Tuesday, January 31, 2017

     Upon reading the theories of Plato and Hobbes regarding humor, I felt that their understanding of laughter as mockery struck a chord with a very powerful undercurrent of humor in our own modern society. I disagree with them that all humor has a basis in cruelty, but it is undoubtable that some humor does, and moreover that humor is often founded on general tragedy and pain. Looking at much of the political humor shows, skits, and stand-up available to us today, from “Saturday Night Live” to “The Daily Show,” it is clear that the satire and mockery on display there has much in common with Plato and Hobbes’s notions of humor. Hobbes, for instance, says that people often laugh when they feel superior to another. I think political shows offer this to their viewers by allowing them to laugh at political opponents who are portrayed as buffoons, their statements and mannerisms exaggerated to the point of total absurdity. What makes this funny? It is not merely the unexpected, which several of the writings for today noted as an element of humor, but also a sense of laughing at someone and enjoying someone we hate being made to look like a fool—our inferior, as it were.  

    However, there is another element to seemingly mean-spirited humor that these writers fail to address. Mockery and Juvenalian satire are often born not out of cruelty, but out of pain. Living in the tumultuous political climate that we do, when many minority or otherwise vulnerable groups fear for their future, humor of Hobbesian sort allows not for revenge but for relief. Humor offers a pleasingly ridiculous, morally fair world in which cultural villains are lampooned and frightening, complicated politics are distilled to their ignoble basics. Yes, this allows people to feel confident and superior to the politicians and political stances that they oppose, but this also gives a sense of justice. Juvenalian satire, after all, though looking to be base cruelty, is intended as important condemnation and as a corrective. Pain and injustice fuel the kind of humor that exists beyond delight, and this humor is goal-oriented as a way to criticize or change dangerous and foolish political views. Thus if one considers the satirical shows we have today, it is clear that Plato and Hobbes do not dig deep enough into the true source of mockery.

Melpomene & Thalia

In the world of Shakespeare, comedies and tragedies are defined by their progression and resolution of story. A tragedy starts at a high point and progresses to a low point while a comedy starts low and ends high; a tragedy ends in a funeral, a comedy ends with marriage. This classical approach to the essence of comedy and tragedy are symbolized in the smiling and crying faces of Melpomene and Thalia, the twin masks that are emblematic of theatre. While the days of Shakespearian theatre are long past, these ideas persist in modern entertainment. Perhaps the most iconic of these modern art forms is the television sitcom. Likewise with the Shakespearian comedy, sitcoms are about finding true love and happiness through the tribulations of their everyday lives. But, just because these stories are moving towards marriage, this does not explain what makes these situations funny.

Thomas Hobbes writes, "Men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated” and in this observation we may observe the techniques of humor illustrated by modern and classical comedy. Empathy plays a large role in these comedic situations as it is the effectiveness of empathy that will allow the audience to relate to a character and their struggles. Often times you will see a character be put into an awkward or uncomfortable situation and laugh as they fumble their way out of it, all the while thinking, "Thank God that isn't me" or "I would put myself in that kind of situation" and hoping that they make it through. This is fundamental in understanding how humor works. You have to get the joke and this is only possible when you get the person telling the joke.

All in all, comedy and tragedy are both approaches to the reality of life and living. There is humor and tragedy to be found in every moment, if we as audience are receptive to them. Søren Kierkegaard writes, “The comical is present in every stage of life… for wherever there is life, there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present. The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based in contradiction” and in this we again see the relationship that Melpomene and Thalia hold in the world. Comedy comes from the unexpected. Nothing we expect to happen is comical precisely because it is expected. We laugh the hardest when we don't see it coming, we cry the loudest when we do not see it coming.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Everyone dies eventually and adds to the sadness and wallow of the world. The bright side of this is that darkness needs balance. Tragedy needs Comedy or else they cannot exist. There is joy to be found in life despite the inevitable end, and it is in these moments of happiness that comedy thrives. There are funerals and there are marriages, and any rational person would chose the later to spend their day. 

Kinds of Comedy in Plato, Hobbes, Kant, and Kierkegaard

I found several ties between the theories of Plato, Hobbes, Kant, and Kierkegaard, as well as several ties to concepts of humor we've discussed in class. I felt that, if I had to divide the four into two different categories, Plato and Hobbes would be in one while Kant and Kierkegaard were in the other. At the heart of each Plato’s and Hobbes’s discussions of humor was the same idea: humor as a sort of superiority over another. To Plato, we laugh at what is ridiculous; this means we laugh at something or someone that is weak and unable to retaliate. We feel threatened, however, by something that is strong and would be able to retaliate, so we do not laugh at it. That is to say, we laugh at what we feel superior to. Hobbes would agree, seeing as his understanding of humor is rooted in the idea that we laugh at the sudden joy of realizing we are superior to someone else (though in his case, it can even be our past selves). To put this in conversation with what we’ve been discussing in class, I feel that the most relevant category of humor this could be classified into is “Pain + Distance”. In this situation, we laugh because of other’s pain (be it physical or mental) and are able to do so because we have no real stake in the issue, or at the very least, we are observing it. This could be taken to mean superiority as well; we laugh at the pain of someone else, but because we’re distanced from it, we’re able to feel superior to the person experiencing the pain because it isn’t us.

The heart of Kant and Kierkegaard’s theories, however, is something much different: contradiction. Kant’s description of the convoluted mental process we go through when we hear a joke is rooted in this contradiction. We laugh at the punchline of a joke because it is not what we expect—it befuddles our reason, and the confusion is what leads to our pleasure (or, to our health). Reason is reversed in humor, or, that is to say, it is contradicted. And it is likewise with Kierkegaard’s theory. He agrees that we laugh at things when they subvert our expectations, like when a man suddenly falls into a cellar or a woman seeks to be officially given the title of a prostitute. They’re jarring in that they don’t make sense—they contradict our understanding of the natural order. I feel that the mostly likely candidate for classification of the two theories into a concept of humor we’ve discussed so far in class would be Pain + Irony. Kant discusses this more fully (as I mentioned) but in humor based in contradiction, our expectations for how the joke will go are subverted and our reason undergoes a sort of “pain” (which, ultimately makes us laugh).

Tragic, Comic, Tragic Contradiction

The theater is dark. I arrive late to a showing of Night at the Museum or some equally banal film, generally unfunny film driven there by familial obligation. Heads turn to the door swinging open, the light spilling in, I think I see one of my younger sisters. Blond haired, long haired turning her head away from me to stare at the screen. I take a seat next to her. I plunge an anticipating hand into her popcorn. I stare at the screen. I do not notice the rest of my family, I do not notice my father, behind me, laughing so hard he can’t breathe, let alone tell me that I’m one row off. That the little girl to my left, is in fact, not my sister, and thus obligated to by the same ties that brought me here to share her popcorn with me.
I beat a hasty, predictably red faced retreat into the intimate, and therefore comforting, but nonetheless enthusiastic laughter of my family, watching the movie, begging for the distance required for me to laugh at this, admittedly hilarious mishap, myself.
I bring up this example, antiquated though it may be, (Night at the Museum came out like 10 years ago, although it might have been its even worse sequel which was released three years later. Suffice it say, I was at least twelve, possibly fifteen, I hope to god I wasn’t nineteen, the third one was released in 2014, but I can’t be sure. And yes, I did see the Night at the Museum trilogy in theaters, what are you gonna do about it?) because it is the type of humor addressed by Hobbes, Kant and Kierkegaard, the third of whom’s theory connects this story, bizarrely enough to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the inherent contradiction in a socially aware comic.
According to Hobbes, implicit in my family’s reaction to my mistake was a sense of superiority, not only a relief that it wasn’t them who mistook a small, blond haired girl in a dark theater for one of the brighter spots of my family’s future, but also a smugness that they did, in fact, not make that mistake. Simultaneously, it incorporates Kant’s understanding of humor, that expectation is strained, but more importantly, that it ultimately dissipates into nothing (Kant 48). One may look to Kierkegaard, however, in order to note a correlation between my own embarrassing anecdote and MLK’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham jail. As he states, “wherever there is life there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present,” (Kierkegaard 83). Certainly, there is contradiction addressed in “Letter” (as there is in my anecdote) namely through the desire for peace but refusal to do anything about it. In the hands of a caustic enough comic (think:Louis  C.K. or Dave Chappelle) this contradiction could be, and potentially has been, the basis for a joke. But, Kierkegaard makes an important distinction within contradiction, delineating that as the comic can exist in it, so too can the tragic. While the former exists when contradiction is painless (at least, relatively speaking, it was certainly a shot to my ego when I ate somebody else’s popcorn), the latter is inspired by suffering in that contradiction, just as Dr. King suffered in a Birmingham jail in the midst of fighting for basic human rights, attempting to explain what appears basic human logic. In other words, the almost condescendingly simple language and reason he is forced to use in order to communicate to, apparently well meaning, educated Southern whites, the very real plight of colored people in America renders the letter tragic. Presumably, should Louis C.K. or Dave Chappelle use the aforementioned premise for a joke they wouldn’t be speaking to white Southern segregationists in the heat of the Civil Rights movements. Their condescension would be theoretical, used in order to highlight the contradiction but also imbue the audience with a sense of superiority. They (the audience) agree with Dr. King and the comic standing before them. They can see how difficult it was/is.

And, I think, herein lies the great struggle of socially aware comics. Naturally, they have to be ingratiating if they want an audience at all. However, there is a tension between the need to highlight the ills of society of which many, if not all, of the audience members are at least complicit in, to make them urgent without ostracizing the audience. The comic ought to be expected at a comedy show but many topics are not painless. If the comic makes them painless, the point risks being missed, if the comic does not make them painless, are they really a comic? Talk about civil rights, talk about imperialism, talk about sexism, talk about xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, the audience may laugh but in their very laughter they may not get it. There is an overarching and tragic contradiction to the socially aware comic. In order to communicate his/her views, which can be intelligent and deeply insightful, people have to laugh. But, while they laugh, at the clown pointing out the clowns of society (none of which are in their number) they miss, or able to avoid the larger point, the humorous version of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Humors Lasting Impact Through Time

Recent events in the world have shaken people to their core, sparked mass protests, broken up families, and truly tested the allegiances of many people throughout the world. These bleak times have hardly left any room for humor to be present in the day to day lives of many people, and while there are plenty of comedians out there trying to make people laugh, there are only so many times one person can laugh at Alec Baldwin impersonating the rather orange President of the United States. It seems as though the world is moving ever so slowly towards the Platonic view of humor, one which is based on malice and misfortune, which in turn, must be avoided (Plato, 10-13), as no one is willing to laugh about the fact that families are being torn apart by a ban on immigration for nationals of seven middle-eastern countries. In his dialogue Plato states, through Socrates, that “to feel delight instead of pain when we see or friends in misfortune – that is wrong” (Plato, 12) and it is clear, especially now, that laughing at the misfortunes of others, even though they are not your own is simply something that should not be occurring, given the severity of those misfortunes.
This idea can be furthered by examining the theory of humor that is given by the ever-cheerful Thomas Hobbes. The author of Leviathan outlines his theory of humor by saying that laughter comes from when someone compares themselves to another, and realize that the other persons situation in life is a lot worse than theirs (Hobbes, 19) which does not make humor seem that great. It seems as though Hobbes would agree that humor is some sort of expression of relief upon realizing that there are people in a worse situation than they themselves are, almost a sort of coping mechanism for dealing with the sorrow and the suffering rampant throughout the world.  Luckily Hobbes does provide an alternative, for finding humor in the suffering of others signifies inaction and acceptance. Rather than simply comparing ourselves to those less fortunate than themselves Hobbes states that “for of great minds, one of the proper works is, to help and free others from scorn, and compare themselves only with the most able” (Hobbes,19).  
The alternative proposed by Hobbes is one which fits rather nicely with certain Jesuit ideals. In the reading from former Superior General Kolvenbach, he cites a Father Ignacio Ellacuria who said that Christian Universities must “be a voice for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to promote and legitimate their rights” (Kolvenbach, 30). Rather than laugh at these people as the Hobbesian theory would say people would, the Jesuits would have people recognize these differences, and assists those less fortunate than themselves, rather than laugh at their situation. While laughter may be a coping mechanism, it is not one which produces any sort of change. Upon hearing of the retaliation by Iran against the ban on its citizens entering the United States, I will be honest I laughed, because in all honesty, what American citizen was rushing to visit Iran in the first place, it’s not exactly a prime vacation destination. What my laughter was, however, was a Hobbesian coping mechanism, rather than realizing that there were more than likely American citizens with family back in Iran, who will now no longer be able to see them, or that these were the actions of nations more than likely gearing themselves towards some sort of larger conflict, I laughed it off. Rather than embrace the Jesuit ideal of being “men and women for others” (Kolvenbach, 30) I was a man for myself, I did not rush to protest the injustices being committed and understand that “that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor” (King, 2), but rather I used humor to distance and shelter myself from the harsh reality that is slowly unfolding in front of me.

It is clear that throughout history the opinions and uses of humor as literary devices, and just as parts of one’s everyday life has changed drastically. Dr. King knew that humor had its place in the world, and knew how to employ it to benefit his own movement. Others did not see humor as all that important, and some, like Plato, saw it as such a danger to the state that they wanted it barred from appearing in certain works. Regardless of the opinions and theories held by people and scholars throughout time, it is clear that humor, in one form or another, is an integral part of the human experience, and one that will not be vanishing any time soon. 

Rhetoric of Justice

The success of King and Kolvenbach’s call for action against injustice can be attributed to very distinct rhetorical traits. Their polemic skill in combination with their thorough understanding of the audience, allows them to challenge their audience, transform their understanding of an issue, and provoke action.
Even though King and Kolvenbach have very different audiences, they both establish tones of inoffensiveness to broaden their audiences and invite people who may not usually sympathize to participate. King establishes a tone of benevolence from the beginning. He addresses the Clergymen as “fellow Clergymen” to relate himself to them and remind them that he is one of them, but he also begins with this calm tone because he is appealing to a much greater audience then the eight Clergymen in Alabama. King is reaching out to all of America and inviting an audience to at least participate in the conversation. It is worth noting that these people are more willing to listen to the issue with an open mind because King distances them from his criticisms. King strategically uses the format of a letter, directed to a small group as a rhetorical strategy. His broader audience is more likely to engage if the finger is not pointed at them. If an audience feels offended, they are more likely to erect defensive barriers that muffle their ability to look at an issue in depth.
Kolvenbach uses a similar strategy as he appeals to a much wider audience then the people who sat before him in October of 2000.  Kolvenbach begins his key note address by noting the capabilities of his audience, Jesuit schools “have become highly sophisticated institutions of learning.” This not only makes the audience feel worthy of participating, it makes them feel invited by the speaker. Kolvenbach does this to establish a mutual relationship with his audience which the power of the conversation is shared. He uses phrases such as “Let us turn now” and “we now mediate on together” to give agency to the audience. When the audience believes they are part of the dialogue their devotion to the issue is strengthened and they are more willing to act. At the same time, Kolvenbach makes very real criticisms about the Jesuit education system, but his criticisms are constructive instead of offensive because of his positive framing. For instance, Kolvenbach acknowledges the good that universities have done, but he does not continue by saying it is lacking, he continues by saying it is a good start. Kolvenbach uses this framing to facilitate recognition and inspire change.

By understanding their audiences both King and Kolvenbach are able to persuade their audience to first participate in the dialogue of the issue and then recognize the need for action.

Humor in Everything

When I was a freshman, I had to write a literary analysis around twice a week for my writing 101 course. When I saw that the blog was an analysis I sort of flinched and had a horrible flashback to my earlier days at Loyola. My professor was very particular on how we should write the papers, so naturally I wrote this how she would want it (in not a very fun way).
            There are several theories about laughter and humor that have been developed over the centuries. These theories are present in literary works and in everyday life. Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Soren Kierkegaard all display logic and reason in their Literature to demonstrate their views on laughter and humor. Their reasoning is very straightforward as their goal is to get their point across to the reader. Humor comes in many different situations, as it is so explained by many of the philosophers. For example, humor is present in the strife for justice. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and Peter-Hans Kolvenbach’s The Service of Faith and The promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education, both demonstrate some of the theories of humor. This paper will demonstrate how writers used reason to come to conclusions on theories of humor, and how some theories are present in some of King and Kolvenbach’s writing.
            Most of the philosophical writing on humor is somewhat bland and primarily written using reason. A prime example of this is Plato’s Philebus, because Protarchus and Socrates are simply having a question and answer style discussion.  Plato uses this style, as it is the traditional style of writing philosophy, to conclude that laughter and humor is bad for the soul. While it is mostly bland, Kant uses jokes to explain his theory of humor. For example, he tells a funny story and says, “When we hear thus story, we laugh loud, and the reason is that an expectation is suddenly transformed into nothing” (Kant 48). Primarily, the language and structure the philosophers use is based on their reasoning.

            The works on justice have much more variety in language, structure, and are far easier to digest then the writings on the theories of Laughter and Humor. For example Kolvenbach gives the metaphor of the Jesuit schools as a microchip in Silicon Valley (Kolvenbach). The microchip describes the Jesuits as hard working educators that have the ability to change the world. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is written as a reply to some Alabama officials and religious figures. King also uses rhetorical devices, such as powerful rhetorical questions on the subject of justice. Some of the subjects King touches on relates to some of the theories of humor. For example a rhetorical question from his son says, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” (King 2) This relates to Hobbes superiority of laughter, because the injustice done to minority races gives white people a sense of superiority. Kolvenbach also demonstrates Kierkegaard’s theory of “the comical” or contradiction in his essay. He says, “In Beirut we were well aware that our medical school, staffed by very 23 holy Jesuits, was producing, at least at that time, some of the most corrupt citizens in the city…” (Kolvenbach). While Kolvenbach and King discuss serious topics on justice, there are still traces of the theories of humor in their writing. This just goes to show that there is a little bit of humor in all literature.

Humor Throughout History

     Throughout the history of time, we have viewed humor in different ways and accepted it on different levels for a variety of purposes. Through these readings, I have been able to see the growth and evolution of humor and the situations in which we use it. 

     The use and theory of humor begins around 400 B.C. with Plato’s beliefs that “laughter is something that should be avoided” (Traditional Tales 10) because when we laugh, we are maliciously being ignorant. To Plato, ridiculousness is not knowing oneself which is evil and a powerless ignorance. For we are not only ignorant of others, but of ourselves as well. We can be ignorant of our wealth, when we assume we are richer, more talented, look better, or are more virtuous than we actually are. This is a way of lying to ourselves, which is evil. We use these lies to separate the powerful and strong against the weak, where the weak are considered to be ridiculous and the cause for laughter while the strong are hateful for feeling joy from others’ misfortunes. Therefore, Plato believes laughter is wrong because through laughter, we are finding joy in others’ misfortunes.

     Hobbes follows Plato’s negative views towards humor when he says, “the passion of laughter proceeds from a sudden conception of some ability in himself that laughs” (Hobbes 20). In other words, we laugh when we realize we better than someone else, which according to Plato is ignorant. He then goes on to formulate ideas like how we laugh at unexpected, new, and absurd things that do not happen to us. 

     Kant take the discussion of humor and makes it more physical, focusing instead on how humor offers gratification, “a feeling of the furtherance of the whole life of the man, and consequently, also of his bodily well-being” (Kant 45). All changes in chance, tone, and thought will provide gratification due to the differences in sensations. He also believes that laughter is the consequence of realizing our expectations of things are not realized and become nothing. While saying this, he is denouncing the work of Hobbes and Plato, claiming we laugh “not because we deem ourselves cleverer than [the] ignorant man…but because our expectation was strained and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing” (Kant 48).

     Kierkegaard expands upon Kant’s ideas of something becoming nothing and formulates his opinion that “wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present” (Kierkegaard 83). Although the comical is present, it might not always be shown as he explains that it manifests itself when the pain from this contradiction is not essential and can be ignored. He also expands upon the works of Plato and Hobbes by noticing that laughter can be immoral when enjoyed at the wrong times, while disagreeing that laughter itself is not wrong.

     It is interesting to see how the early philosophies of humor influence the more modern authors and their works. For example, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King uses humor when he says “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work”. Here, King uses humor and logos to show his authority and position in the Civil Rights Movement without bragging about his accomplishments. This is related to Hobbes opinions that we use laughter when we realize we are superior, although Dr. King is humbler than the image that comes to mind when I think of using humor because of superiority. Dr. King also uses humor when he says “While Mr. Boutwell is much more articulate and gentle than Mr. Conner”. Here, he is using humor to question the authority and intelligence of Mr. Boutwell in a way similar to the ignorance of talent expressed by Plato.

     Although not humorous, it is also important to note how certain elements of the philosophies on humor we studied are present in his letter. Dr. King is educated and studied the works of Plato and Socrates, as is mentioned in his letter. Perhaps parts of his humorous rhetoric come directly from his knowledge of the works we read for class. He also shows a exemplifies Kierkegaard’s theory of humor by explaining a very non-humorous situation. The contradiction of how the people of Alabama expect violence but King’s movement never became violent is an example of non-humorous contradiction because the pain is obvious. It is painful for the followers of the movement to be treated like violent criminals for peaceful protesting simply because of the color of their skin. This pain is essential and cannot be ignored so the contradiction is therefore not funny.

     Through comparing more recent texts with older texts, it is interesting for me to see the movement of thoughts and philosophies regarding humor. From Plato believing humor is evil to Dr. King using humor to explain his opinions on the Civil Right Movement and fight for equality, humanity certainly has come a long way in the use, acceptance, and understanding of this form of rhetoric.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Neutrality of Time

While preparing to write this literary analysis, I put myself in a situation that connects to not only the theories of humor we discussed in class, but also the ideas presented by Thomas Hobbes.  In class, we agreed that comedy can be a combination of tragedy and time, because many of our memories that we laugh at are ones that were painful when we experienced them.  As I prepared to write my literary analysis, I opened my folder to discover that the excerpts I had printed out and taken notes on were nowhere to be found.  I spent twenty minutes, frantically running around my apartment, opening every folder and notebook I had.  I even pulled my mattress off the bed frame to make sure I had not dropped the paper under my bed.  I finally found my papers lodged in the back of a binder I use to organize papers for a club.  My roommates immediately laughed as I screamed in frustration.  Their laughter in that moment was in line with one of the sources of laughter explored by Thomas Hobbes.  He writes, “Also men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated” (Hobbes 20).  He believes that laughter is caused when one person witnesses the tragedy or folly of another, and the person laughing realizes that they are superior in some way.  My roommates laughed at me because they recognized that they were more organized and not stressed about losing their schoolwork.  Their laughter in this moment was not malicious, but it could be construed that way by an outsider.  This is closer to the kind of laughter discussed by Hobbes and Plato.  Hobbes views laughter as something triggered by feelings of glory for oneself, especially when faced with the failings of others.  Plato echoes this sentiment in his dialogue between Protarchus and Socrates, stating, “When we laugh at what is ridiculous in our friends, our pleasure, in mixing with malice, mixes with pain, for we have agreed that malice is pain of the soul, and that laughter is pleasant, and on these occasions we both feel malice and laugh” (13).  Plato and Hobbes provide explanations of laughter that provide a darker view of humanity.  Humor, in their minds, is rooted in the pain and conceptions of inferiority in others.  This makes laughter an expression of malicious intent rather than an expression of exuberance or joy. 
            Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard present ideas on the sources of humor and laughter that are less rooted in malice than the ideas of Plato and Hobbes.  Kant believes that laughter is a lower form of pleasure than the appreciation of art, but he does not attribute it to malice.  Instead he states that laughter is connected to absurdity and the undermining of reason.  He states, “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (Kant 47).  This theory of comedy also relates to the idea in class that humor can come from the reversal of expectations.  When something is expected to turn out in one way and ends up with completely different results, people often laugh because their expectations are met with absurdity.  This is employed quite often in Tales of the Tikongs, where Hau’ofa constructs an entire fictional society based in absurdity, often flipping the reader’s perceptions of people of faith through the impious behavior of the people of Tiko.  They live in sin, but believe they are still morally safe because they repent every time they sin.  This also connects to Kierkegaard’s ideas on comedy.  He writes, “The comical is present in every stage of life…for wherever there is life, there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present. The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based in contradiction” (Kierkegaard 83). He places less emphasis on the absurdity of the outcome, but he still acknowledges that comedy comes from contradiction and what is unexpected.  Contradiction’s relation to comedy makes sense in light of the idea that tragedy is also tied to comedy.  Being able to laugh in the face of sadness is, in itself, a form of contradiction.  Tragedy is thought to bring sadness and despair in the people who experience.  Laughter, which is often an expression of joy, defies the expectation of sadness.  The combination of laughter and tragedy connects back to the ideas of Plato and Hobbes, but Kierkegaard has a different focus on tragedy.  Unlike Plato and Hobbes, he does not focus on the idea that tragedy must reveal a defect in another person to produce laughter; he believes that tragedy and laughter are essentially connected in their structure.  This is an intriguing way to expand upon the ideas of Plato and Hobbes because Kierkegaard does not depict human beings as malicious when they experience laughter.

            Malicious intentions and feelings of superiority are the basis of Plato and Hobbes’ theories on humor, but they also serve as a basis for injustices.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham Jail when he was imprisoned for participating in demonstrations against segregation.  His words come from his frustration in the world around him; he hated the cruelty that came with segregation and racism, and wanted to speak out to bring about change in his society.  One interesting view that Dr. King offers is the perception of time.  One of the arguments that people opposed to his movement use is that more time is needed for change to take place, because time is a force of change.  Dr. King refutes this, saying, “It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.  Actually, time is neutral.  It can be used either destructively or constructively” (4).  This is observation is important not only in matters of social justice, but also in matters of comedy.  When discussing social justice, time, especially time that has already past, can often be deeply connected to injustices.  For example, when looking to the past, there are countless things like slavery and genocide that have happened and cannot be reversed. Dr. King is right to say that time can be constructive and destructive.  As time passes, action must be taken to change the social problems that already exist, otherwise they will be perpetuated.  Time cannot stop injustice on its own.  This is why Fr. Kolvenbach emphasizes the need for Jesuit universities to shape students to become agents of change in the future.  He states, “The students need close involvement with the poor and the marginal now, in order to learn about reality and become adults of solidarity in the future” (Kolvenbach 15).  Using time effectively requires taking advantage of the present, learning from it, and using that knowledge to shape the future.  Dr. King is correct to say that time itself cannot bring about necessary change to the injustices that exist.  Ideas without concrete action cannot truly take shape.  The idea of having to actively use time to create change in the world also relates back to one of the formulas for comedy that we discussed in class: comedy is tragedy plus time.  To be able to look back at something that was tragic in the moment and find comedy of it in the present requires careful use of time.  If a person does not use the time after their tragedy in a constructive manner, working towards healing, they will not be able to recover from the tragedy.  This can make the pain from the experience fester and overtake the person.  Healing and finding comedy in the past can help a person grow as a person, especially since they will be able to recognize past mistakes to prevent them from reoccurring in the future.  This is similar to the ideas of Kolvenbach and King because it emphasizes that time must be used constructively when looking at the past for change to take place that improves the future. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Avocado Racism

            The other day, I saw a post online about a sign seen at one of the anti-Trump rallies. The sign, pictured below, reads: “Put Avocado On Racism So White People Will Pay Attention #NotMyPresident”.  I’m not a huge fan of avocados, but this made me chuckle. What was meant as a jab at white people turned out to be a bit more serious as people realized Trump’s plan for a wall between the US and Mexico would raise the prices of imported avocados and guacamole. I’ve seen posts on Facebook and other social media sights where people have gotten into arguments over where the US gets its avocados, and whether they will be directly affected by this plan for a wall, all while ignoring the social injustice of its being built. Hobbes would say the reason for my laughter lies in my realizing I am “superior to someone else,” I would say it is because I recognized a silly social trend and felt smart for connecting it to a political situation (Hobbes 19).  So, as it turns out, putting avocado on racism did get some more white people to pay attention to what was going on.
Since reaching the ability to form my own political judgments, I’ve always been attuned to how other people have been treated. My parents instilled the idea that being a middle class white person grants me with a degree of privilege other people do not have, and that I should use that privilege to fight for what is right. While it made me laugh, this sign also made me sad. I realized that a lot of people care more about the cost of an avocado than they do about the lives of other people. I don’t agree with Plato saying laughter is “something to be avoided,” but I can see where he is coming from when he says we end up laughing at the vices of others (Plato 10). In this case, people who laugh at the sign are laughing at the ignorance of others—the people who care more about a fruit than they do about a life.
Signs like this one, and the many others seen at the various marches and rallies that have taken place all over the world recently, are examples showing that a large population is not receiving proper education according to Kolvenbach. If our education system worked perfectly, these signs would not be necessary because we would all be “men for others; who will live not for themselves” (Kolvenbach 29). He correctly states that tomorrow’s “whole person” must be educated in such a manner that allows him to “contribute socially, generously, in the real world” (34). While these signs are examples of a lack of education, they are also beacons of hope. They show that people out there see what is wrong with our society and are doing their part to make a change.
Just like the nonviolent resistance detailed in King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the signs at these demonstrations seek “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” (King 2). These humorous signs are just another variation of peaceful resistance. On that note, one is equally likely to see signs with jokes on them as they are to see signs with Kingsian slogans such as “justice too long delayed is justice denied” (King 2). Some people use humor to reach a certain audience, perhaps a younger audience, and some people use more direct slogans as a slightly more aggressive way of making people realize there is a problem in society. It is sad to think that the next generation will be able to study and compare which signs were more effective in inciting social change when this time in history is over.