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Is the theory circular? Independent evidence of moral commitment

While not all emotional and moral commitments of individuals are independently verifiable, those that can be verified must, according to this theory, be compatible with the individuals' actual interpretations of situations as humorous, non-humorous, or offensive. This theory would be circular if there were no independent evidence for the degree of moral attachment attributed to the perceiver of the situation. If a person has no reaction, or if they laugh, or if they are offended, this behavior itself may be the only evidence of their personal stance regarding the principle that happens to be violated in the given situation. The fact that this is sometimes the case is no objection whatsoever. We don't have independent evidence about any scientifically understood phenomenon in all of its occurrences. We simply infer from those cases where we can find out what the determinants of the phenomenon are, that those same determinants are present in other cases as well.

On the other hand, if we could never provide independent evidence about the relationships between affective attachments of individuals and their humor perceptions, then the argument would be indeed be circular and meaningless. However, in many cases we can establish independently some degree of personal moral attachment to the principles involved. For example, we may compare different individuals whose moral commitments may be independently established, or we may compare the same individuals' reactions at different times, reflecting increased distance and decreased emotional involvement with the violation in the situation.

Through such comparisons, the theory makes certain definite predictions. Since perceivers have different moral attachments to particular principles, differing reactions to a situation may be compared with the differing moral views of the perceivers, whether these are different individuals, or the same individual at different times. In the following predictions, X, Y, and Z, may refer to different individuals, or to the same individual at different times.

Prediction 1: If X finds a situation funny where some principle is violated, and Y instead finds it to be offensive, frightening, or threatening, then we should find that Y is more attached to the principle violated than X, not vice versa.

Prediction 2: If on the other hand, some perceiver Z finds the aforementioned situation unremarkable, then we should find that Z has no personal moral attachment to principles violated; we should not find, for example, that Z is more attached to them than the X is who finds it funny.

In support of these predictions, a range of common observations are given here, which relate the strength of the V interpretation to perceived humor. First, people who don't laugh at sexist jokes are often (though they also may not be) publicly and avowedly feminists, and may have made explicit and public claims that sexist conduct is an irretrievably bad thing. Why don't feminists laugh at sexist jokes? Because such jokes violate principles which feminists have come to take very seriously, although the tellers of such jokes are less attached to them. Similarly, people who laugh at racist jokes, in this theory, do not hold an equally strong affective commitment to the principles of human dignity that are violated in the jokes as those people who find them distasteful.

Second, some people when visiting other cultures find them to lack a sense of humor. Across the famous ``Generation Gap'' of the sixties, younger people in contact with older people encountered important differences of attachment to various moral principles. The younger generation thought the older generation was ``uptight'', a phrase with simultaneous connotations of both moral rigidity and lack of humor. While youngsters may find it hilarious to consider (e.g., tell jokes about) situations in which certain moral principles are violated, older folks may find these situations quite offensive. They are seriously committed to the principles involved, and do not find situations containing violations of them to be either acceptable or funny, while the youngsters are less attached to those principles. On the three-category scale derived below, the youngsters are committed enough to the principles to see violations of them as funny (level 2), but not so little committed as to be unable to see the point (level 1). Similarly Californians may find that Minnesotans ``have no sense of humor,'' because they take situations ``too seriously'', considering something that is (in the Californians' view) merely funny to be offensive. Also, individuals who are known in a (Protestant American) community for being particularly high-minded and moral (with respect to a set of violations commonly encountered in the community) are also often considered to lack a sense of humor. The present theory provides an explanation of how these traits are related: the more moral a person is (with respect to certain principles and violations of them), the more serious is their attachment to those moral principles, and the less those attachments can be broken through humorous interpretations which reconstitute situations containing violations of the principles as being quite normal and acceptable.

Third, most people are familiar with the experience of making a funny remark or joke before some audience that doesn't appreciate it; this theory predicts generally that such situations can result from the different moral commitments of the speaker and the audience. Conversely, people visiting different cultures may regularly find them to be funny when they don't intend to be. For example, I had a foreign housemate who found it funny when someone would burp aloud, because for him, while this was a violation of propriety, it was not so great as to make him offended or disgusted. But many people consider burping and other bodily noises to be offensive rather than funny, and those who consider them offensive would seem to be more strongly attached to this propriety principle than those who find them laughable.

Further, the degree of affective commitment to principles violated can evidently vary with independent variables, such as the object of the violation. People more easily make jokes at the expense of others than at themselves, by the universal fact that people care more about themselves than about others. People care much more vehemently about their own dignity and comfort than about the dignity and comfort of others, if only because it is easier to feel one's own pain. Consequently, another's discomfort, injury, or even death, may be laughable, but one's own is less so. Mel Brooks has been quoted as saying, ``Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.'' Because of the general fact that a violation that happens to others is not felt as strongly as a violation that happens to oneself, the interpretation is frequently shifted from one of threat or offense (where V predominates) to one of humor (where N predominates), when the object of the violation is another rather than oneself.

An especially clear case has to do with a new mother of my acquaintance, who had once been appreciative of a particular sick joke involving a dead baby and an electric fan. Now that she is a mother and has actually seen her baby toddling in the direction of a fan and has contemplated the outcome, the joke is no longer funny to her. Affective commitments are directly effected by one's experiences. The sickening violations of the moral order involved in dead baby jokes can in an appropriate context of interpretation be simultaneously seen as normal if you have sufficient emotional distance from the issues. But if your experience has made you take these violations more seriously, then you won't be able to see them as simultaneously normal or acceptable. In this example, it is especially clear that it is a person's increased level of emotional involvement, derived from her experience of the real possibility of the relevant violation actually occurring, that made the joke change in character from funny to threatening, frightening or sick.

The above cases are all consistent with Prediction 1, in which those who don't laugh have greater affective commitments to the violated subjective moral principle that those who do. A couple of instances may be adduced in support of Prediction 2, also: puns and peekaboo (both discussed in later sections also). First, people who laugh at puns have, in my cultural experience, generally been bookish people, who by their academic activities demonstrate their own pleasure in manipulating language forms. At the same time such people seem to be mildly shocked by a departure from linguistic norms. They care about linguistic proprieties violated in puns, to which others, less bookish in orientation, may have no affective commitment and which they do not hold as part of their moral systems.

Second, adults don't see the inherent humor in peekaboo (if they laugh, it is as a following behavior rather than as a perception of humor, as argued below), because they see no moral violation in the fact that a face may disappear behind two hands and reappear again, while babies do (if they have not yet developed object permanence). This case is discussed in more detail below. These cases are consistent with Prediction 2, in which those who laugh are predicted to have greater attachment to the principles violated than those who don't see the point.

So far this discussion has confirmed that different individuals who can independently be shown to have greater or lesser moral commitment to particular principles do indeed have the predicted relative kinds of humorous or non-humorous responses. Similar predictions hold for single individuals over time, as we will see next.

A commonly observed fact about life is the way that situations we go through change their character in our memory over time, so that they become first funny, and then sometimes unremarkable with greater distance. An embarrassing situation is certainly not funny while it is being experienced, because if it cuts so close to home that it makes one feel embarrassment, then it cannot be at that time be funny -- otherwise the embarrassment could be relieved (but see page [*] below for further discussion of embarrassment). Later on, however, when one is feeling better about oneself, or more detached from the situation, it may begin to seem funny, and one can begin to laugh at it.

A person may remain, long afterwards, just as attached to the abstract general principles violated in a situation as during the experience. Rather it is simply that one is gradually less emotionally involved in the particular instance of violating the principles. This makes the point that it is a violation in a particular instance, not the abstract general idea of violation apart from a particular case, real or imagined, which carries the weight of humor or offense. This further supports the present theory's contention that the relevant conception of moral violation is of the subjective moral order, in which present events are more important than older ones.

Since one's emotional involvement in the situation is less serious vis-á-vis later retrospection than vis-á-vis current involvement, this is consistent with the theory: something is not funny when it is threatening; however, it is funny when it has the flavor of being threatening (V) but is no longer so personally involving, now that things are really okay (N).

Further, when more time passes, say some decades, after much personal change and transformation, some situations which were embarrassing or threatening during the experience, and which in near-term remembrance were funny, may in long-term retrospect seem neither threatening nor funny. One may eventually wonder, What was the big deal after all? Certainly an adult, told by his mother about how as a baby he used to cry miserably when she left the room, might wonder what the concern was: So Mom was walking around the house -- so what! Adults may understand it intellectually, but they do not feel it emotionally in the way that they themselves felt it when they were babies. Nor do they usually find peekaboo games to be inherently funny for themselves, though they may have been quite amused by it years before.

Temporal distance is clearly an independent measure of the degree of personal attachment, so it is evident that the pattern of change from threatening to funny to unremarkable correlates with an independent measure of the degree of personal involvement with the violation in the situation. This is further evidence for Predictions 1 and 2, which specifically claim that individuals who differ in interpreting a situation as funny versus threatening or as funny versus unremarkable should differ in their level of emotional involvement - in just the way that is observed here in the case of the same individuals changing their perspectives over time. This provides further support, therefore, for the present theory of humor.

next up previous
Next: What isn't funny? Up: Humor is Affective Absurdity Previous: A (V)iolation of what?
Tom Veatch