Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This blog post is not funny

Discussions of humor are never funny just as theories of objective truth are never objectively true (not because there is no such thing as objective truth but because it’s just plain hard to give a good theory of truth). Furthermore, I doubt there is even a single thing that is humor. There is probably nothing that all types of humor have in common, and nothing that suffices for something to be humor. The best we can get is probably a family resemblance model of features that humorous things tend to have in common.

All of which is meaningless preamble to the question of the day: Why aren’t conservatives funny?

I joke, of course. See, that was funny right there. Wasn’t it? Or was it? I’m just going to take certain things as funny and other things as not funny with no argument or attempt to convince. Whaddyagonnado?

Actually, conservatives are frequently, but unintentionally, hilarious. I must make the question more precise: Why are so few deliberate and intentional acts of comedy or humor from political conservatives in contemporary America funny? There’s an enormous humor gap between the two sides of our political debate in America. Liberal humorists are simply much funnier than conservatives. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently funny, but there is nothing even close on the political right. So, what explains the humor gap? Is there something about political liberalism, rather than conservatism, or the character of political liberals that lends itself better to humor?

Before getting into the meat of this issue, I don’t want to overlook or underestimate the obvious explanation. Comedy is hard. It is excruciatingly difficult and embarrassing to learn comedic timing and all the little things (proper inflection, phrasing, ability to read an audience, etc.) that make for good comedy. Becoming a good comedian must be one of the most difficult and emotionally scarring things one can do in modern America. There are physically more demanding jobs, and more dangerous jobs, but working in comedy clubs, refining jokes, and having them fail over and over before you get them right, must be emotionally and intellectually draining. The professional complainers on the right are just too stupid and lazy to do good comedy. And it may be that the contemporary conservative movement, with its aggressive sense of grievance, self-aggrandizement, and obliviousness, inculcates values in the followers of the movement that renders them incapable of the character one needs for good comedy.

It’s possible but perhaps not always plausible that conservatism so deforms one’s character (or attracts only those with such deformed characters) that no conservative could do good comedy. I will suggest, instead, that there is something about humor and comedy that makes it more difficult for conservatives. I will argue that some common features of humor or comedy, specifically its subversive, self-effacing nature and its focus on incongruities or inconsistencies, conflict with the conservative ethos. My source of assumptions about the conservative personality and movement is Bob Altemeyer.

His research does not address conservatism worldwide or even all varieties of conservatism, but primarily the right-wing (politically conservative American) authoritarian follower. Thus, my references to conservatives are to the authoritarian follower type.


Humor is frequently subversive and anti-authoritarian. Conservatives in America are primarily authoritarian followers while liberals are more likely to question authority or those in power, even the authorities on their own side.

Carlos is late for work on his construction job for the third time in a week and the foreman talks to him about it. “Carlos, If you’re late for work again, I’ll have to fire you.” Carlos replies, “I am sorry, senor, but I have terrible headache this morning and had hard time getting to work.” The foreman says, “You should do what I do when I have a headache. I get my wife to give me a blowjob and the headache clears up right away.” The next day Carlos shows up for work on time and bright-eyed. The foreman says, “So, did you have a headache and take my advice?” Carlos responds, “Si, senor. Your wife, she is very nice.”

This joke would not be as funny if the foreman had been the one with the headache who got a blowjob from Carlos’s wife. The foreman gets his comeuppance for his attitude of superiority toward Carlos, and Carlos, by getting a blowjob from the foreman’s wife, gets a kind of revenge on the foreman who has power over him. In that sense this joke is anti-authoritarian.

The problem for conservatives is that they have too much respect for their own authorities to be make jokes like this. Respect for authority is tied to poor critical thinking skills in general. Since conservatives frequently lack the skills to defend their beliefs against those who disagree with them, they tend to spend time primarily with those who agree with them and who don’t raise uncomfortable questions. Liberals tend to seek out people with different opinions rather than only seek out support. (Of course, everyone wants social support but conservative prefer not to have diversity of opinion.) I’ve seen this on questions on religion I’ve asked students. Conservative religious believers are much more likely to seek out authority and confirmation when they are faced with doubts about their beliefs. Liberal/less-religious people are more likely to seek out opinions from people on all sides of an issue. The anti-authoritarianism one finds in many jokes is, thus, uncomfortable for typical American conservatives.

Conservatives are happy to attack liberal authorities. However, given the nature of liberalism in America, there are people liberals respect, but there aren’t really liberal authorities. Similarly, liberal humor is often self-effacing and willing to critique one’s ideological allies or authorities (to the extent that there are any). If one’s world-view is supported more by reason and less by group conformity, then it is easier to criticize, even in jest, one’s ideological colleagues. When one has a foundation of good reasons for one’s view, jokes are less likely to undermine one’s beliefs. Hence, liberals have the unfair advantage of making fun of themselves as well as of conservatives. Conservatives can only make fun of liberals and those not in a position of power.

Question: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Answer: That’s not funny.

I’ve heard feminist-sympathizers make this joke about the supposed humorlessness of feminists. I don’t find feminists to be actually humorless (in general), but they can still poke fun at the caricature of feminism as humorless. It’s not clear how well a conservative can do this with another conservative or ideological ally. Conformity tends to hold conservative groups together, and that conformity suffers from making fun of each other. Liberals do not rely so heavily on consensus in their group identification. Liberals are open to differences of opinion. (Sometimes it seems as though liberals can’t agree about anything.) I also think that feminists mostly don’t mind jokes such as this one in the way that conservatives mind jokes at their own expense. When authority, not backed by reasons, is all one has, then jokes about the authority are particularly painful.

Humor is often tribalistic. It tends to construct and reinforce in and out group distinctions, and thus to reinforce social cohesion within the group. Conservatives can easily make jokes that demean an out-group (just as liberals make demeaning jokes about conservatives), but when the out-group is a traditionally disadvantaged group, the humor is considered to be in poor taste. Racist or sexist jokes, or jokes demeaning any out-group, tend to maintain the self-esteem of the in-group. A lot of people will say that racist or otherwise prejudicial jokes are not funny, but I do not believe this to be always true. Even the most offensive things can be funny.

Humor based on stereotypes, even offensive ones, can be funny.

Question: Did you hear what the drummer got on his IQ test?
Answer: Saliva.

Our society now frowns more on racist or sexist jokes, or other jokes that operate at the expense of those of lower status. You can make jokes about bankers (or the foreman) more easily than about the homeless (or Carlos). That doesn’t mean that jokes about the homeless or, other powerless groups, are not funny. It only means one cannot tell those jokes in public as much. Since conservatives tend to ally with those in power, insulting conservative humor tends to be less acceptable in public.

A spic, a wop and a kike walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, you three. You can’t come in here; this is a nigger joke.”[Note 1]

Incongruities and Inconsistencies

Another common feature of humor is exposing incongruities or inconsistencies. It is in this way that comedians are most like philosophers. Philosophers often discover a problem to worry at when they discover an inconsistency in what people in general, or they in particular, believe. These inconsistencies are a source of philosophical bemusement but also of humor. For example, here’s my favorite Daniel Tosh joke. (The What Would Jesus Do Joke).

Tosh points out the inconsistency of believing in a loving Jesus given the tenet of Christianity that non-believers are condemned to hell. More generally, there’s something strange about taking a religious leader as a moral paragon representing universal love and charity.
Conservatives are uncomfortable with dissension in their group and inconsistency in their beliefs. They have more difficulty with vagueness, ambiguity, and complexity. And, given the general failure to address problems with beliefs, they tend to avoid this sort of humor.

Humor and Truth

Humor has a complex relationship to truth. If humor often involves inconsistencies, does this mean that humor has as a function of helping us avoid false beliefs? Inconsistent beliefs cannot all be true, so, discovering, and being comfortable with discovering, inconsistencies in our beliefs might serve a larger function of guiding our belief systems towards truth or at least away from falsity. Unfortunately, guiding beliefs away from inconsistency is an unreliable means of guiding them towards truth. So, while jokes and humor as a reaction to inconsistency or incongruity may play a salutary role in our cognitive economy, I don’t think it can be exactly that jokes or humor help reveal or discover truth.

We often say that something is funny because it is true, but most of the time truths are not funny at all. And many times we find things funny when they are exaggerated or unrealistic.

The day after his inauguration as president, George W. Bush called his vice president Dick Cheney in his office, “Mr. Dick, I’m bored. I’ve already signed all the ceremonial bills I can and arranged everything on the desk, and I’ve run out of things to do.” Cheney replied, “Why don’t you find a jigsaw puzzle?” So, Bush went in search of a jigsaw puzzle. A while later he called Cheney again, “Mr. Dick, I’ve found a jigsaw puzzle, but I can’t do it. The pieces don’t fit together and they’re all the same color.” Cheney went to the oval office and looked in on the president. “George, that’s a box of cornflakes!”

GW was dumb, but clearly not as dumb as that. The point is made by exaggeration. Perhaps the exaggeration lessens the discomfort many of us felt with having an obvious moron as our president. Perhaps there is a deeper truth told through exaggeration, but the joke is not straightforwardly true.
I think it’s a commonplace to note that the truth is often painful, and we use humor to distract from that pain or that the recognition of a painful truth simply forces a laugh from us. The joke itself may be true, exaggerated, or understated, but it’s the painfulness of the truth that makes for the humor.

Other jokes, such as the one about the humorless feminists, aren’t really revealing truths at all. The feminists-have-no-sense-of-humor joke depends on the fact that people perceive feminists as humorless but not on them actually being humorless. I’m uncomfortable with saying that humor depends on truth since the truth is only about people’s perceptions.

In fact, we often joke when we cannot face a terrible truth. See the collected works of Allen, Woody. The humor is more because the jokes are painful than that they are true. Perhaps this is our way of admitting that something is true while taking away the painful truth’s sting, but it may just as easily be a way of hiding an uncomfortable truth, covering our fears or pain with self-delusion. For every joke based on a truth, there’s a joke that distracts attention from a truth by means of a falsehood. The source of the humor is the recognition of the truth, but the joke may call attention to it or to distract attention away from it.

Still, humorists who cannot recognize the essentials of the human condition will consistently fail to be funny. Alas, the standard conservative blogger-crazy-uncle-FOXNews talker has significant problems with recognition of the truth. With little ability to distinguish truth from fiction, or their alternative fantasy world, conservative ‘thinkers’ would have more difficulty being funny than liberals.

I don’t have a theory of jokes or humor, but I think it is more than a coincidence that humor is more often found on the political left in America than on the political right. The tendency of humor to puncture pretensions and undermine authority, to lead to questions about one’s beliefs or to point out incongruities in one’s beliefs, tends to cohere more comfortably with a world-view that not only accepts but values such questions. That worldview is more liberal than conservative in America.

All my rambling prompted by this Whiskeyfire post.

Note 1: I made up this joke because, as the point I made above, no one tells jokes like this in public anymore.

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