Comedy can often give offense, especially when it concerns such sensitive topics as race, gender, and sexuality. Should comedy like that be shunned, boycotted, even banned?
In my last blog I wrote about rough humor. I defined it (roughly) like this: humor that deals with culturally sensitive issues in a way that bumps into or violates taboos, such as taboos on certain words or on talking about or mocking certain things.
The point of bringing this up—in addition to complementing the episode on humor—was to investigate what assumptions people make about rough humor’s psychological effects. I maintained that those assumptions seem to fall into two more or less conscious theories, which I called “Blowing Off Steam” and “Reinforcement.”
Blowing Off Steam says that rough humor helps release people’s anxieties and stresses in a safe environment. So people who hold Blowing Off Steam tend to think rough humor is fine and even healthy. People who have less pent up anxiety about race, sex, gender, religion, or whatever may even be less likely to act in harmful ways toward other people who fall in different categories.
Reinforcement, however, says that rough humor will just reinforce ways of talking that are disrespectful toward others, and thus it is (at least often enough) an engine of increasing things like sexism, racism, etc. So this view predicts the opposite of Blowing Off Steam.
Of course, both could be right to some degree—with each pointing to psychological mechanisms that exist and compete with each other. So it’s complicated. And most of us tend to act as if we know the answer anyway, even though we don’t.
So we should keep in mind that we’re largely clueless. But with that as a frame, I want to explore the consequences of assuming for the sake of argument that one of the theories is right, because doing so will provide an interesting and deep way of looking at comedic spaces. So, for the rest of this blog, let’s assume that Blowing Off Steam is true, in order to see what follows.
The first question, then, is this: what steam needs blowing off? There are many possible answers here. But the one I want to focus on is anxiety about the sacred.
I don’t just mean sacred in the sense of things that have to do with church or other religious spaces (altars, Mary statues, holy garments, religious texts, etc.), though all that counts too. I mean anxiety that’s prompted by anything that comes with a taboo—things that are so off limits that they are socially regarded as untouchable. On this construal, there are many sacred things beyond the realm of the religious. Certain words must not be said. Certain sexual acts must not be talked about. Certain symbols must not be profaned.
Humans, thus, have a sacralizing attitude, which can extend to anything. That which was unsacred can in short order start being sacred, if social pressures converge. Consider attitudes toward abortion. It is clear now that in large swaths of American society, abortion is a sacred topic—sanctity of life!—especially among Evangelical Christians and devout Catholics. But as recently as the 1970s, Evangelicals had a moderate view of abortion: they opposed it on demand, but it wasn’t the taboo that it is now. The Southern Baptist Convention even supported Roe v. Wade, when the decision first emerged. But gradually, during the 1970s, abortion became a wedge issue as a part of the larger culture war. Thus the sacralizing attitude toward abortion emerged.
People who violate the sacred—willfully or by accident—risk punishment or ostracism. So the sacred is scary. Furthermore, sacred rules are ever changing and often contradictory, so it often feels like no matter what you do, you’ll be in the wrong. Sacralizing attitudes are thus a double-edged sword: they are ostensibly meant to protect something that needs protecting, but they also do harm by separating all of society into the clean versus the unclean, where the unclean have somehow violated the sacred, sometimes just by being born.
With all that in the air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a space where we didn’t have to worry about those sacred norms and taboos? Maybe just once a week, on a Thursday or Friday, we could get together and enter not a church but the opposite of a church: an anti-sacred space where all the sacralizing attitudes that surround us in society can’t threaten us. Such a place would encourage us to cut the sacred down a notch and reveal its hypocrisies and frequent symbolic emptiness. Of course, this anti-sacred space would be limited in time and place, since (let’s be honest) we humans have a strange need for something to be sacred. But wouldn’t it be nice at least to have some anti-sacred space to visit from time to time?
The suggestion I’m working toward is that, if Blowing Off Steam is true, we already do have such a space. The anti-sacred space I’m talking about is the comedy club—a place for rough humor par excellence. On this view, rough humor is the chief vehicle inside the anti-sacred space by which skilled practitioners (comedians) help their audiences relieve just a bit of that pent-up sacred anxiety that is otherwise a constant burden. Jokes, then, are small portals into the realm of the anti-sacred, where catharsis happens.
So that’s the theory I’m floating: rough humor is catharsis of sacred anxiety, and comedy clubs are anti-sacred spaces. I must confess, however, that this ends up being a rather extreme view of comedy, if taken to its logical conclusion. If it’s right, nothing would be off limits in terms of what you can reasonably joke about inside the anti-sacred space, since having a such limit would just imply another sacred rule that ought, by comedic lights, to be violated. Yet it strikes me that often this is the very logic of comedy: that any attempt to constrain it is just a further occasion for ridicule of that very attempt.
So maybe, in the end, that’s why people find jokes so dangerous. It’s not really that they reinforce naughty speech (though they might somewhat). It’s that comedy not only flaunts the sacred, but it also has a self-immunizing logic that means that any taboo on its subject matter is just an occasion for another joke. As a consequence, rough humor is a very scary thing for priests and moralists whose job it is to purvey the sacred. Their attempts at squelching rough humor will always be like trying putting out a fire with oil. But for the rest of us, rough humor might just be the catharsis we (occasionally) need.