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James E Caron <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 21 Mar 2008 20:37:41 -1000
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Could the following function as segue from all the recent hilarity...?

“Fool around and fool around...and pretty soon someone gets hurt.”

My dad used to say that to me and my brother, usually after we had done just that....fooled around in a fashion much too roughhouse, with the result that someone was in tears.

Perhaps one might say that the dynamics of the Forum have recently looked a lot like such childhood incidents, yet also remarkable is the way that the controversy about David Fears underscores how dangerous a game jokes and joking behavior is.

As anyone knows who has ever told a joke and garnered no laughter as reward, it’s easy to get the performative aspects wrong.  Timing, voice inflection, body language can all have a crucial bearing on whether or not your audience will laugh.  Some of the problem with the recent exchanges on the Forum could be attributed to the cold medium that is the internet, which excludes a three-dimensional performance and thus throws all the comic burden on the words themselves.  

And since writing posts for an internet discussion thread is by definition a hasty effort, it’s no wonder that we all end up revising in subsequent posts.  Probably, if Mr. Fears had revised with an eye toward manifest civility in his subsequent posts, the good-natured atmosphere of the Forum could have absorbed his poorly-performed jokes better.  Instead, he choose to continue what he no doubt thought was mostly a jocular tone (when he wasn’t obviously taking pleasure in “standing up” to “PC group think”).

His strategy resembles doubling a bet in black-jack after each loss, a risky business to be sure.  However, the stakes for our community on the Forum are the good-will and forbearance of those who must "hear" yet another poorly-performed joke.

And yet, even with a well-performed joke, the stakes are the same: one gambles that the playful presentation of what is usually a serious issue will be met with mirth, not anxiety or anger.  

Wes Britton implied that inherent danger when he said, “I still wonder–-over here, we have Huck and so many other Twainian writings designed to offend and stimulate thought and heart.  On the other hand, we demand our contemporaries not do likewise.  As I said, I am puzzled by this contradiction.” 

The implication of invoking Mark Twain and noticing the contradiction in our behavior suggests the contradiction at the heart of jokes: serious topics playfully produced.  Is the utterance merely a joke or is it an assertion to be dealt with seriously as part of a serious discourse? 

If one of the functions of comic artifacts is to provoke serious thought, then should we just preempt the humor or satire and go straight to the serious thought?  We could, and usually we do, but of course that would not nearly be as much fun.  Fun not just in the sense of lively or antic or even silly, but fun in the sense that discussion in one monochromatic tone is dull.  So, occasionally, and especially when the topic is controversial, we present our thought as a joke. 

If jokes are the fuses to the always-charged contentious issues or submerged desires in a community, people are naturally going to look askance at those who seem too gleefully ready to attach the fuse and light it.  

Jokes are ambiguous utterances, statements that exist between gibbering nonsense and serious discourse.  They are troublesome speech acts that are not the norm, ones with both positive and negative consequences and reactions.  That is why some people like them, and why some people don’t.  That’s why sometimes we like them, and sometimes we don’t (don’t gore my ox).

When Mark Dawidziak talked about Polish jokes, he gave us both sides of this equation:

“Have you heard the one about the Pollock who hated Polish jokes? I did. Growing up in a Polish-American family, I heard and laughed at my share of Polish jokes. I had no objection to them. They seemed harmless.  As I got older, despite people telling me that it was just all in good fun, I realized there were proud Polish aunts and cousins around me who were deeply hurt and offended by Polish jokes and the use of the term Pollock. I stopped using the word and repeating the jokes, not out of some great consciousness raising (that came later). They first stopped because I realized the language was deeply offensive to someone in the room -- someone I cared about deeply.  Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that's where the "civil" in civil discourse comes in.”

So here’s the problem, and one that folks like us, who admire and study a famous humorist and satirist, can’t get away from: someone is gonna get hurt.  

So, how do we police our comic proclivities, our love of wit and biting sarcasm and our occasional willingness to laugh at what is usually so serious for us because that way we know we are not taking ourselves TOO seriously? (But what criteria will decide what constitutes TOO?)

Again, to quote Mark:   “Some well-meaning friends said, "What's the harm? Tell 'em to get a sense of humor! They're only jokes. Learn to laugh at yourself." The problem with that kind of rationale is that when you look directly in the eyes of a wounded or angry person, you see the harm.  I was not walking in lockstep to the beat of political correctness. I'm old enough that the term didn't have popular currency at the time. I was merely taking a step toward recognizing the humanity of other humans in the room.”

This point seems particularly apropos if obnoxious people are just hiding their distasteful qualities behind the bland "I was only joking" or the more aggressive "can't you take a joke"?

Lines will be drawn, criteria for when one has crossed the line must be intuited or made explicit, because that is what communities do to define themselves.  

Communities also define themselves by the jokes they tell, or even by their forbearance of joke telling and joking behavior.  Who would wish to think him or herself a Malvolio, and forbid cakes and ale because we as a group feel ourselves to be virtuous?

I submit that there is no way out of this dilemma because jokes are structured like dilemmas.

If I thought Mr. Fears would understand that his juvenile fooling with comic powder kegs upset the Forum at a very deep level because it repeatedly demonstrated a reckless disregard for both the serious issues at stake and the proper way to play the clowning game, I would say we should invite him back.   

And if they are still listening, I would tell the others who have resigned their places inside our community not to mistake an earnest wish for civility as a repression of high spirits or even high jinks.

Both banishment and resignations diminish us.

The trick is to balance oneself on the dilemma, yes?

Jim Caron
Univ of Hawaii