Humour and Solidarity

On his HBO show that aired on Friday the 17th February, Bill Maher interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at reactionary news outlet Breitbart. The interview attracted some attention not only because of Yiannopoulos’ far-right views, but also because invited guest Jeremy Scahill had declined to feature in the broadcast for this very reason.

There were many things to object to in the interview. Among them was one exchange in which Yiannopoulos discussed the way humour brings people together, arguing that this is a fundamental truth about human psychology that the modern progressive left has forgotten.

Milo Yiannopoulos: It’s a characteristic of the modern left, I think, requiring, you know, this absolute consistency and forgetting that people are messy and complicated and forgetting also some obvious other, um, human truths, I think, some realities of human psychology. Like, for instance, you know the reason they want to police humour, you know, which is very important to both of us, is that they can’t control it. Because the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter, because they can’t control what people find funny.

Bill Maher: And also because when people laugh they know it’s true. Because laughter…

Yiannopoulos: Yeah, of course. Nothing annoys people or amuses people like the truth

Maher: …laughter is involuntary.

Yiannopoulos: Exactly, exactly…

Maher: When you laugh, even if you don’t really agree and that kind of part of your mind goes ‘holy shit’…

Yiannopoulos: …exactly, exactly, and so at my college talks you’ve got the professors at the front who are there to kind of monitor me, to make sure I don’t go off the rails, and I make a joke about Ted Cruz or something and they’re, like, [makes snickering sound]. You know, you can see it, you can see it. And the other thing, the other thing that’s really important is not just, um, is not just that. The other thing is, you know, humour isn’t how you drive people apart. You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart. And these basic, you know, fundamental human psychological insights the… the progressive left has just forgotten.

The discussion was interesting for mobilizing two popular tropes about the cultural left that Maher did not question. First, that the cultural left will sacrifice the truth for ideological reasons. A recurring idea is that certain “facts” (about purported racial or gender differences, say) are inconvenient to those committed to substantive forms of egalitarianism, and cause them to deny these “facts” on political grounds—including “facts” about what is and isn’t funny. The second (which lurks in the background of the interview, if not said outright, and which is in some tension with the first) is that members of the cultural left are humourless authoritarians who, not understanding what’s funny themselves, wish to police humour to bully those using it into conformity.

I don’t deny that there are people who identify themselves with the progressive left who fit these stereotypes, deaf to countervailing evidence and ham-fistedly domineering in their cultural criticism, including of humour. That said, the progressive left has no monopoly on these traits. Take, for instance, Republican Reps. Martha Roby and Susan Brooks’ insistence that brief moments of light-heartedness during the extremely long 2015 Benghazi hearing with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not funny. And cases of the political right’s ignoring or denying claims on spurious ideological grounds are too abundant to list (the current U.S. administration furnishes us with many examples). But more importantly, the focus on these cases is unfortunate in that it involves attacking a straw-man version of serious left-wing criticism that is sometimes directed at humour. The result is that since the poorest weapons suffice to knock down a pile of straw, the arguments directed at mischaracterized positions tend to be pretty weak. Yiannopoulos’ interview offers a case in point.

Take this claim:

You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart.

Yiannopoulos is here turning the tables on leftist critics of certain humour, arguing that in their attempt to include people and bring them together by “policing” humour they do the opposite, since “humour is what brings people together not what drives them apart”. This last claim has the air of the kind of homespun wisdom one might find on a Hallmark greeting card. It feels true, acceptable, but disguises something much darker (a metaphor for Yiannopoulos’ appearance on the show if ever there was one). Even conceding the point that humour brings people together—which is probably true of some people in most deployments of humour—this point overlooks the fact that this “bringing together” is not just a primitive fact or an unanalysable fuzzy feeling; it consists in fostering a sense of togetherness around something, be it an agreed upon claim, an attitude, a weltanschauung, whatever. And among the things around which one can foster a chuckling comradery —and here the darkness comes in—is the exclusion, denigration, and hatred of others.

So, when one of Yiannopoulos’ readers jokes to another:

Why do blacks have white under their feet and palms?

– Because everyone has some good in them.

This may help “build a bridge” between them. But it only does so by unjustly dismantling millions of other bridges, if they were ever standing to begin with. And like any other immoral act, telling such a joke in such a context merits criticism. So, the claim that criticizing it as unethical or offensive must reveal some failure to understand a fundamental tenet of human psychology, prudishness, or an authoritarian desire to compel conformity is quite obviously false.

Maher’s point that laughter betrays a (sometimes reluctant) recognition of the truth is also implausible as a general claim. The two people laughing at the above joke (told in that context) don’t recognize a truth; they both merely acknowledge a claim about how racial essences relate to virtue that they take to be true, but which is false. And many jokes require no recognition of a truth so much as a recognition of a joke-internal convention. Someone who has no distinguishable opinions about English, Scottish, and Irish people might laugh at an Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman joke because they understand—in spite of its falsity—that a convention is in play according to which the Irishman is dense.

A final thought: criticizing such uses of humour, even as being “not funny”, does not even require the critic to find the joke unfunny. She may admire its structural features or cleverness in spite of its flaws. This is not merely because some other tellings of the same joke are funny (that is, as philosopher Noël Carroll argues, it is joke tokens and not types that often ought to be the object of evaluation). Sometimes, saying that something is “not funny” is akin to saying that Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will has no beauty; as philosopher Kendall Walton points out, it can be an oblique, figurative way of saying that the joke is unethical or flawed in some other way that may or may not redound to its merits as humour.

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