By Joshua J. Whitfield
“Genuine humor is replete with wisdom,” Mark Twain said. Yet it is wisdom I’m afraid we’ve largely lost, a sense of humor gone with little trace.
Not that we don’t laugh anymore. We laugh a lot. It’s easy to find something funny, some comedian to make us giggle. Cheap jokes are still cheap and easy to come by; juvenile laughter has always been and will always be easy to produce. But many comedians today are just that, cheap.
There are of course a few great ones still, those who carry the great American tradition of humor forward. Jon Stewart and many of his progeny, for instance, bear that standard, offering humor with intelligence and with at least some sense of the moral and even truth.
However, many, if not most, peddle their wit safely, earning their money upon whatever prejudice and political correctness rules the day. Like many politicians, they’re weathervanes with opinions made to order, not the prophets of truth they once were.
They’re not to blame of course, these mainstream jesters. They but symbolize a larger social sickness, a growing humorlessness and with it a shrinking wisdom. Perhaps you’ve noticed it yourself. I do, daily.
For example, once when I was dressed as a priest, as I do most days, a rather irritated and addled man asked me bluntly, “Do you think I’m going to hell just because I don’t go to church?” “No,” I answered with a smile, “not for that.” He didn’t laugh, didn’t take it for the joke it obviously was — good humor wasted on a humorless, angry man. This is what has become of so many of us, bitter and unable to take a joke, wanting to be offended instead of to laugh.
We have, I think, ruined ourselves with a less than wholesome seriousness, by an irritability and addiction to the comforts of the victim. This the fruit of an overemphasized identity politics mediated by social media, the overprized cult of what sociologists call “lifestyle enclaves” or what the philosopher Henri Bergson called “closed” societies. Divvied up into tribes of the likeminded, we have not only lost something of our sense of the common good, we’ve lost as well our sense of humor, our ability to laugh at ourselves and others with that healthy common sense of the ridiculous. We’ve lost that sense of humor that rightly blesses all of us fools, brothers and sisters one and all.
And such a loss, without exaggeration, puts us socially and politically in great danger. For without the ability to laugh at ourselves in that healthy and fully human sort of way, we risk losing the ability to laugh at power, especially power gone wrong. That is, we lose the capacity for satire, that necessary feature of any free society. Worried more about “safe spaces,” made safe only for ourselves, we’ve become vulnerable to the machinations of more silent and serious powers content to let us fight it out over personal identities and demanded dignities. Lost so seriously within our own particular prides, we’ve become pliant to powers we hardly even recognize.
And so among the many needs of our country — economic, political, social — we need to regain our sense of humor. It is, I would argue, one of our greater spiritual needs. It’ll make us better, stronger. And it’ll help us all push back the serious tyranny that has so slowly come over us.
In 1928, Englishman Ronald Knox, a brilliant novel-writing priest, drew a distinction between humor and satire: “Humor is of an age, satire of all ages,” he said. “The pure humorist is a man with no message. He can preach no gospel, unless it be the gospel that nothing matters.”
What we need he said was satire, “a weapon, deadly in its efficacy, entrusted to us for exposing the shams and hypocrisies of the world.” Interestingly, he said, “No country … has greater need of a satirist today than the United States of America.” We need such satirical minds, such contrarian wit, women and men smart enough to detect and brave enough to call out what Twain called the “lie of silent assertion,” those hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden absurdities we all accept.
But we must be people that can handle satire, take a joke, and think. We must be the sort of people that can laugh at ourselves, laughing even at insults offered by fools and enemies. If satire is essential to free society, we need to be people capable of it. But we’re not much anymore, and so in our bitterness we’re not as free as we once were.
We need to laugh again like adults, like humans. Believe it or not, it’s necessary to democracy. It may even be more important than who you vote for.
So let’s all work on laughing a little more, laughing well. Heaven knows there’s enough to laugh about. But also let’s not forget to laugh at ourselves, for that is the first substance of freedom. No joke.