TCS Daily


Can't You Take a Joke?

By Lee Harris - February 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Much can be learned about a society by observing what it is prepared to laugh at. If it laughs and mocks at cripples, but does not dare to make fun of those in positions of authority, then you will have a very different society than one in which even the most powerful may be publicly ridiculed by those who have the talent and inclination to do so. A society that is not afraid to lampoon its leaders is one that is invariably freer than a society in which men are afraid to exchange jokes about them, even in the privacy of their own homes. It is more egalitarian in spirit. That is why the spirit of satire is interlinked with the social conditions that produce free societies -- the right "to take liberties" with those in authority by ridiculing them is, I submit, the unsuspected source of those three great social virtues: liberty, fraternity, and equality.

The truth of this observation can be shown by taking a look at the most primitive egalitarian societies known to us, two hunter-gather societies that have been studied by modern anthropologists.

"Among the !Kung and the Hadza," explains Craig B. Stanford in his fine book, The Hunting Ape, "even the best hunter must be modest. Humility is a strong cultural tradition in nearly all hunter-gatherer societies. This is an extension of the egalitarian nature of these cultures. Attempts to use one's hunting prowess as an entrée to greater ambitions within the society are usually met with stern opposition, ridicule, and attempts to shame the self-promoter. It is preceded by much verbal taunting and badgering from other members of the hunting party."

Stanford, however, confuses cause with effect. It is not their egalitarianism that makes the !Kung and the Hadza ridicule and taunt those who try to thrust themselves forward; instead, it is the ridicule and the taunting that keeps them egalitarian. Primitive egalitarianism is not an ideological commitment, but the result of a cultural tradition that has been passed on from time immemorial -- a tradition in which the other members of the community automatically mock and badger those who threaten to become too powerful. It is an instinctive defense mechanism against any overbold hunter who wishes to lord his superiority over those less gifted, or lucky, than he is. Instead of standing in awe of such a grand personage, bowing and scraping before him, those around him are quick to deflate his pretensions by the use of satire.

The Athenians, during the glory days of their democracy, elevated the primitive mechanism of informal ridicule into an art form. Aristophanes, the greatest comic genius of the ancient world, was willing to use his satire as a way of bringing back down to earth anyone whose head was beginning to float in the clouds, including Socrates. Nor was he sparing of the political leadership of his time. He took on the demagogue Cleon and subjected him to ridicule in his comedies, just as Cleon had subjected the Athenian upper class to ridicule in his populist speeches.

Today in America, just walk into any blue collar shop and you will be almost certain to find the same principle operative in the form of ribbing or teasing. The blue collar spirit is not inclined to deference toward claims of superiority on the part of those who make such claims, and pomposity becomes impossible in such a work environment, much as it becomes impossible for the !Kung and the Hazda. Just try to boss these guys around with puffed up displays of pseudo-authority, and they will cut you down to size with a quick-witted barb. And if, after this treatment, you cannot laugh at yourself, but huff off in an indignant uproar, then you are forever branded in their eyes as someone who cannot take a joke -- meaning, a person who refrains to offer himself as a subject for the raillery of those around him.

Unfortunately, most modern intellectuals, when they envision an egalitarian society, think of it in Marxist terms. They wish to see an equality in terms of material wealth and resources. John Rawls, in his book A Theory of Justice, believed that it was the function of the state to try to bring about a greater degree of equality in purely economic terms. But the state, in taking on this function, immediately creates an elite ruling class whose job is to make everyone else equal -- a task that immediately provides this class with ample opportunities to prove the logic that governed Orwell's Animal Farm: "All animals are equal; but some are more equal than others." In the Soviet experiment, for example, all the old class divisions were immediately replaced by new divisions based on an individual's position within the Party hierarchy. This new privileged class, however, was not based on economic power, but on the power to intimidate and to frighten those who happened to be beneath them in the hierarchy -- and such power is not something to joke about. It is unwise to tease and taunt a man who can send you to Siberia, or liquidate your entire family.

It is dangerous folly to believe that the state can bring about a genuine spirit of equalitarianism by forcing an equalization of material wealth or, more often, material poverty. The only surefire guarantee of liberty, fraternity, and equality in any society is to raise citizens who are unafraid to poke fun at their leaders, and who will only accept as their leaders men who know how to take a joke. It is not wealth that produces human dignity; it is the feisty independence of spirit. Far better to dig ditches at minimum wage with a boss you can poke fun at than to work as Donald Trump's apprentice for millions of dollars a year, knowing full well that your career would be over in a heart beat if you were ever to ask him, "Hey, dude, where'd you get that funky hair-do?"

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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