Monday, September 11, 2006

Laughter is the Best Antiauthoritarianism

Julian Sanchez posts on Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, a book on the Rwandan genocide. He then asks if postmodernism and ironism might provide an important check on tyrrany:

Laughter is, after all, a powerful antiauthoritarian check: Egalitarian bands of foragers and hunters frequently used ridicule as a means of keeping (temporary) leaders within their proper bounds. And as Jonathan Glover notes in his fantastic book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, authoritarianism seems to take hold more easily in places that lack a strong tradition of political satire. You sometimes run into this odd frame that classes pomos and jihadis and Nazis together under the rubric of "nihilism." But with apologies to Walter Sobchak: Say what you will about the tenets of nihilism, at least it's not an ethos—which Salafism and fascism certainly are.

This passage reminds me of two separate ideas—and since this is my blog, I'm not going to worry about the fact that they're almost totally unrelated and I'll put them in the same post. First is P.J. O'Rourke's point that seriousness can be a weapon:

Self-loathing is oneo f those odd, illogical leaps of human intuition that is almost always correct. "Serious" people are dense and know it. But, they think, if they can be grave enough about Yugoslavia their gravity will make up for the factthat—like most people—they don't know what's going on there and—like all people—they don't know what ot do about it. Seriousness is stupidity sent to college...

Seriousness lends force to bad arguments. If a person is earnest enough about what he says, he must have some point. There's a movement in some of our school systems to give creationists equal time in science class. Man was plopped down on earth the week before last, is one rib short on the left, and becuase silly people are serious about this so are we.

If people are being intensely serious, we can feel bad about not taking them seriously, making fun of them, joking about them. "It's easy to mock him, but what have you done about the poor, disenfranchised baby seals in the Amazon Rain Forest being burned by Global Warming?" Nothing, because that's stupid. But it can be hard to say that in public.

And yet mockery can be the most useful and effective way to deal with all sorts of stupidity. Lots of people do and say stupid things, and either don't realize it or don't want to realize it. If you can force them to admit just how silly they're being, 90% of the time you've already won.

The second disjointed thought is on Objectivism. Objectivists are notorious for not having much in the way of a sense of humor; I suspect they feel it undermines both the typical objectivist's sense of superiority over the faith-having altruistic parasite, and the leadership's control over the movement. I wrote in the comments of a post below that Objectivism is like a religion that dumped the idea of God, but kept all of the potentially harmful institutional stupidities. As such you have this cultish sense of superiority to outsiders, and reverence for the cult leadership; this is exactly what Julian said laughter is dangerous to (I should interject here that this isn't per se a critique of the underlying philosophy, some of which is quite good and some of which is complete crap. It's just a complaint that the cultishness of the movement has sabotaged its ability to do good by making it stupid. As far as I can tell, the objectivists who have a sense of humor are also the ones who aren't likely to buy into the whole cult-thing).


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