Some Aspects Of Differential competence

Let us start with a simple joke taken from the public domain.

A miser took all his money out of the bank for a holiday. When he thought it had had enough of a rest, he put it all back.

There are those who will find this amusing and those who will not, and one of the many reasons for the latter response could be that it is a rather weak joke. At this point it is worth noting Freud’s distinction between ‘innocent’ jokes and ‘contentious’ jokes, where the latter involve, for example, something sexual, aggressive or cynical (1991, Chapter III). So for some, perhaps the miser joke is childish, a little too ‘innocent’. However, let us see what happens when some minor modifications are made to it.

A Scot took all his money out of the bank for a holiday. When he thought it had had enough of a rest, he put it all back.

Simply changing the leftmost noun now makes this joke somewhat more contentious (the syntactical mechanics of the joke remain the same, please note). I would imagine that Scottish people and those who identify with them would not find this amusing. (If they also found the first version unamusing, they are likely to find the second doubly unamusing). Here is another version.

A Jew took all his money out of the bank for a holiday. When he thought it had had enough of a rest, he put it all back.

Given the consequences of anti-Semitism within living memory this joke is liable to cause even greater offence to many people. But even here some qualification is necessary. The second version may cause greater offence when told, for example, by an English stranger in a bar in Glasgow. Further, the third version may cause little or no offence when told by a Jew to another Jew (Freud’s work is full of Jewish jokes in which Jews are not always seen in the best light 4.) What we can see at work here is the reference groups and identification groups mentioned earlier by Raju, and, inextricably tied in with this, the power relations involved in such social groupings. As power is unevenly distributed throughout society, it becomes highly significant to the success of a joke who is telling what kind of joke to whom at what time and in what place.  These relationships can be represented diagrammatically as in Figure 2.

fFigur 2 Humour Relations graphic


Figure 2  Humour Relations

This simple illustration actually represents very dynamic relationships, which are in constant flux. For instance, as we develop as social beings we not only move through time and space but also move in and out of different groupings and position ourselves accordingly and in turn find ourselves positioned differently by others. A clear-cut example of this comes from British television. Angus Deayton was the host of the show ‘Have I Got News for You’, a topical news quiz in which two panels satirise the perceived misdeeds of politicians and celebrities, and as such, it occupies the moral high ground. In this context Deayton (and the panellists) could be said to occupy the role of teller, with the studio and broadcast audiences being the hearer, and the satirised being the butt. However, when Deayton himself became the subject of a running tabloid front-page news story concerning his sexual and drug activities he found himself increasingly being positioned by the media and the panellists as butt. His position eventually became untenable and the BBC dismissed him. One of the show’s team captains, the comedian Paul Merton, who had relentlessly ridiculed Deayton on air during this period, later explained that it was no longer possible for someone who was the subject of those stories to be the host of a show which satirised such people. That is, in that context, the butt could not be the teller. However, this does not mean that at any one time these three roles must always be occupied by three different people or groups. The relationships are much more fluid than that. For example, someone (a teller) can make a joke with a like-minded friend (a hearer) against a mutual enemy (a butt), giving a situation of two groups (‘us and them’), or make a joke with a friend about their own group, so that all relations are in-group. An individual’s self-deprecating humour elides teller and butt, and if we laugh at ourselves when alone, for example, all three roles are occupied by one person. And so on.
A further relevant factor here is that different people can appreciate the same text for different reasons. Powell’s model of humour as ‘normality vs. deviance’ (1977) recognises that different people/groups recognise different norms and rules and consequently find different ideas and events funny, or find the same text funny for different reasons. For example, take an audience watching ‘Modern Times’, in which Charlie Chaplin plays an assembly worker having difficulties with the modern production process. Audience members of a left-wing persuasion might locate the problem in the conditions and relations of production and be amused by Chaplin’s resistance to these. Those of the right might be amused by the incongruity of Chaplin’s failure to conform to acceptable norms. ‘We are not talking of abstract realities, but rather of a world of multiple realities and constructed meanings’ (p.54). (This situation will recur below in the discussion of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’.)
Another aspect to note is that the processes under discussion take place in an instant and are not always under our immediate control. We do not listen to a joke, ruminate on it and then, all things considered, decide whether to show or withhold amusement. Our amusement (or lack of it) is immediately present. In the discussion of Hay’s model above we saw that the space between element 2, understanding, and element 3, appreciation, allowed room for the withholding of amusement. Hay adds yet another element – agreement. This means that, in unqualified humour support, appreciation of the humour also means support of the message, whatever it may be. However, she also notes that it is possible to support the humour through appreciation but cancel any agreement by such comments as ‘That’s cruel’ etc (2001:76). But she further adds that some humour (she cites ethnic and sexist humour) depends on sharing a given attitude and so, in such cases, amusement always means agreement. Ronald de Sousa would agree. He calls such examples of humour phthonic (‘malicious’, ‘evil’) and claims that enjoyment of such jokes makes the amused person complicit in the breach of the moral code:

In contrast to the element of wit, the phthonic element in a joke requires endorsement. It does not allow of hypothetical laughter. The phthonic makes us laugh only insofar as the assumptions on which it is based are attitudes actually shared. Suspension of disbelief in the situation can and must be achieved for the purposes of the joke; suspension of attitude cannot be.   

 (1987:240, original emphasis)

Such points do take the discussion further but there are certain problems concerning cognitive/affective sequence (role of hearer), the nature of the role of the teller, and the strains between the public and the private which I feel are not as easily resolved as Hay and de Sousa might imply.
Concerning the first aspect (cognitive/affective sequence), Freud, perhaps the major proponent of the relief theory of humour (certainly the most detailed), argues that tendentious jokes use the joke-work (the cognitive) to evade the censor and give playful and acceptable expression to otherwise repressed or inhibited emotions (the affective). This raises the possibility of giving vent to feelings of which we are not always consciously aware. If this is indeed the case, does it mean that, for de Sousa and Hay, when someone expresses amusement at, for example, one of the modified miser jokes above, it is then too late to cancel the entailed agreement or that any such cancellation will be seen as insincere? Why is it possible to cancel the agreement of a cruel joke (which, of course, could also contain sexist and/or racist elements) but not of certain others? There are those who anyway see no problem with such humour. Jacobson, for example, comments on attempts to defuse aggressive ethnic humour: ‘Jettison the cargo of offence and you jettison the joke’ (1997:37). This purgative (as opposed to moral) view of humour would find no role for cancellation, any joke having served its purpose in appreciation alone. Indeed, is this not the folk view of the function of humour, ‘to have a laugh’, regardless?5. But the question for us here is: what is the nature of that amusement?  There are no easy answers to these matters and they will no doubt remain the grounds of contestation.  I would tend to agree with Powell that we are talking about multiple realities and constructed meanings, and I believe that what happens in practice is that the power relations present in any given context will decide what the dominant interpretation will be, and, further, that the nature of those relations will determine the consequences of such interpretations. Thus, in Germany in the 1930s, making jokes about leading Nazis led some people to be denounced and executed 6. and in the USSR under Stalin jokes criticising the regime could lead to the camps in Siberia 7. In the USA in the early 1960s Lenny Bruce suffered various types of state harassment, and in Burma in the 1990s two comedians, ‘The Moustache Brothers’, supporters of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, performed a satire outside her home to the delight of 2,000 supporters but were imprisoned for 7 years by the military for ‘disrupting the stability of the union’8. However, when in the 1990s Saddam Hussein sent assassins into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to kill those that had taken part in a film satirising him and his regime, local power won out, the assassins were caught, and the humorous not the murderous interpretation prevailed in that region. The second point raised by the connection between appreciation and agreement concerns the role of the teller. Klages (1992) focuses on Helen Keller jokes in America, Helen Keller being the woman who overcame the great adversity of being born deaf-blind and who is often cited as a model for children to follow. Klages says it is possible for women to analyse and re-interpret these jokes rather than to ignore or censor them. To take one example. Q: How did Helen Keller go crazy? A: Trying to read a stucco wall. Such jokes make us laugh and wince, says Klages; ‘laugh’ because they criticise the saintly, sanitised and miraculous representation of Keller in dominant cultural values, ‘wince’ because we should not laugh at the disabled. She asserts that it can be a positive act to tell such jokes because disabled women also ‘have bodies that need to be, and have a right to be, publicly visible, publicly represented, in their own terms, and with their own differences’ (p.22). This position raises some questions.  Klages’ main problem is that she talks in the third person of the disabled being represented in ‘their own terms’. Can able-bodied comedians be sure that the terms of the joke are the terms of the disabled? It seems unlikely the Helen Keller jokes originated from deaf-blind people, but even if they did, is it then the same performance with the same social significance for able-bodied people to tell them to other able-bodied people? Once again joke relations come into play. This is the ‘team shirt’ problem where, for example, stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza feels justified to tell jokes about Muslim women, being one herself, but she is suspicious of white males doing the same as she is uncertain whether the jokes are made ‘at us or with us’ (in Bakewell 2001). There is also the danger of an implicit elitism in the position of Klages, containing as it does the suggestion that a certain self-selected group have a licence to tell any kind of joke about any kind of butt as if they were somehow above or outside of historical contingencies. It is likely that it would only be possible to tell such jokes among close friends who would be explicitly aware of the ironic detachment involved, but this raises yet more questions about the teller’s role and also points us towards the third point, the relations between the public and private, which will be addressed shortly.
The teller, rather than being simply a vehicle for the transmission of verbal signs, can actually have a number of roles. The strongest example in this regard is the professional comedian. Throughout history in a wide variety of cultures there has been a role for the comic figure, whether that be the court fools in ancient China or Egypt, the buffoons of classical Greece, medieval jesters, circus clowns, music-hall turns, movie comics, TV sitcom stars or club stand-up performers9. What they all have in common is a licence to play the fool, and a significant part of this licence is to transgress. No-one is more aware of this than the practising comedian, as just a small selection of comments from some of today’s practitioners shows. ‘The purpose of comedy…is to take people where they are not sure they want to go. There is no unchartable territory’ (Rich Hall in Lawson 2000), and ‘it’s not my job to find anyone’s comfort zones. I don’t give a shit what people like, or think they like, or want to like’ (Scott Capurro 2000:138). ‘It’s good to offend people; it makes them think…I think there’s nothing that can’t be joked about’ (Shazia Mirza in Bakewell 2001).
 Another distinguishing feature of comic figures is that, unlike most other performers, it is difficult to separate out the comic persona from the ‘real’ person. As Welsford puts it when discussing Tarlton, Elizabeth I’s jester: ‘whereas Burbage ceased to be Hamlet when the play was over, Tarlton was Tarlton both on and off the stage’ (1935:312). Many comedians are unable (or choose not to) switch off their comic persona when giving interviews and making public appearances (audience expectations play a part here). For example, in the 1970s Peter Cook, then a leading comedy writer and performer and notorious for always being ‘on’, underwent therapy on the grounds that he no longer knew who he was (Cook 2004), and two present-day UK comic figures, Ali G and Avid Merrion, will only give interviews when in character. In such cases it is not always easy to attribute responsibility to comic utterances. However, this view can be qualified somewhat. Bob Monkhouse, a comic performer and writer for over 50 years, in an interview in 1984 comments, ‘I came into the business…in order to get laughs but that meant inventing a persona, offering something that is not necessarily me, it’s an invention, a construction’ (Tolson 1991:186). For him, then, there was a clear distance between himself and his stage persona. The point that needs to be stressed here is that whatever the perspective taken on this matter, being a comic figure with a licence does not place people outside of social life or mean that comic talk has no social consequences, as we shall see below. This ambivalence of the comic figure is also paralleled of course in the material offered (humour), which as we saw above is by design ambiguous. Thus, the comic figure can use any or all of these factors as an excuse should jokes cause offence, as, indeed, we all can when taking on the role of teller: ‘It was only a joke’. But it is worth repeating that this does not mean such excuses will be accepted; in a world of multiple realities and constructed meanings the speaker of a comic utterance does not ‘own’ the meaning and cannot control hearer meaning.
The third point regarding appreciation and agreement is the tension between the public and the private. We all allow ourselves to behave in a more unbuttoned manner when in private, saying and doing things when alone or with close associates which we would not consider doing in public. Indeed, we might even condemn similar behaviour by others if carried out openly (unless, of course, some kind of licence has been negotiated or granted, as is the case with comic figures). This public/private duality parallels to some degree the friction between the conscious and the unconscious mentioned above, and, given the increased significance of personal politics in contemporary life, such conflicts can become difficult to manage. These strains are magnified by the degree to which anyone is a public figure, particularly at a time of increasingly intrusive news media.  This is not to say that we are two wholly separate beings, one private, one public; for most of us most of the time there is a strong (if not complete) correspondence between our private and public morality. Though this means we may tell or appreciate jokes in private that we don’t in public, I would suggest the distance between them, where it exists, is small. The psychic (private) censors discussed by Freud originate in social (public) disapprobation and it is this collective force of which we are all more wary and do our best to avoid by behaving, for the most part, appropriately. Most of us are able to distinguish clearly between public and private and display a tolerable level of social competence.