The Rhetoric of Joking

Verbal fun has its place yet often we use it to hide our own thoughts. In the context of conflict, such fun can create problems, particularly when if goes into ridicule.

In a follow-up to the previous post, What and How We Say It, Alstair Roberts comments

Pastor Wilson has a sort of playful detachment from the whole conflict, a detachment that his opponents do not. He is not really peddling serious outrage in his post, but ridicule. While the outraged individuals are intense and serious in their exaggerations, Pastor Wilson is just purposefully getting a rise out of people. It isn’t about serious arguments for him, because he doesn’t seem to think that his opponents are making serious arguments.
The question of the jocular style and ridicule has several dimensions.
On the contrast between the Rev. Wilson and the feminists: it is simply easier to be jocular, “playful” when one has relatively little skin in the game. Part of the emotional heat can be attributed to a discrepancy in age and life setting. The questions of negotiating relationships are far more serious for a 25- or 30-year old than for a grandfather nearing 60; add to this the setting in a major urban area, as opposed to Idaho.
As to the jocular, playful style — I would offer five observations on such ridicule:

  1. We use the style as a form of group identity. The mutual playfulness and ridicule is part of our belonging. You can see this with sports fans and their happy trash-talking of the other side;
  2. A playful style is often the stuff of long relationships, such as between spouses or debating partners. Again, we enter into the jocular style because of a mutuality;
  3. When directed outward, when the playfulness is focused unilaterally on another as ridicule, it functions as an assertion of social position, status, or “lording it over” the other in biblical terms. Benignly as parent to a child’s tantrum, but the same mocking voice also becomes the word of put-down as any high schooler will tell you. The assertion of ‘fun’ — “I was just joking” — becomes the excuse we tell ourselves. When expressed towards the weak, such fun easily wounds. This use of ridicule in particular lies in substantial tension with the call to servanthood;
  4. The jocular, ridiculing tone in blogging/arguments strikes me as especially gendered; it’s something guys do. See point one in the sports bar; and
  5. This jocular,  scornful style is something for the young. And that’s fairly reasonable: the jibe is easier to execute than the analysis. Our humor moves from the superficial and external to the humane, Mel Brooks, perhaps, excepted.

Taken together, the jocular style is a way of holding people at a distance rather than engaging — I suspect this is one reason by Benedict’s Rule counseled against laughter. Or, to return the question to the Rev. Wilson: having spoken “playfully”, has he spoken wisely?


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