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  • Of Humor and Sanity

    Posted by David Foster on May 1st, 2019 (All posts by )

    Back in September, I mentioned some articles describing efforts to give artificial intelligence systems something resembling a simulated sense of humor.  “Interesting research, perhaps,”  I wrote at the time, “but at this juncture I’m less concerned above providing a sense of humor for AI systems than maintaining a sense of humor for human beings.”

    Comes now Claire Lehmann, tweeting:  “In clinical psychology you learn that the loss of a sense of humour can indicate deterioration in mental health.”  I’d assert that this is probably also true of entire organizations and entire societies.

    While people in general are increasingly too afraid to engage in real, lighthearted humor, there is a kind of faux-humor that is toxically thriving.

    In The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis’s devil responds to a letter from his protege, in which the latter refers to his “patients” as “great laughers,” which the younger devil sees as a good sign for his project to lead them into damnation.  Maybe yes, maybe no, replies Screwtape; it depends on what kind of humor the patients are engaging in. He goes through a categorization of types, and says:

    But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

    Flippancy is closely related to sarcasm and snark.  Field Marshal Lord Wavell had some thoughts:

    Explosions of temper do not necessarily ruin a general’s reputation or influence with his troops; it is almost expected of them (“the privileged irascibility of senior officers,” someone has written), and it is not always resented, sometimes even admired, except by those immediately concerned. But sarcasm is always resented and seldom forgiven. (emphasis added) In the Peninsula the bitter sarcastic tongue of Craufurd, the brilliant but erratic leader of the Light Division, was much more wounding and feared than the more violent outbursts of Picton, a rough, hot-tempered man.

    A few pages later (in his little book The Art of Generalship), Wavell again addresses the topic of sarcasm:

    He (the general) should never indulge in sarcasm, which is being clever at someone else’s expense, and always offends.

    At the same time humor is being suppressed among people in general, late-night comedians and other media types are heavily engaging in sarcasm/snark, with socially-toxic results that would have been no surprise to Lord Wavell.

    Also, some thoughts on the damage done by snideness in advertising.



    8 Responses to “Of Humor and Sanity”

    1. Bill Brandt Says:

      I have enjoyed Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Having Coffee. First, of course. are the interesting cars he brings but equally important are his guests, fellow comedians, and they talk about the business of comedy.

      Didn’t realize that it was such hard work writing, knowing your times, and of course, dealing with hecklers.

      I am forgetting the interview, and it wasn’t on Comedian’s in Cars, but I think it was Seinfeld who was lamenting the state of comedy today. Comedians have been blackballed and lost their gigs because the SJW warriors deem their act too “offensive”.

      It’s like trying to be funny in Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Walk the narrow path and don’t “offend” the party faithful.

      God knows there’s plenty of material today for good comedy.

      Interesting comment by Lehmann and upon reflection, I believe true. Have you ever seen a picture of a smiling serial killer? (apart from Jack Nicholson).

      I think too that comedy can be used as a defense and means to cope. I read somewhere that many comedians grew up with miserable childhoods.

    2. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      I first read Screwtape shortly after graduating with a degree in Theatre & Speech and recognised immediately what Lewis was talking about. It has stuck with me for decades now. I was trained in it for so long that it still leaks out – yet I agree it is an evil method of persuasion.

    3. yara Says:

      the page checking the characteristics of a cult against the behavior of the climatistas reminded me that one infallible test of a real fanatic is their inability to laugh at themselves or their subject.

    4. David Foster Says:

      A program which is widely used for screenplay development, Final Draft, has been ‘upgraded’ to include a feature to check for Diversity. It will allow filmmakers “to quickly assign and measure the ethnicity, gender, age, disability or any other definable trait of the characters,” including race.

      It also will enable users to determine if a project passes the Bechdel Test, measuring whether two female characters speak to each other about anything other than a man.

    5. Bill Brandt Says:

      @David: If making a movie has become that formulaic and political through software it explains a lot these days…Same thinkg has happened to comedy.

      On The Highwaymen the Social Justice Warriors apparently are furious about the movie – and a great interview with Kevin Costner.

      Best compliment I heard on the movie according to Costner was from Hamer’s great grandson.

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

    7. Mike K Says:

      I have read a fair amount about Hamer. In Caro’s Johnson biography, he writes a whole chapter about Coke Stevenson, who was a famous Texas governor. Stevenson has disappeared from history because he has been libeled by Johnson supporters. Johnson stole the 1948 Senate election by manufacturing votes in San Antonio. Stevenson went down there to try to stop the cheating and took Frank Hamer as a bodyguard. Hamer walked into places in San Antonio that were not safe in those days. The bad guys got out of his way.

      Abe Fortas and Hugo Black finished the job of stealing the election before Stevenson and Hamer could prove the stolen ballots.

      Look up “Ballot Box 13” for the story.

    8. David Foster Says:

      Bill…”If making a movie has become that formulaic and political through software it explains a lot these days…Same thinkg has happened to comedy.”

      My impression is that this software, as it was, was really just a fancy word-processing program, formatting scripts according to the expected conventions, not dealing with content (though I haven’t actually looked at it)…NOW, though, it sounds as if it is very much in the content world.

      The Progs do not intend to allow any aspect of the human experience, from sex & romance to the artistic process, to escape their surveillance and control. And technology allows them to intrude in ways that would have been hard to accomplish previously.

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