Humor Matters

What with one thing and another, I forgot to tag anything for the links dump yesterday, which means no links dump this morning. But that's all right, because Fred Clark's post about humorless prigs deserves a more prominent link. The proximate cause is yet another story about a crazy religious group working themselves into a tizzy over what turns out to be an online parody. This by itself is unremarkable-- as Fred says, "So in other words, it's a weekday."

What's notable about the post is the bit that comes next, though:

We've previously discussed how an addiction to self-righteous indignation and smug superiority creates an endless, self-reinforcing vicious cycle (literally vicious) of the sins of pride and of bearing false witness. And we've discussed the crippling effects this has on the functional intelligence of those trapped in this cycle of smug. But encountering this umpteenth example of the IndigNation's inability to recognize or appreciate jokes, I realized we hadn't yet dealt with this aspect of the self-righteousness trap.

Smugness and the sin of pride makes you humorless. It reduces your capacity for recognizing humor, your ability to get jokes. And it almost totally eliminates your capacity for contributing humor, your ability to make jokes.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, this may seem like a less important consequence than the soul-corroding evil or the harm done to others or the self-destructive abandonment of critical thinking. But joy matters. Cutting oneself off from humor isn't good for you. It's a way of cutting yourself off from redemption -- from the gaiety transfiguring all this dread.

This is a great point. and, what's more, while Fred is writing specifically about religious smugness and pride, this is a non-sectarian point. Excessive pride and obsession with any ideal-- religious, scientific, political, or cultural-- leads to a loss of humor, and humor matters. You need to be able to take a break from saving the world (and congratulating yourself for doing so) to laugh at the world, otherwise it's not worth the saving.

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"You need to be able to take a break from saving the world (and congratulating yourself for doing so) to laugh at the world, otherwise it's not worth the saving."

And if you can laugh at yourself, you might be less certain that you know The One Really True Truth.

I wonder, though, whether pride and obsession lead to the loss of humor, or whether people who were already humorless narcissistic gravitate toward obsession and fanaticism.

Random thought: I've always worried that the dark side of Poe's law is that it's an open admission that atheists can't recognize a joke when they see one.

@miller I don't think it's that they can't recognize a joke, it's from being burned too many times assuming that it's a joke when it isn't. (assuming it's comedy when it's really tragedy)

Unless that post was a joke, in which case, touché.

@miller: I've never viewed Poe's law that way. It's more of a commentary on how difficult it is to successfully parody a position of extreme unreason: there is the risk that the person or organization being parodied really does hold that position. It's the same reason I stopped reading the Onion regularly somewhere around 2003-04: They were having a hard time keeping up with what the Bush administration was actually doing in the so-called real world. After a while, having to double-check the address bar to see whether it's pointing to or gets old.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Jan 2011 #permalink

@Tom, Eric:
Yes, that is the positive way of putting it. I consider it a fun little exercise to see if there is also a less flattering way to put it, not that the less flattering description is more truthful. From what I see, people mistake the real thing for satire just as often as they mistake satire for the real thing.