline are not.

And I do think there is a difference between teasing a person about a fault in an attempt to make it not seem such a big deal, and using a fault to make a joke at someone's expense. The former is ok, the latter is not.

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Is there any room to consider the "tease-ee" in this? I'd never given one minute's thought to G's hairline until he brought it up, himself several years ago.

Among my own male relatives, it's well known who jokes about his own hairline and who sports a style barely overing his pate, but to whom it would be cruel to mention coiffures.

Leaving aside comments about physical features, I have to disagree that satire always implies contempt. I also don't believe that it's meant to inspire change. I'm a bit too tired right now to frame a good argument, but my initial thought is that sometime satire and irony serve to point out things which might otherwise be overlooked. Political satire, esp. in cartoons, is a great example of this.

Greg said...

That's valid. I would then say that the difference between satire and mockery then, is that mockery focuses on obvious faults and failings. No harm may be intended, but I think it safe to say that no good is intended either, like in satire.