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Humor and cultural politics


By Casey McGlasson




In my last column, I discussed a trend toward the fear of appearing prejudiced (particularly against other cultures or religions) which permeates much of the discourse on international events. Such a fear, as the column implied, can lead to placid treatments of issues which would otherwise see passionate debate and rejoinder.  

Here, I would like to explain what I feel is the most healthy attitude toward differences in culture. What can, in many cases, prevent or lessen the fear that surrounds the idea of “difference:”  the attitude of humor.

First of all, I believe that all cultures are inherently arbitrary, often irrational and usually hilarious. I believe that not only are these defining qualities of culture, but also that these are often the qualities that make culture interesting and beautiful.

And yet, in the general opinion, at least, it is considered somehow insensitive, immoral or perilous to point out these qualities, particularly in a way which garners laughter.

To insinuate that another’s culture is a cause for humor is branded as ethnocentrism or racism or any number of other “isms.”  

To insinuate that one’s own culture is a cause for humor is taken as a rejection or a disloyal denunciation of that culture.

But such insinuations are not dangerous, or, at least, they certainly shouldn’t be. The awareness of the ridiculousness of many cultural traditions — including those practiced in one’s own culture — can be an extremely useful cognitive tool. In a sense, humor provides one of the sole perspectives through which one can maintain an eye that is both critical and open-minded.

Humor is inherently adapted to pointing out the irrational­; it’s a way to ask the members of a culture to assess their own history and motivation and better identify and understand the tenets of their own systems.

And yet, humor, unlike the sort of moralizing that is frequently used as a social critique, carries with it no implicit assumption of rightness or wrongness.

The attitude of humor, perhaps, skews a vision of certain cultural traditions toward the irrational in order to have abundant material for lampooning. For this reason, it is clearly hazardous to academic objectivity for cultural scientists to use humor as their main guide.

However, it is certainly better for the average citizen than the combination of fear of prejudice, true prejudice and simple incomprehension that is the common attitude toward cultural differences.

For the sake of a less flammable world, culture must be taken out of the fire of politics and treated for the hilarity and beauty it possesses.

And once this attitude of humor is established, it will free us to look at those things which are not humorous and are difficult to find humorous by their very nature — those things such as genocide and honor killings and oppression of women — as something other than mere “cultural difference.”

In this way, the initial attitude of humor and its subsequent natural transformation into horror can serve as the intuitive line between that which should be recognized as cultural peculiarity and that which should be condemned as inhumane.


E-mail: cmcglass@indiana.edu

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