Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Culture and Humor: Guest Post by Richard Fulmer

A guest post....

Alas, Poor Yorick: The Jester in the Dock
by Richard W. Fulmer

In his short but thought provoking book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, British philosopher Roger Scruton offers a critique of multiculturalism. He begins his analysis by asserting that a culture is largely a bundle of judgments – subjective beliefs about what is beautiful, what is art, what is appropriate or inappropriate, and what is or is not funny. Scruton goes on to explore the value of such cultural judgments by examining laughter.
To illustrate his arguments, I offer a thought experiment. First, imagine someone attempting to amuse his friends with the old “Why did the chicken cross the road?” riddle. Very likely the attempt will fall flat, and the stale punch line will not elicit even a groan.

Now suppose that we give the riddle a twist, answering it as a person from history might. For example, Adam Smith: “It was moved as if by an invisible hand.” Thomas Jefferson: “It was in the course of chicken events.” Sigmund Freud: “The chicken witnessed the sex act as an egg.” Likely, the revised versions will receive more positive responses.

Finally, let’s change the riddle again, this time replacing the word “chicken” with a derogatory epithet for a member of an ethnic, religious, or racial minority, and basing the punch line on a negative stereotype of the targeted group. What response could the joke teller expect? Well, if he were a participant in a Ku Klux Klan rally, the reaction might be quite positive. On the other hand, if he were a Harvard professor regaling his peers in the faculty lounge, the response might very well be shocked silence, frozen faces, and demands for his resignation. (I base the latter prediction on the response Larry Summers received for uttering - not a politically incorrect joke - but a politically incorrect fact, namely that that men tend to do better on standardized math tests than do women.)

Why should these three sets of jokes fare so differently? If we believe, as multiculturalism demands, that all cultures are equally valid, the response to each joke should be precisely the same. Each should be greeted with appreciative laughter based on the sympathetic understanding that the teller is trying to entertain us with a joke that is, according to his culture, amusing. One cannot react negatively without insinuating that he judges his own culture superior to that of the teller.
Yet the Harvard professors’ predicted response, if accurate, would seem to suggest that they do consider the Harvard culture to be superior to the Klan’s. This, despite the fact that a majority of the Harvard faculty almost certainly believes in multiculturalism’s fundamental tenet that all cultures are created equal. Their belief, however, would not stop them from attempting to ruin a fellow faculty member’s career for offending their own subjective cultural judgments (as it did not stop them in Larry Summers’ case).

In defense of Harvard professors, might we believe it possible that there may actually be objective standards by which jokes can be judged? Might we muster the courage to assert that a joke that demeans others is objectively inferior to one that merely amuses? Having conceded so much, might we even go so far as to venture that a culture based on love of knowledge and wisdom is superior to one based on hatred and coercive repression of minorities?

I only pose these as questions, of course, lest I be thought judgmental....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't the Klan members find the culture of the Harvard professors disgusting as well, or at least find their jokes unfunny?

If we believe, as multiculturalism demands, that all cultures are equally valid, the response to each joke should be precisely the same.

Sounds like a straw man. Multiculturalism promotes tolerance and the acceptance of the cultures existing within a group. A christian, a muslim, and and atheist can live in a tolerant, multicultural society while at the same time each one thinks the other two are wrong.