Couple of days ago I posted a silly joke on Facebook. Here it is:
“Pfizer announced a vaccine for Covid! It’s 90% effective! Now I have a question: if you were about to jump out of a plane and the instructor told you that your parachute is 90% effective… would you jump?”
Granted it is not a great joke, and not even an original one at that – the original is from Bill Burr (an American comedian) and was based on the percentages of divorce in America – but it was enough for all hell to break loose. Two factions began arguing and fighting over vaccines, new world order and whether Bill Gates is a philanthropist or a criminal. This, to me, says a lot about the elementary level of dichotomy in the debate out there but that’s not the point of this rant. Needless to say I deleted the post given that I have no intention of being the involuntary vehicle for sterile dog fights.
To me this silly episode also indicates a growing aggravation of the discourse and the inability to find humour within the problems we face. One of the comments I’ve received read something along the lines of “people are dying out there… there’s nothing to joke about”. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe humour to be the first and most effective way to challenge tragedy and hardship. But because I detest formulating my opinions on ideological beliefs I went and did some research about humour in tragic contexts. Here’s what I found (I don’t claim the following to be original research; it’s a sort of mash-up of four papers/studies I’ve read).
Auschwitz, during the second world war: a group of Jewish women are pushed into a room upon arrival at the infamous concentration camp. There a group of soldiers proceeds to shave off their hair. The women are scared, angry and desperately looking at their beautiful long hair falling on the floor. They cry and cry. One of these women, who just finished having her hair shaved, looks at the others and with a smile on her face says: “What are you all crying about? You know how much my hairdresser Misha was asking for a haircut? A hairdo for free? Never in my life!”. The cries stop and some laughter and smiles make their appearance. Cutting hair was a way to dehumanise prisoners. A silly joke was a quick and effective way to refuse such dehumanisation.
When faced with tragedy most are overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and compassion, which is obviously understandable. But sadness and/or seriousness, on the long run, is an ineffective way to cope with tragedy. Sadness leads to depression, depression leads to hopelessness, hopelessness leads to giving up, giving up leads to death.
Humour and joy on the other side address the same tragic situation through a form of emotional release. Humour forces you to be optimistic about the future, it allows you to stay afloat amidst tragedy and despair. Laughter provides a momentary mental escape. Or, in the words of Conrad Hyers: “Comedy expresses the refusal to give tragedy the final say”.
Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, a prisoner in the concentration camps, and author of the masterpiece “Man’s Search for Meaning” (one of the greatest books of the past century, in my opinion) noted that humor was one of the things that helped people survive in the camps. He tells this story: a prisoner accidentally bumps into a Nazi guard. The guard turns and shouts, “Schwein!” (“pig” in German). The prisoner bows and says, “Cohen. Pleased to meet you.” The joke clearly demonstrates how humor helps reverse who’s in control. Furthermore the oppressor has no defence against humour. If he tries to fight back he only appears more ridiculous. Even in the terrible conditions of the camp, such jokes provided a means of momentarily overcoming extreme adversity.
Finding humor in the face of death was called “gallows humor” by Freud. His classic example was of a man who was about to be shot by a firing squad, and was asked if he wanted a last cigarette. “No thanks,” he said, “I’m trying to quit.” Again, the joke helped the doomed man turn the tables and take emotional control of the situation.
It it also worth noting that Adolf Hitler had no sense of humour. He feared being laughed at and made any anti-Nazi jokes illegal. Such jokes were considered an act of treason. That’s because he understood that laughter is a defence mechanism, it helps internalise abnormality, it helps solidifying the fighting spirit, to overcome fear. Above all it undermines the power of the dictator for it is the proof of an autonomous self that makes choices outside of social/political authorities and thinks outside their ideological framework. In other words laughter is rebellious and humour sets you free. This is a lesson we should all keep in mind in these strange times of ours in which we are too dangerously toying with dictatorial ideas.
Of course there is another side of the medal: a smart dictator will allow humour for he knows that it alleviates the frustration, pain and anger of the oppressed. It is rumoured that Stalin’s communist propaganda machine had an office specialised in creating jokes against the regime. A form of perverted control through release. I think this lesson has been learned all too well by people in power today. Real oppression today is not carried out through violence but through benevolence. But this is another topic which is best represented in the two antithetical types of dictatorships presented by Huxley and Orwell in their books “Brave new world” and “1984”.
So to answer my friend who claimed that “people are dying out there… there’s nothing to joke about” I leave you with the words of Rudolf Kalmar, an Austrian journalist who wrote a satyrical play on scraps of paper found around a concentration camp while being imprisoned there:
It is the old song that you see here in the play But always keep a word in mind Everything is hell soon it will get well through this magic word: humour, humour!