"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Social Media, Wokeness, And The Loss Of Humor And Civility In American Discourse

There is a Gary Larson Facebook site with thousands of viewers.  Larson, who drew The Far Side from 1990-9,4 was enormously popular and appealed to both adults and to children who found his sense of irony and the absurd hilarious.  He published in an era before political correctness, and there were no holds barred.  Humor was humor, he said.  One of his most popular cartoons was of a fat woman holding onto a parking meter to avoid being sucked into a candy shop.

Image result for gary larson cartoon fat woman being sucked into candy shop

Reprinted today, thirty years later, it has been the subject of outrage.  Larson was not only a misogynist, trolls say, but virulently prejudiced against large-sized women.  The cartoon is considered irrelevant today because obesity is considered part of the weight spectrum, no different from any other.  Fat shaming, woke culturalists explain,  does injustice to those women who are quite happy in their bodies, beautiful, and attractive in their own way.  Not only that, but shaming a woman who, for health reasons, is trying to reconfigure her body image is ignorant and profoundly wrong 

Another favorite is that of two old coots drinking at a bar with a drunken boy between them.

Image result for gary larson cartoon bar scene with 'the kid'

It is drawn from Western lore, a parody of the image of the young outlaw, Billy the Kid and his imitators.  And yet today, the Gary Larson sites which post this cartoon are deluged with messages about child abuse, the dangers of alcohol, and the deadly combination of both.

This one of a boy trying to open the door of a school for the gifted but unable to read the sign that says ‘Pull’, got thousands of hostile remarks.  The cartoon, readers said, ridiculed the ‘less-advantaged’ and caricatured the boy as a fat, dumb, nerd.

Image result for gary larson cartoon scientist blowing up a chicken

Nothing of the sort, of course.  It was ridicule of the school for letting in such a dimwit.  Ridicule of the parents who thought their son belonged there; and ridicule of the clueless kid.  Parody, satire, irony, and the age-old, seemingly inexhaustible need to laugh at strange difference.  A man slipping on a banana peel, a blind boy trying to eat peas, the hobbled walk of Peg Leg Pete.  The humor is derived from its disconnects – a man in a suit flying head over heels, a sightless boy rolling his peas around like marbles on a playground, a gimpy old man walking down K Street like a drunken sailor.

Tens of thousands of outraged trolls complained about this one.

Image result for gary larson cartoon scientists

There is nothing funny, they said, about brain surgery, a matter of life and death and the only hopes for retrieving a disrupted life.  Nor is there anything funny about suggesting a gross medical incompetence in an age when patients’ rights are paramount; but what could be funnier than a group of surgeons poking around a brain to see what circus acts they could perform.  Again, humor derived from disconnect – the impossibility of the event depicted because of its presumed seriousness.

  Image result for gary larson scientist experiments

No comment.

Not only are the comments on these and hundreds of other Larson cartoons transparently self-important, but they are hateful.  There is no reasoned discussion about irony, satire, parody, or even cultural history.  There  are simply nasty and vengeful. 

Such comments of course are not limited to Gary Larson.  They are everywhere. Comments seem to be made not for relevance but irrelevance.  Historical sites are venues for cancel culture – damning screeds against imperialism, colonialism, Christian idolatry and aggression, elitist oppression, torture, and genocide.  Language sites are far from the forums to discuss the development, spread, and nature of languages, but homes for rabid nationalists.  A current site on Turkic languages has become a hostile, angry defensive place for Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, and Uighurs to rage against each other.  A high number of non-Turkic loan words is a point of shame, and the historical references to their inclusion thrown out as so much Western, Iranian, Slavic bullying.  Criticism of recipes posted on food sites is not allowed, and even corollary remarks are dismissed as hostile and unwanted. 

Image result for images azerbaijani nationalism

One accomplished cook posted an image of a unique and very creative Italian antipasto from Veneto, an interesting complement, he thought, to the more traditional Southern Italian fare common on the site.  His remarks were considered insulting to Southern Italians.  He was called a racist, a food ignoramus, and a jerk.  He was asked to leave the site.  A cinephile, a man who had watched and studied thousands of movies for decades wrote a short criticism of a classic movie, one which he found simplistic and uninteresting although he appreciated its popularity given its cultural and historical context. A number of site members who liked the film were not content to listen to his reasoned criticism, but to shout insults at his boorish ignorance.

Image result for antipasto from vento di guarda

No humor is allowed on these sites – funny associations, double entendres, misspellings – and ‘Who do you think you are?’ is always the response.

Where has humor gone? Why have people become so hyper-sensitive? And where has civil discourse gone? A well-written and thoughtful remark should always be answered by one of equal civility.  The hysteria, the anger, and the complete disregard for differing opinions is new.  Anyone who grew up even a few decades ago is continually surprised by the violent, hateful, and spiteful remarks on social media.

Some observers have suggested that it is the anonymity of social media that encourages such meanness and hostility; but why is there such meanness and hostility in the first place?   Others have cited a universal erosion of traditional values – respect, honesty, consideration, understanding, and temperance. Still others have blamed the Sixties and their celebration of ‘Do Your Own Thing’ which, despite the publicized communalism of the counter culture movement of the period, encouraged a selfish, anti-communitarianism. The moderating institutions of church, school, and family suffered during this period and have never recovered.

Image result for images hippies do your own thing

More than anything it is the organic nature of the woke movement that is responsible.  The woke movement has taken on a life of its own, hence ‘organic’.  It has become an institutional tautology – what it believes is right because it believes it is right.  Whiteness, wealth, privilege, and concentrations of power are ipso facto evil.  Any attempt to disaggregate the allegations – to investigate the historical, social, and economic factors behind social phenomena – is itself wrong and complaisant. Identity politics have encouraged personal absolutism and self-righteous demand, no different from those universal voices condemning Gary Larson.  There is no need to understand his work, his social insights; the disconnects and ironies; and the nature of his humor.  There is no such thing as historical context, no room for tolerance, no possible interpretation of his  cartoons to understand women, children, men, and their foibles.

Image result for woke cartoons

Given the character of public discourse – the political hostility, the angry, hateful ad hominem attacks on the major networks, the permissiveness of the once-reputable journals whose writers are encouraged to leave objectivity aside and get on the right side – it is not surprising to see such incivility and anger on social media.

However exactly because it is expressed there and is so common, universal, and tolerated, it is so worrying and indicative of a more systemic rot.

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