Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tsunamis, Dead Bodies, Jokes, and Reality

Last week I wrote about insensitivity in the wake of tragedy, of both the intentional and the unintentional variety. A few days later, posted a column dealing with the same subject. Jack Shafer took a sympathetic view of the situation, claiming that "where I come from, the only power strong enough to defeat radiation is a sick, hurtful joke." But as I wrote previously, I'm skeptical that such jokes actually serve a psychological need. I'm not totally disinclined to buy the Freudian theory that jokes can be a way to talk about that which would otherwise be repressed, but I have a hard time believing that people halfway across the world are suffering repressed trauma as the result of natural disasters that affect strangers.

But there is one remark that I made in last week's post that I am now reconsidering. I suggested that it was likely that in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, jokes were likely circulated. Now, I'm not so sure. Shafer also looks to the past, in order that he might find a precedent that would perhaps justify today's practice, and he finds it in the Jewish custom of the Badkhn. Apparently, the Badkhn was a kind of jester specializing in offensive jokes who would turn social events into what we might call roasts. Centuries ago, when rabbis outlawed levity from public events, the Badkhns were allowed to persist because they weren't actually considered funny. So, the story goes, they popularized a tradition that the likes of Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman follow today.

But there is a difference between someone speaking at a roast and Gilbert Gottfried joking through Twitter about bodies washing up onshore. Proximity to the subject of the joke is crucial to consider. When you are making a joke about someone you can see, you are taking a real situation and making it absurd. When you are joking about a news story, you are taking an abstraction and making it more abstract.

Our first reactions when public figures transgress against sensitivity in times of tragedy are shock and censure. Some might argue that this is exactly what somebody like Gottfried is after, that he is fulfilling a needed social function, that we need to be constantly provoked in order to establish boundaries. And Shafer seems to think that Gottfried is being disingenuous when he apologized and said he meant no disrespect.

But I think it is entirely possible that many who tell such jokes are legitimately surprised when there is a backlash. Because the vast majority of people alive today have grown up with television, we take for granted that our realities have been mediated. A typical adult has seen multiple natural disasters, tragedies, and horrors of unspeakable dimensions played out in their lifetime. A majority of these incidents have been scripted and staged, others have been filmed and relayed from distant parts of the world--and very few have directly impacted them. Is it any surprise then, that when a tragedy occurs, many of us will view it as an abstraction, at least partially? And the less real that something is, the more likely we will view it as the typical fodder we are offered up through the media everyday--including narratives that we can initially immerse ourselves in but then disregard without a second thought, or gossip that we can laugh and joke about.

So I'm not sure that people in the 1940s would have joked about Hiroshima. Even though it happened halfway around the world, it wasn't an abstraction. The terror of a nuclear bomb made itself known first in reality without having been portrayed in fiction. But the threat of a nuclear meltdown today? It's just as likely to inspire a joke about Godzilla as it is to inspire fear.

But in the final analysis, even as the line between reality and abstraction is blurred by technology, at least there is a picture there to begin with. Had this tragedy befallen Japan 300 years ago, I can't imagine there would have been much support from the international community. Having some off-color jokes in circulation seems to be a fair trade-off for the sympathies, concerns, prayers, and relief efforts that flow from the hearts of those who, if not for media, would have a smaller, if more precise, view of reality.


Blogger SissyLovesFurries said...

Though Freud has often been seen as quite a bit of a crackpot (and that's just a tad too literal) his theories on humor have been brought to light fairly well as psychological, social, cognitive, and cultural. A good insight to this would be "The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious", by Joyce Crick. Also, I think that this source shows that it is not a COMPLETELY unfounded idea based upon his ideas of ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO, but also on the Greek ideals of mimesis that Freud seemed to pick up. (He read a great deal of Plato, who really dove into making traditional medical thoughts a part of literature.

4:39 PM  

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