Sometimes, we take ourselves a little too seriously. We all think we’re right. We all know what’s best. We all like to yell and point aggressively at each other. And then we put experts on TV to yell and point at people they can’t see and call into radio talk shows to yell and point at people that can’t see them. We take everything — the fiscal cliff, parking tickets, baseball — very seriously.
Now, I’ve done my fair share of yelling and pointing, and I think we always yell and point with the best of intentions: serious passion. That serious passion can lead to serious and productive conversations, but more often than not, it seems to lead to some serious miscommunication that adds tension, occludes ideas and ends discussions.
Just because our passions are austere doesn’t mean our responses must be; sometimes the best answer isn’t a straight face, but a joke.
Abraham Lincoln loved jokes. In fact, his jokes and anecdotes famously cut through the political diatribe and put conversations back on track. The jokes eased tension, the anecdotes refocused the seriously passionate men, and maybe most importantly, his humor just gave everyone a break to cool off.
I think we traditionally undervalue the role of humor in discussion and communication. Jon Stewart and the Onion find a joke in everything, but after the laughs fade away, you’re often left with something more. A new perspective, maybe? A different analogy? You can make a joke about our crumbling infrastructure and call it road cancer, laugh and move on. Or you can make the joke and take something away from it. Maybe we actually can draw a parallel between treating cancer and treating our infrastructure. Or maybe we can’t. I don’t know, but there’s more there than just a giggle.
I think one of the most valuable things you can learn in life is the ability to laugh at yourself. Since college campuses are supposed to be places of learning, what better place to start laughing? Humor makes things less pointed, less severe and bridges ideological differences, making it the perfect tool for college students to develop sound opinions and ideas.
Humor isn’t just profanity or dirty words, as funny as those can be. Humor isn’t just mean wit or jest at the expense of others, even if that, at times, is effective. Humor is about ripping off the facade, tearing down the curtain and being raw and real. Not necessarily the traditional real of fact, but real in the sense of the heart of a matter. Telling it like it is.
Some of the most enlightening coverage of the recent debate over gun regulation that I saw was an Onion article that replaced the word “gun” with phrases like “piece of metal that launches other smaller pieces of metal great distances, one after the other.” It was simple. It was funny. It was real. And it made you stop and think about whatever it was we were actually supposed to be talking about.
That being said, there is a fine line between effective and ineffective humor, and that line is sometimes difficult to discern. Something that is offensive can also sometimes spark a necessary conversation, or it can further alienate two sides. Something that is funny in one country can mean nothing in another. Humor is a powerful tool that must be smartly applied. A laugh may not always be appropriate, but a somber scowl may not either.
Humor has an important place in mature communication. No, it shouldn’t replace serious conversation or factual discussions, but it can be a very effective tool to facilitate them. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine.
Esce is a member of the class of 2015.