So, yes, my "that asshole" post was pretty puerile. I got a funny idea and felt like people would like it, and many did, but many pointed out in one way or another its lack of philosophical substance. On this point I disagree. Reading through the comments the post elicited and thinking about this further has helped me identify a boatload of relevant philosophical issues. I wrote a comment on Facebook that listed 12, but writing this up today, I've only gotten through #1 (dividing it into a few distinct issues) and feel like that's more than enough to engender some fun discussion here, so I'm going to do this over a series of posts. Or, maybe I'll just get bored and this is all you'll get.
I'm focusing in this post on issues in the philosophy of humor.
Superiority Vs. Ressentiment
The standard range of philosophical theories about what makes things funny can be grossly oversimplified into the distinction between morally bad humor, which is based on a feeling of superiority, and morally permissible humor, which is based on an identification of incongruity, a way of coping with discomfort. People who didn't like the post identified it as being of the first type, lording my superiority over my stupid political opponents. That's not it at all. There are several sources of confusion and discomfort that I'm playing off of here, not least of which is my going crazy because I read the news on my phone several times a day and it's just always more of that asshole, that asshole, that asshole. He is more culturally pervasive by far than Jesus at this point. So my post was a little play fantasy of not having to hear that name anymore. Yes, as stated in the post, this is ressentiment ("punching up"), which is by definition pathetic. It's a wallow in the manner of our episode 156. It's just the kind of thing we need to do periodically to get through these four years.
Incidentally, I think there's an argument to me made that the "superiority" type of humor is also an expression of insecurity, and hence a subdivision of incongruity. The bully derides an "other" just as in Blade Runner, where dissing those distressingly similar to humans helps biological humans feel secure despite those humans' steady loss of genuine humanity.
The Role of Ideology
So I didn't mention above the "that is so true" sort of joke. I think that, as with superiority, there's a good argument to be made that these "observational insight" jokes also are a subdivision of incongruity. What is being pointed out is something absurd or maybe the disconnect is just between the "natural attitude" of experience and the reflection aroused by the comedian's question "Did you ever notice…?"
Whatever the taxonomy, I found the Jordan Klepper clip I referred to funny in part for that reason. We DO use curses in a manner that is surprisingly descriptively specific, so that they're not all interchangeable. Also, talking about "Asshole-Americans" as an oppressed minority group is just funny, whether you're uncomfortable with accusations of "privilege" or disgusted by claims by whites of reverse discrimination.
But while a general joke about an oppressed group that is obviously not oppressed or not a group might be funny to both sides, I'm guessing that most voters for that asshole would not find either Klepper's piece or mine funny. Because political humor inevitably incorporates the "that's so true!" strategy, you generally won't find it funny unless you agree with the political sentiment. By hearing your truth echoed back to you, especially about something that makes you uncomfortable (maybe it's a truth you didn't even want to admit or didn't feel could be talked about publicly, or maybe it's just one that's been bugging you incessantly through every goddamn news story you read, there's a release.
The Aesthetics of Potty Mouth Humor
A subdivision of this feeling that a joke has rubbed you just right for a release has to do with the style in which it is told. I have just the right level of discomfort with the word "asshole" that this meme works for me. If you think it's unfortunate that PEL sometimes includes swearing and think that philosophy, as reflective of the highest ideals of culture, should maintain a certain aesthetic standard, then I understand why you would not find any of that funny.
However, I'm not going to just let you fall back on the inviolability of your aesthetic preferences here. If you've listened to most any of PEL's aesthetics episodes (the best is our first on Danto, with #77 on Santayana coming in at a close second), you'll know about my fetish for aesthetic flexibility: You have the power to (over time and with effort, not just at will) expand your tastes so that you can appreciate more things and hence get more out of life. I most recently talked about this with regard to music (the clearest case of this, and the one most dear to my heart) in my recent appearance on the Dr. Drew podcast.
My general reasoning about music—that the more you listen to, the more you try to understand the motivations and attitudes of its creators, the more you'll appreciate—also works for humor. If you can't listen to most comedians because of all the swearing, get the fuck over it. It's not helping you. It's just needless snobbery. Plenty of foul-mouthed motherfuckers are plenty intelligent. Why do they feel the need to use words like "motherfucker" when they clearly have no semantic role in the preceding sentence? There's probably not a clearly explicable answer, but if you go immerse yourself in a bunch of those comedians for a few afternoons, you'll probably "get it," or at least "get past it."
An especially useful part of this intentional expansion of tastes is that it helps you to understand the styles of being among different groups of people: free-wheeling young Jewish stoner girls (Broad City), 70s Hispanic stoner dudes (Cheech and Chong), and, well, many other demograhics of stoners, whose sensibilities I can now appreciate even though I'm probably OVERLY anti-drug and always have been.
More difficult for me to penetrate through comedy and music are the experiences of oppressed groups, but I’m working on it. So what about conservatives? “Conservative” comedy can mean many things, from the kind of comedy that is simply not surprising or edgy (gentle jokes for elderly folks), to comedy that specifically riffs off of the “redneck” experience, to comedy that actually embraces a conservative ideology, in which case we’re back to issues with the content of conservative values and not just with the aesthetics of language use and “style.” I’m not homophobic enough to find jokes that come out of that insecurity too funny. I’m not going to say “that’s so true!” when hearing Bill Cosby wistfully talk about his pursuit of "Spanish fly" to render women helpless against his sexual advances.
But then again, Bill Burr says a lot of un-PC things that I still find hilarious. I haven't spent enough time with Joe Rogan or Adam Corolla in the last year to know whether I think they're funny, but I have some fond memories of them and acknowledge their talent, so this might be an area I can delve into.
In general, what personal aesthetic expansion provides (at least initially) is a temporary tolerance for the strange, so that you can listen to a rap or metal or EDM or experimental song that you normally wouldn't like, or sit through a particular comedian, and come away with some enjoyment. Would you then WANT to actually listen to one of those podcasters, or Howard Stern, day after day, or introduce "motherfucker"-spouting comics into your everyday routine? Probably not, and much the same as too much weightlifting can injure you, too much experimental immersion too fast might well produce an adverse reaction that will make you want to retreat into the comfortable and familiar forever (i.e., the usual state of many people, but hopefully not of philosophy students).
So I understand that however open-minded our conservative listenership may be, an endlessly dismissive attitude toward libertarians, or moral absolutists, or devout religious folks, or even voters for that asshole, can be just too much. Though this wasn't the case in the first year(s?) of doing the podcast, I very much have this in mind as we record now. We respect you all enough to spend time with thinkers in these traditions (I stress "thinkers," not random idiot pundits, who are really what engenders our annoyance) like Edmund Burke, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand (yes, she counts as a thinker!), St. Augustine (among many other theologians and conservatives of the past, including curmudgeons like Schopenhauer), Herbert Spencer (coming this winter at some point), Adam Smith (though I claim him as a liberal!), and our ep177 will feature free-market-leaning economist Russ Roberts of Econtalk. If you appreciate our treatment of those figures, have spent enough time with us on the podcast to see the goodness of our hearts and the openness of our minds, then maybe when we have to emit the occasional malapropism, you can give us the benefit of the doubt and try to figure out what philosophical justification might be lurking underneath. Or just let it pass.
Also, I will probably opt to simply not talk about that asshole in most episodes rather than insist that my cohosts use the term "that asshole" as we go forward. I may digitally edit out his name, like put a beep over it or a fart noise. OK, not a fart noise. Your suggestions are welcome.
Michael Stanley says
I think many people can appreciate one of the points of the original post that inspired this one, which is that we are just tired of hearing about the same person everyday on the news. I think whether you support Trump or not, its fair to say that it’s fatiguing to have to hear about him so frequently (though the reasons for the fatigue, and the reaction to it could be very different depending on which side you are on), so it was ironic to see the reaction to this post inspiring more conversation about him. I sympathize with your point that, regardless of your opinion on the president, as individuals we don’t have the power to change his actions directly, and at some point you have to just ignore the things outside
your control to keep your sanity (and maybe take out a little ressentiment with humor as you mentioned),
I’m going to take a cue from you Mark, and try to interpret the response to your previous post as charitably as possible. If you were seriously encouraging people that name-calling was an ideal solution to political problems, it’s understandable for reasonable people to object to that. And to be fair, it might not be obvious to a new comer to PEL that that post was meant to be satirical I admit it wasn’t obvious to me when I clicked on the post and first started reading. On the other hand, anyone who has listened to the podcast for more than 5 minutes would know that you take different ideologies as seriously as anyone can, and try to understand them despite your disagreements (as evidenced by bothering to write a follow up like this). But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun every once in a while, and if people don’t share your humor then they can skip over it.
The role of ideology you mentioned is important. It’s not easy to separate yourself from the parts of your identity that inform your politics, and it’s very easy for humor to go from a lighthearted jab to openly insulting. I try to appreciate comedy even if it criticizes things I admire, but some comedy is just mean spirited, and it’s not really meant to be appreciated by the people on the butt of the joke. I think this is a bit of a distinction between comedy and other forms of art. I might not know enough about music to understand a symphony by Bach, but musicians I trust tell me he is one of the greatest composers, so I can appreciate his importance and enjoy pieces that sound nice. I know I don’t have get the full depth of his work, but i recognize it, and just decide that it’s not for me right now. With a comedian, it’s much harder to appreciate the craft of the artist, when they are belittling something important to you. Jokes about how pretentious vegans are might play over with some people (I admit I find them funny), but if you are making the sincere effort to avoid animal products to prevent suffering to animals, that’s an admirable goal. And I wouldn’t blame a vegan for not finding that funny. Of course this depends on the individual. Some people have a thick skin and don’t mind. But I think humor can take any serious belief you hold, and push it to the point where a self respecting person takes offense. When comedy becomes totally self-congratulatory, and earns laughs only at the expense of the other, I personally don’t enjoy it. Lots of humor is based on this, and in small degrees it’s ok, but there is a balance to maintain. And with different individual preferences, there will always be some group that finds a particular type of humor offensive.
Profanity is a great example of this. I grew up in a family that avoided cursing as much as possible and I followed along until high school, where I think the average sailor could be put to shame. I can sympathize with looking down on cursing, and I think it takes skill for a comedian to get a laugh without resorting to a small set of words frowned upon as “profane”. But sometimes you just need a damn curse in the punch line to really make it work. I find well placed profanity hilarious, partly because of the small offense it brings to some people. Ordinary words don’t have the same impact, because they are overused and don’t have the baggage of profanity. It all comes down to knowing your audience and having respect for people. I can’t imagine cursing in front of my grandmother, and I think it would be selfish to do it because i know it would upset her. And I wouldn’t expect her to appreciate the same jokes that I find hilarious with a group of my friends. Of course in some families profanity is so common, you wouldn’t even notice it, and it has lost all the negative connotations. But you can imagine this could lead to some awkwardness if my grandmother was stuck talking to them. Once again there is a line between intentionally using language to hurt someone, and simply speaking the way you normally do. I’d be pissed if someone came into my home and told me to watch my mouth, but at the same time I wouldn’t be bothered by watching my mouth in a friends house around small children. It’s a matter of respect for people, not the sanctity of words.
I’ll stop there for now, but I’m glad to see that it’s still possible to get serious, reasonable discussions out of a satiric anti-Trump piece on the internet. That’s certainly not something I’m used to seeing in the comments section these days.
Evan Hadkins says
Well, the initial provocation wasn’t particularly philosophical – though the reactions can lead to much philosophising.
Evan Hadkins says
My thought in relation to the initial post was: Humour is a kind of evaluation and a release of tension (from incongruity). Humour seems to be about disproportion. It is more of a perception – from which an evaluation rises spontaneously: non-rationally, if we mean linear rationality of premises, deductions and so on.