Wednesday, August 29, 2012


"If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you"
-Groucho Marx

James Lileks went to the fair recently, and he watched an episode take place. It wasn't a very dramatic scene, just one that you spot every so often and it says something about society. A couple of high school guys spotted a girl talking to a cop:
She was attractive, and not in the standard style - she had glasses, big black ones, which mean she might have been Alternative. You know, one of those interesting girls who’s into cool stuff.

“He’s making some time,” said one of the guys.

“Yep, this is a real Taser,” said the other, slipping into a caricatured macho voice. “Had to tase a guy the other day. Tased him right down to the ground.”

They both made fun of the cop in the same mocking voice, then fell silent. When they started talking again, it was about band. One of them was in pep, but he wasn’t going to do marching again. But pep was great because you could play at, like, women’s volleyball.

“Definitely,” said the other.

Ah, the quiet desperation of the beta males. Damned world with cops who impress their kind of girl. Damned world. Mockery counts for nothing, and they know it.
I suppose if you're a pep rally kind of guy, the world seems unfair around you, but their response is not to have pride in what they do, but to be bitter and mock others. And that's all too common a response today. In the place of humor, we have frivolity. In the place of wisdom, we have sarcasm. In the place of critical thought, we have mockery. And that's all across the culture. Watch any ten advertisements and you'll see it again and again, belittling others for humor, mocking people just to get a laugh or attention. Everyone is a pathetic, out of touch loser unless they're just like you.

I can't help but think of a line from the classic novel Ben Hur in which Lew Wallace introduces the character Messala:
As philosophy was taking the place of religion, satire was fast substituting reverence; insomuch that in Latin opinion it was to every speech, even to the little diatribes of conversation, salt to viands, and aroma to wine. The young Messala, educated in Rome, but lately returned, had caught the habit and manner; the scarce perceptible movement of the outer corner of the lower eyelid, the decided curl of the corresponding nostril, and a languid utterance affected as the best vehicle to convey the idea of general indifference, but more particularly because of the opportunities it afforded for certain rhetorical pauses thought to be of prime importance to enable the listener to take the happy conceit or receive the virus of the stinging epigram.
I don't know if that was true at the time - it certainly has a powerfully authentic ring - but its true now. People aren't any smarter, or even more sophisticated today than in, say, 1940. All they have become is more bitter, sarcastic, and full of mockery.

And mockery doesn't achieve anything except a sense of superiority. You don't build anything, create anything, support anything, or achieve anything through mockery and sarcasm. You tear down, you belittle, you trample under foot. Instead of trying to become better, we try to rip others down so they aren't better than us. I suppose in a relative sense you're taller than the man you stomp on.

There is a place for mockery and sarcasm, as for all things. The problem is modern society inserts these into every situation and place. Its always time to make fun of everything, its never the wrong time for sarcasm. Satire is often thought of being in these categories, but it is another creature entirely: satire is instruction through humor, it exaggerates and pokes fun at something in the process of enlightening and teaching. Sarcasm simply is a bitter, sneering response.

But when you feel powerless and your life feels empty, bitterness is all you have left. And that's what too much of the culture has been reduced to. Trolling for laughs, attacking everything, rejecting reverence as pathetic and stupid, mocking everything dear and important. Because if you can't build up, at least you can rip things down to make your emptiness feel less unique. If everyone is empty, then at least you have company.


Rob De Witt said...

Nicely observed, although in my opinion somewhat over-analyzed. This type of "humor" is simply the province of the pre-adolescent, embarrassed about his changing voice yet still unable to take a chance on being masculine. It's the humor, in fact, of a 10-year-old - and not surprising in a society with several generations of fatherless boys further neutered by their "education".

One primary piece of evidence you missed, by the way, is the prevalence of something called "photo-bombing," where it's considered the height of sophistication to insert a nose-thumber into someone else's photographic mementos.


Christopher R Taylor said...

Your response is self contradictory. You say its the provenance of a 10 year old but then note its popular with guys into their 30s. This has taken over culture at nearly every level, not just schoolgrounds.