Laughter and Forgiveness (An Addendum)

"Laugh," by The Doctr on Flickr.

“Laugh,” by The Doctr on Flickr.

Originally laughter contained a feeling of pleasure in prey or food which seemed certain. A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it… As Hobbes said, laughter expresses a sudden feeling of superiority, but he did not add that it only occurs when the normal consequences of this superiority do not ensue. (Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 223)

Over on Facebook, Anotherpanacea raised a good point about my last post on mocking the hierarchical.  To paraphrase: if my target is hierarchy, why am I suggesting that we make fun of people who like it – isn’t mocking and laughter a tool for showing who is on top and who is not?

It can be but it need not be. Laughter can be a powerful tool for human connection and forgiveness as well. Fundamentally, we laugh at the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition. I laugh when Louis C.K. talks about being a shitty Dad, because I see in his stories (and his superior comic timing) my own ardent desire to be a perfect father, and inevitable failures. When I was doing research in Liberia, one of the “peace women” told my colleague that they were able to get a powerful politician on their side by having the oldest woman in their group indignantly insist that he honor his mother, at which he laughed and said that because he was a soldier and they were mothers, they both knew pain and he would help them.

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

The paradox here is very much like the paradox of forgiveness. To forgive, we must simultaneously hold on to the view that the other person did wrong – deciding that there was no transgression is not forgiveness – but not following that recognition to its “normal consequences” in judgment and punishment.

So, when I want to mock the hierarchical, two things. First, I am mocking myself. I live a pretty comfy life on the backs of people less well-off than I am. I need forgiveness for all the time I’ve spent writing blogs instead of gleaning food, and all the money I’ve spent on Wonder Woman comics instead of sending to BRAC. I’m laughing at myself so that I can look myself in the mirror a little more clearly.

Second, as a result, I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.”