Irony Vs. Rewilding
Humans have a long history of teaching social taboos through jokes irony, sarcasm, and mockery showing us what we do not find as acceptable behavior. Such comic geniuses as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David know this too well, their narcissistic characters always breaking social taboos and looking like assholes. In Farley Mowats “People of the Deer” I recall a moment where he drew a picture of a deer smoking a pipe, to which the intuits laughed hysterically! I think this kind of ridiculousness encapsulates the humor in irony and mockery. It has a kind of innocence to it; it looks silly for a deer to do human things, just as it looks silly for a human to mimic deer things. We laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, whether we see a deer smoking a pipe or Larry David not bringing a gift to Ben Stiller’s birthday party.
After several seasons of mimicking racist stereotypes under the guise of bringing the idiocy of racism to light, Dave Chappelle changed his mind about using this kind of humor. While shooting a sketch he noticed a white man laugh a little too hard at a racist joke and it made him uncomfortable. Dave could tell from the way he laughed that this white guy did not get the joke the way Dave intended. He told TIME magazine that he realized that the irony of his racism didn’t translate, so he quit the show and went on vacation.
It seems that the line between irony and sincerity has a lot to do with context. If I make a joke with my friends, from the perspective of someone living a lifestyle I find abusive, they’ll laugh because they’ll understand the irony; I would never sincerely make those comments. But if I make the same joke to people who actually have the perspective I mock, they won’t get the irony and see the joke as just a joke reinforcing the abusive perspective.
A few years ago I remember hearing Janis Joplin’s ironic song “Mercedes Benz” in a Mercedes Benz television commercial. Oh lord, won’t you buy me an AK47, my friends all have sold outâ€“I must make amends. I can feel Janis rolling over in her grave; an anti-consumerist song used to sell consumption. An ironic adbuster used as an advertisement. Ironic, don’t you think? Change or remove the context of an adbuster and it just looks like an advertisement.
I watched Steve Colbert “roast” the President of the United States for 30 minutes, non-stop. Of course I laughed. But remember, the court jester had permission to insult the King. You have to ask why? If sarcasm, mockery and ironic jokes really threatened those in power, would they allow it? Do jokes motivate you to stop injustice? Does laughter make you want to put an end to racism? Fascism? Civilization?
Most ironic and sarcastic jokes of this ilk appear to me as a kind of psychological Gallows Humor. Gallows humor refers to ironic or sarcastic jokes made by those who face the gallows in order to keep their spirits. People who have no more options to fight back. Gallows humor works as a last resort to hold onto dignity in the face of abuse. Our domestication causes us to see our fate as slaves to civilization inevitable and inescapable, just as the death row inmate will inevitably sit in the electric chair. The civilized have accepted this programmed fate and do not fight it; “We can’t stop our destructive culture from killing the planet, but we don’t have to let it kill our morale.”
While Gallows Humor can have a spiritually liberating quality, in the end, they call it Gallows Humor for a reason; it doesn’t physically liberate you from the noose. It merely makes living with abuse more tolerable. The question becomes, does having a higher level of morale motivate you to fight back, or cause you to remain apathetic and accept your fate?
Think back to the question, “why did the King allow the Jester to insult him?” Sure, you can laugh all you want, vote all you want, petition all you want, protest all you want (as long as you stay in the designated protest area) blog all you want, and say all you want. You can even own a gun or two or three. Only as long as you don’t actually do anything that threatens those in power or the progress of civilization.
If Gallows Humor refers only to the abused, than Executioners Humor refers to ironic or sarcastic jokes made by those who run the gallows in order to distance themselves from the guilt of murder. Executioner’s Humor says, “We refuse to change our cycle of abuse, and we will make jokes to distance ourselves from the guilt we feel when we abuse you.” I can make fun of how much gas my SUV consumes because it distances me from feeling bad about it, and I don’t have to change my life. I can joke about slavery in a foreign country because it makes me feel better about buying clothes from the GAP. I can make a joke about staying inside on a sunny day to watch TV because it will make me feel less guilty about it.
If “no press is bad press” than even making fun of abusive behaviors promotes them regardless of context, whether gallows or executioner’s humor. This looks like a paradox to me; by joking about them, we promote them and by not discussing them, we allow them to continue. Perhaps we just shouldn’t joke about some things? If ironic gallows humor only works to distance ourselves from pain, than sincerely examining our situation moves us closer to the pain. Perhaps we need to acknowledge the pain in order to truly figure out what to do next? Though I know that when I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t move past depression.
I can’t help but think of my generation of sarcastic cynics, mavens of irony and worshipers of novelty; I have a huge rare LP collection, I can go on for hours about obscure B-movies from the 60’s and I have a mullet and wear a trucker hat even though I don’t live in the country. After seeing our parents generation beaten and broken and manipulated into submission after trying so desperately to change the world, it makes perfect sense that my generation would look as broken and shattered and distant from reality. The far out hippies of yore gave birth to the cynical hipsters of today. When we can’t stop devouring the world, who wants to look at the world we live in? Who wants to acknowledge the pain? We have given up. We have no hope for change, nor urge to create it. Why should we? Instead of tearing down civilization, we make ironic jokes about our predicament, further inculcating our apathetic lives. We believe our only fate lies at the gallows of civilization.
This doesn’t mean that we have to throw away irony! It means that we need to examine how and why we use humor. I don’t think that this kind of satire doesn’t imply pacifism, but that we encourage our pacifist culture by using irony. We can use it to destroy our pacifism as well.
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