Sunday, March 25, 2012

Where Humor Fits

I’m an idiot. I forgot to copy down the citations. Needless to say this is an excellent article and you should brace yourself for a riveting piece.

“Journalists who cover government entities are habituated to see the world like the people they cover. They buy into entrenched institutions, their methods, and (problematically) their madness. For a Congressional reporter or a U.N. correspondent, international organizations and geopolitics routinely involves governments jockeying for advantage in ways that make a kind of sense if you obsessively follow the inside baseball and divorce it from real world consequences.”

In college my thesis adviser often said, “if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Despite this he often encouraged me to adopt a lens through which I could analyze a situation. It does help contextualize issues sometimes; other times it obscures very pertinent information.

For example, in the awesome article I read, “but wait. The decision to treat UN membership for Palestine as the most relevant "larger issue" is itself a subjective judgment - one that the vast majority of news organizations made in their coverage...Whereas comedy writers at The Daily Show, who take the time to understand the inside baseball, nevertheless see things differently, for in the search for absurdity required of them, they're attuned to real world consequences, and uninclined to give establishment processes the benefits of any doubt.Transport a Politico reporter back to just before WWI and they'd cover the European system of alliances as insider realists, explaining to readers why each relationship made perfect sense. A Daily Show writer brought back to the same era would take a long look at geopolitics, study the insider dealings, and then irreverently ask, "So if these two little countries have a skirmish over an assassination you've all committed yourselves to a continent wide war? One that most of you would like to avoid and that has little prospect of making any of you better off? You're okay sending millions to their death if, say, a duke gets assassinated?" 

Satire and a greater perspective have important places in the world. In college the sociology students spent a lot of time asking about the role of humor in framing their arguments about race and gender. In trying to contextualize the role as if it fit neatly into their lens, they implicitly denied its greater power. Humor establishes a thought process outside of our ‘serious’ world. In doing so it shows us the rat race and chest beating, the pursuit of change or constancy, as fundamentally confined to a human perspective. When we talk about oppression or geopolitics, we are talking about man-made things that are positionally allocated based on layers and layers of absurdist nuance. At one point things may have made sense, but it is a rare occasion that humans have the ability to wipe the slate clean and rebuild a structure in a logical way. Instead we are left with piece-meal processes where we logically argue for each piece. The whole is often a compendium of many pictures, not all of them complimentary.

It would behoove us as a race to remember that the world is absurd and the rules don’t have to always make sense. I think an excellent example of that would be in the world of privilege. Just as the ‘losers’ are not to blame for the cards they are dealt, the ‘winners’ similarly have little control over their circumstance. Awareness of these disparities is one part, but more generally, the way that people are deemed ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ is based on an incomprehensible form of accounting. To be humorless about the fact that many of the things that perpetuate these inequities are inertial or subconscious is to forget our animal nature. And to be deadly serious about animals in suits, ordering each other around is to make oneself a joke.

“Political satirists sometimes enjoy wider latitude than journalists. It's a distinct and vital genre for a reason. The press would nevertheless do well to step back, if only occasionally, and to look at the world as it’s seen from the Daily Show writers room, or the Onion headline writing desk. Satirists have a knack for hitting on angles that reporters miss due to excessively narrow framing. And deliberate temperamental irreverence is helpful if your job is to dispassionately observe.”