Humor is a Swiss Army knife—it cuts, it cleans, it opens, it picks, it screws. There are as many functions to humor as there are sides to a circle. It is Protean in its ambiguity and form. However, when it comes to deployment for political ends, humor casts shade. We can observe 5 primary functions:
- Downward optics – Humor may be cast the most austere vision in irreverent light, allowing us to reckon with mortal matters on more even terms. However, as a grand leveller, humor can also be used to diminish any opponent; the odds of ‘winning’ are more often stacked in one’s favor when looking down. It is much easier to triumph over an adversary when they are fighting without the sophisticated weaponry of argument, logic and tact but instead using the crude appendages of shame, fear and rage.
- Unshading a taboo – A taboo may be considered the cultural domain that is off limits to public and social discourse. Taboo therefore exists in its figurative shadow or underworld. We are beings drawn to liminal or boundary spaces—the play between light and dark, safety and danger, security and exploration. Humor opens a lifeworld between taboo and convention; it allows us to see and engage with the taboo (i.e., the disgusting, wretched, morally repugnant) without committing ourselves wholly to it. It is the play-world where we can ‘dress’ in the figures of monsters and not become one ourselves. As Freud discovered, jokes are a pleasurable means of un-repressing unconscious material; we can loosen our inhibitions without rebuke by the moral authorities.
[Psychological explanation:] Over the past several decades, the ‘Party of Freedom’ has gradually re-branded themselves as the party of Feardom. Under conditions of perpetual threat, the Right has weaponized fear by ‘building a wall’ of psychic defenses (i.e., formally called splitting and projection) effectively creating a totem/effigy of the hated Other (whom represents all things undesirable, dangerous, disgusting; things that are dissociated from the fragile, threatened ego of the fearful subject). Rage then gets mobilized against this effigy whom the fragile psyche (i.e., the constitutional alt-Right subject) perceives as causing it anxiety; it cannot see that the fear is caused by the fear peddling of the Party because that would risk its belonging to the collective and the assurance that an Other is to blame for one’s own difficulties. This rather complex etiology has been beautifully explained by Franz Fanon. In this iconic image of Pepe the Frog we see the abject image of shame, anxiety, defeat that is easily reversed into smugness (look at the smile upside down). The eyes–brazen in their remorsefulness–sublimate the appetite for voluminous breasts, scornful of clothing, shining before the masculine gaze.
By mobilizing fear and stoking anger, the public conscious roils with animus that must be supressed or shaded in order to avoid public recrimination. Like Perseus’ shield, humor offers a reflective gaze upon this repository of desires, instincts and fantasies that cannot be directly appealed to (lest we become monsters ourselves).
3. Ingroup signalling – As evolutionary anthropologist Robert Lynch discusses, humor may signal to others that we share the same set of implicit biases. For the party that denounces ‘political correctness’, humor may be a culturally sanctioned way of signalling to others that one is not alone in feeling angry, scared, disenfranchised etc. Creating and appealing to ingroup solidarity is an extremely potent political tactic. As the writer George Orwell noted in his analysis of Hitler’s rhetoric:
human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.George Orwell’s 1940 review of Mein Kampf
Humor can offer individuals a sense of transcendence—participation in a bigger project. The conditions of solidarity, fear/anger and anonymity are all that are required to disinhibit us from enacting impulses that we have developed powerful social protections to contain.
- 4. Undoing – While humor is most effective in the boundary space between the sanctioned orthodoxy and the profane, it can also be employed to undo or cast doubt on minor transgressions over the boundary space. Professor of Communications, Jennifer Mercieca, terms this strategy ‘paralipsis’ and describes how president Donald Trump employs the discourse of ‘sarcasm’ and humor to walk-back statements and endorsements that have violated the public moral code. As she puts it, this strategy “it gives [the speaker] plausible deniability to assert that they didn’t actually say some controversial thing or that they were merely joking or being sarcastic.” In psychological parlance, this is a defense strategy known as undoing. Politically, this gives the Party power to appeal to any base, no matter how base, simultaneously avoid the censure of civil law.
- 5. Innocuous infection – Again, there is a psychological truism that asserts there are no negatives in the unconscious. This means that even if we undo an idea, image or thought it’s trace is still preserved in our neural networks ready to be activated via repeated messaging. Whether you say “son of a bitch” “son of a witch” or “son a bitch lol”, the neural pattern or neurotag that encodes the meaning, intent and context of “son of a bitch” is temporarily activated. In effect, humor is a way of weakening or softening pathogenic effects of a hateful message—like a vaccine made from a virus—so that it can be taken up and transported without damaging its host. There is also research showing that humor can effectively undermine certain harmful messages and ‘inoculate’ us against their more pernicious effects; however it is also likely that humor may serve to normalize such messages and push them further into a mainstream platform.
As I will argue in a later blog post, the meme is the cultural innovation par excellence for transmitting virulent ideas using the engine of humor. In our hyper-reflective social climate, the political meme is a powerful social agent capable of appealing to a collective desire for victory, speaking the unspeakable, exclusive belonging, transgression and effectively transmitting this rhetoric (like a Trojan horse). Although humor is deployed on both sides of the political spectrum, the Left has increasingly branded itself to be the party of inclusion and as such, the boundary space between the orthodoxy and taboo becomes ever smaller. Humor becomes ever more precarious as one risks treading on the sensitivities of an other. This is why humor is deployed as a political apparatus for the Right and why it is often asserted that the Left can’t meme. However, in those instances where the Left has allowed itself to indulge in playing with the cultural repository of taboo (i.e., appearance-shaming, ableist, classist rhetoric) it is in service of 1) divesting the ‘enemy’ of their favored tactic 2) giving voice to repressed vices/prejudices 3) solidifying an ingroup (e.g., against Trump and related ideology) 4) expanding the territory of what can be criticized and 5) mobilizing words as weapons. If the Liberal mind has learned one thing through this American election cycle, it is that appeals to logic are far less effective than appeals to the shadows that ring our public selves.