I’ve often discussed the powerful influence that comedy can have on society with friends, but lately I think I’ve failed to frame what it actually does in the right light.
You see, comedy is not inherently a force for positive change.
Comedy is a weapon.
And like any weapon, it can be wielded by anyone and, unfortunately, against anyone. Therein lies the problem.
Why I Believe in Humour
There is a simple reason I believe humour can have, and often has had, a positive effect on society. Sure, edgy comedy challenges societal norms and taboos, we all know that, but that completely ignores the dynamic that’s going on. Comedy is a delivery device for ideas. They might be good ideas, bad ideas, or stupid ideas, but ideas nonetheless.
When I talk about it being used positively, I tend to think about comedians like Richard Pryor during the 60s, or Ellen DeGeneres during the late 90s. There’s a long list of men and women who took to the stage and made us laugh, but laugh about things that we didn’t normally want to talk about in polite company.
Comedy helps make it okay to talk about things. To think about things.
When faced with a difficult subject, there is a natural defensiveness we throw up to avoid dealing with it. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid of being blamed or labeled or otherwise held accountable for something. It doesn’t matter if we know the reality of the situation doesn’t back that up. We feel it, and that fear we feel, no matter how small, can be enough for us to want to change the subject.
Tell a man he needs a prostate exam, and his butt cheeks will lock up tighter than Fort Knox. He’ll find excuses not to get it done. But turn it into a joke that pokes fun about the fear and shows the necessity of the exam, and you’ll have an easier time of getting him to make that appointment.
Comedy helps us unclench. And that makes it easier for the important information to get through.
I apply this to my everyday life as well. I’m an editor by trade and writers have, shall we say, a reputation for being picky about letting people mess with their work.
If all you do is go through a manuscript and scratch things out in red ink and clinically correct everything, eventually you are going to encounter resistance. Criticize someone enough and it gets personal. You might not see it that way. To you, you’re just doing your job. You’re just fixing mistakes. You’re trying to make things better.
But an author might see it as changing their voice, their intended meaning, the very soul of the story they poured hundreds of hours into. And here you come along casually hacking at it like it was nothing.
How dare you?
Using humour in my edits not only helps illustrate mistakes in an amusing way and makes the criticism easier to take, it also reminds my writers of an important point: I’m on your side. We are in this together.
And that’s what comedians, those on the edge of progressive social change, remind you. We are in this together.
The Dark Side of the Farce
Of course, not all humour unites. Schadenfreude is a perfect example—finding humour in another person’s misfortune. Or as Mel Brooks put it: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
To some degree, all humour comes from a place of darkness. A number of comedians use humour as a response to the pain they’ve had in their lives. It makes the bad things tolerable, which is perhaps why so many of us turn to satire news shows rather than watching CSPAN.
But there is also humour that is meant to marginalize and ostracize. Rather than put us on the same side, it gives us an other to be set against.
For example, when I was a kid, plenty of gay jokes floated around the schoolyard and they had only one purpose, to isolate the target while uniting the others on the side of the teller. Everyone who laughs is in while the target is out. Laughing with vs laughing at.
Look at comedy through the ages and you’ll find once-popular stuff that is considered downright offensive today. I don’t just mean low hanging fruit like the use of blackface or over the top ethnic stereotypes—they certainly perpetuated offensive things, but it was not always done in a spirit of malice.
But there was (and is) still forms of humour that divide by design, to separate someone out from the norm and encourage you to be on the ‘right side’ of the joke by joining in on the laugh.
At the moment, I think the place you see this most is social media. And there’s a good reason for this.
Satire vs Eye Poking
Have ever wondered why there aren’t really successful conservative comedy news satires? On the left we have, let’s see… The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee… heck, Stephen Colbert has turned The Late Show into another show along this vein. Shows that attempt to satirize and inform.
But for the life of me I can’t think of a single popular or successful satire program that is on the other side of that coin. I mean, Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh are a joke, for sure, but they’re not comedians.
My assumption is that it’s a harder trick to pull off, because while satire makes jokes and pokes fun at the crazy things going on in the world, it also tends to back up what it’s saying as well.
It’s also easier to make a joke whose point is inclusive (pro gay marriage) as opposed to exclusive (heterosexual marriage only). It was recently pointed out to me that left leaning humour tends to punch up, while right leaning humour tends to punch down. Punching down is generally seen as mean-spirited. For example, a left-winger making fun of welfare issues will target the politician, while a right-winger has to target the poor.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for the left to punch down. They can, especially when it comes to showing certain people as ignorant and voting against their own self-interests.
What I tend to see online from the alt-right tends to be quick memes that conduct hit-and-run eye poking, and while it might seem insignificant, it can be surprisingly effective. The reason is that the meme spreads faster than it can be disproven. By the time someone has Snopes’d the factoid at the heart of the meme, it’s already been shared by two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on until they collide with a Faberge shampoo commercial from the 80s.
And I don’t want to limit my targets here, eye poking of this nature is rampant on all sides. Anti-vaxxers, creationists, conspiracy nuts, far left, far right—not to mention those firing back at those people using the same weapons.
Barrages of these memes filled with truth or misinformation are launched daily, meant to make you chuckle, give their message a thought, and pass it on. It becomes so prolific that they create a white noise unless the target already agrees with its point of view, or think the other POV is so silly the meme is ironically funny.
But social media by design feeds you more of the things you already agree with. Facebook has your personal biases built into the code, and it’s easy to insulate that echo chamber even further.
When it comes to searching for information, Google is no different. It remembers what you tend to look for, and will guide you through familiar waters when deciphering your search engine request.
And any stuff that might slip through, stuff making fun of what you believe in? You might think they actually agree with you, without spotting the intended sarcasm.
One problem with satire is that it doesn’t always hit the intended mark. In fact, it can completely backfire. Poe’s Law states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, a parody of extreme views will be mistaken by some as sincerity.
The idea that some conservatives could have watched The Colbert Report—a satire of Bill O’Reilly-style conservative punditry—and thought it was actually on their side is baffling, but it happened. A lot.
This isn’t unusual, or limited to the internet age. I was reminded recently of an analysis of the viewing audience of All in the Family that basically came to the same conclusion. While Archie Bunker is clearly satirizing right wing bigotry, many right wing viewers at the time believed it to be a sympathetic portrayal of their beliefs. Instead of laughing at his views, the humour came from how he just couldn’t catch a break.
And on the internet, where you are limited to memes that are often just stock images and text, intentions can become even more muddied. What’s worse, some people get a kick out of stirring things up by intentionally spreading crazy things, knowing someone will take it seriously and spread it around.
Why is this important? Well, this falls under the “hearts and minds” portion of our program. If you’ve ever seen anyone post something downright ludicrous (i.e. the moon landing was fake), but no amount of evidence can change their minds on the subject, chances are this is what you’re up against.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a form of cognitive bias. People with low cognitive ability cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence, let alone anyone else’s, and as a result believe they’re far more competent than they actually are—and they find it easier to dismiss competent people as incompetent.
The simple version: They’re too dumb to know they’re dumb, or to tell if you’re dumb or not.
(Stop when you reach 4:40 for now… trust me.)
This is a problem for one key reason—facts don’t work on them. Show them all the evidence in the world and if it doesn’t fit with their beliefs they will ignore it or call it fake. They have to be right, so if you disagree, you have to be wrong. QED.
This makes them ideal targets for persuasion without logic. Humour, reassuring them on what they want to believe with ‘facts’ that feel right. It’s what Stephen Colbert called ‘Truthiness,’ and what former science journalist turned YouTuber Potholer54 calls ‘The Feelies.’
But let’s call it what it is—propaganda.
To a portion of the population, it doesn’t matter what the truth is, what matters is what feels true. Once you know that, you can get those people on your side by reassuring them of the superiority of their position, using information, true or not, that supports that view. Reminding them that they got it right and the masses have it wrong. Oh, if only everyone were as on the ball as you are. You get it.
The Dunning-Kruger crowd is the portion of the population where humour can be effectively used against them as a weapon.
And it has been. Being an internet troll is no longer an amateur sport—you can go pro. During the recent US election, Samantha Bee uncovered the use of internet trolls hired by the Kremlin to post negative things about Clinton and positive thing about Trump on US message boards and websites. The New York Times covered this same thing back in 2015.
And humour is the favourite cudgel of the troll. You don’t just post a talking point, you make a joke out of it, to exaggerate what you want to get across or to point out how stupid people who don’t see the ‘truth’ are. And they end up encouraging supporters to not only spread the message, but create their own variations.
Go to any online forum and the trolls are almost always the ones who attract the most attention, not just because of what they say, but how they say it. Trolls are all about attracting and keeping an audience. They are the shock jocks of the message boards.
Information warfare has always been a part of life, but the nature of propaganda has changed. We no longer think in terms of dropping leaflets over cities, telling the people below they are going to lose and prepare to surrender, or splashing up posters on walls showing us the evils of the enemy and rallying us to fight on. Today it’s thought of in terms of memes, fired off with machinegun rapidity from a thousand anonymous places.
And we make the regular folk do most of the work for us. Anyone can create a meme in less than a minute. It just takes a picture and a website and… boop! Any idiot can do it, even me!
Invasion of the Idiots
The problem with humour on the internet is often the same as news on the internet, there is no quality filter.
Umberto Eco saw the problem early on:
This is no longer a new idea, but it is usually thought about in terms of knowledge and information—the consequences regarding socially driven comedy aren’t usually looked at in the same way.
And maybe it should be.
The Daily Show has a team of talented writers working, researching, and editing their ten-minute recap of events to a professional level of quality, but my uncle just needs to take a picture of Hilary and add a half-assed meme about emails or Benghazi or something and send it off. And today he is probably going to gain far more attention than he ever would have at the bar with his glass of wine.
Popular satire shows didn’t cause this problem directly, but people with less honest agendas have seen how effective they are at what they do, and have learned from them.
The problem is, they can’t use the same weapons and tactics. They can’t punch down for a full half hour show, but they can fire off quick jabs and eye pokes carrying the same message, something people can snort at or shrug off. Individually, they do nothing. But en masse and over time?
If mainstream satirists are the regular forces, then these tactics can be thought of as guerrilla warfare.
Jokes Substituting Knowledge
However, those same satire shows aren’t immune from their own unique problem and the impact it can have on their audiences. Satire simplifies. It has to. It takes what can be an extremely complex and multilayered issue and tries to boil it down to something simple, to help the punchline/point land.
But it often doesn’t sound simplified—it sounds concise. And that distinction can cause a problem. There is a portion of the population these days who watch satire news shows, not as a supplement to their daily news, but as their only source. It goes without saying that this is a mistake, and that you’re not going to get all the facts, let alone the nuances, from those little humorous sound bites.
It can create the illusion of being educated on a subject, when it should really be something that provides perspective on something you already know. It can be as misleading as a meme.
I’m not saying you should be watching CSPAN every day (God knows I couldn’t), but seriously, visit a real news first source, would ya? Preferably one that scores well on mediabiasfactcheck.com.
What Does This Teach Us?
I still consider humour to be a powerful tool that can be used for positive change, but I think we have to be aware of how this can also be used as a weapon, and even if it’s bluntly used, a blunt weapon can still crush skulls.
But let’s look at the larger picture as to what this teaches us. I said at the start that humour is a delivery device for ideas. But the truth is, it’s actually not—it’s the positive feeling we get from the humour that makes us receptive.
(Jump to 4:40 now if it doesn’t automatically take you there)
You don’t have to make someone laugh, you just need them in a positive frame of mind. Conversely, being in a negative frame of mind puts us on the defensive, and not at all receptive to ideas we might disagree with. In other words, being confrontational doesn’t help.
Drop your pants. You’re getting a prostate exam. Right now.
I heard you clench all the way back here in the past.
We can’t help being confrontational, though. It’s in our nature. I push, you push back. And the wrong choice of words can be misinterpreted as a push, which is how arguments quickly spiral out of control.
Let’s get nerdy for a moment. Remember when Obi-Wan tried to stop that grumpy guy in the cantina from killing Luke? He actually did a pretty good job of trying to defuse the situation. He didn’t whip out his lightsaber and say, “Touch him and you’ll regret it.” He tried to convince the grouch that Luke wasn’t worth the trouble and offered him a drink.
Of course, in this case, grumpy guy took Obi-Wan’s words as somehow being more offensive, and Obi-Wan had to find a more direct way of disarming the situation.
Sometimes in life that’s going to happen. But more often than not, you’ll find a calm and warm response works better than trying to force the other person to back down.
Remember, it’s not about the size of your dick or vagina. Your goal shouldn’t be to make someone submit, but open up. Listen. You will never ever ever do that by calling someone an idiot. Even if they are.
Especially if they are.
Now, please don’t take that statement as me being smug and superior. I say this as a man who is all too aware he is an idiot from time to time. My God, I have said some dumb shit in my day, and will almost certainly put my foot in my mouth again in the future, assuming I haven’t already.
Confirmation bias can make idiots out of the smartest of us. If you’ve never been an idiot, all I can say is congratulations and when does your mother get out of the delivery room?
But those that try nothing, achieve nothing. If being seen as a moron from time to time has gotten me where I am now, and hopefully a bit less dumb than before, then it was worth the occasional sleepless night.
Granted, some people are idiots more persistently and reliably than others. But remember the lesson that humour at its best ultimately teaches us.
We are in this together.
I’d like to thank writer Ira Nayman for his insights on comedy and society, and historian Paul Westermeyer for getting me to think in a broader perspective when it comes to the effects of satire. While I’m far from the most qualified person to be discussing this, my hope is simply to promote discussion on the subject.