Punching Down

Justin E. H. Smith in The Point:

ScreenHunter_2790 Aug. 16 22.11I recently found myself at an academic conference that featured a presentation by graduate students on “combating racism with humor.” We were made to watch a video clip of a theater piece they had performed in connection with an anti-racism event. The skit depicted corporate executives planning an ad campaign associating the efficacy of soap products with their power to make people of color white. I found myself pitying the students. They had obviously overestimated their ability to change the world. But they were also, it seemed to me, tragically unaware of what humor is. They were mistaking it for a tool to be deployed in the pursuit of real-world ends: closing the gap between the powerful and the powerless, ensuring payback time for the fat cats, sticking it to the man.

It is hard to blame them. They were under the grip of a widespread illusion, expressed by Garry Trudeau along with countless others after the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in 2015, that humor only achieves its highest purpose when it “punches up”—that is, when it involves the powerless kicking back against the powerful. But to insist that a joke is not funny because it punches down is a category mistake. It is to deploy standards of justice where justice is not at issue. We see an analogous mistake when philistines judge that, say, a crucifix photographed in a jar of urine is, to the extent that it is offensive, not art. “That’s not funny” is the comedic equivalent of “that’s not art”—both are statements that can be made only by people who don’t understand the thing they are talking about.

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