Sunday, March 6, 2011
Healthy Humor or Inappropriate Mockery?
During the eighteen months or so surrounding the controversial ban over three of my books, an enormous amount of satire appeared. But is such humor always, sometimes, or even ever appropriate? This is a question that needs to be considered by people engaging in any sort of Adar humor. I can think of arguments in both directions.
1. Laughing is a healthy way to relieve tension.
Many people were immensely stressed by the ban on my books, which placed them in a religious crisis. Being able to laugh at the absurdity of the situation helped them; it is a medical fact that humor relieves stress in several ways. On a personal note, I will add that I myself was under immense psychological and emotional strain; nobody can imagine what it was like (with the possible exception of Rabbi Nosson Kamenetzky). I can look back on that episode now with a wry smile, but for 18 months I was a complete wreck. But at the time, being able to laugh at some of the satire that was generated certainly helped me get through it.
2. Humor is often a way to make powerful points.
From Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart, people have used satire as a very effective way to make a point.
3. The targets of the jokes often deserve to be laughed at.
Rabbis have a responsibility to act and speak in a responsible, intelligent way that does not show Torah Judaism in a poor light. If someone uses their podium at a major conference to say that "these same scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened sixty-five million years ago – ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two weeks' time!" perhaps they deserve to be satirized. If a rabbi writes a public letter that includes false and defamatory personal slurs against his ideological opponents, maybe he deserves to be mocked, and such mockery will dissuade others from engaging in similar behavior.
4. What's the big deal? It's just harmless fun.
This is a common argument, but there are usually more consequences than the person realizes.
These are the arguments in favor of satire. But on the other hand...
1. Satire is rarely entertaining for the target.
Ona'as devarim, the sin of hurting someone's feelings, is a very serious matter.
2. Poking fun at figures in authority, even if they deserve it, harms the very concept of authority in general.
The mockery of former President George W. Bush by his ideological opponents had the unintended effect of lowering the status of the presidency of the United States - with negative consequences for President Barak Obama. Mocking rabbinic leaders can harm the very concept of rabbinic authority.
3. Humor can sometimes be a way to avoid having reasoned arguments.
I once attended a yeshivah where the Rosh Yeshivah would endlessly use sarcasm to mock positions that he disagreed with, to great effectiveness. But this concealed the fact that he really didn't have any cogent , defensible arguments against those positions.
4. Mocking others is often a crude and unhealthy way to boost one's ego.
The justifications for satire that I listed above are often just a smokescreen of rationalizations. The person issuing the satire is often motivated by a desire to have others laugh at his cleverness, and thereby feel respected or appreciated. He convinced himself that he is pursuing a noble social or intellectual goal, but in reality he is just filling his own emotional needs in a very unhealthy way - building himself up by putting others down. The same can be true for those entertaining themselves with the satire issued by others.
5. The facelessness and often anonymity of the internet prevents a person from properly evaluating the consequences of their actions.
If nobody knows how you are, it's easy to shed that which would ordinarily restrain you. And even if you're not anonymous, the impersonal nature of online communications often means that one does not properly evaluate the consequences of what one writes.
6. Engaging in sustained mockery is a way to avoid being constructive.
It's all too easy to criticize and mock other people and their ideas. It's much more difficult to construct one's own ideology and successfully develop it and transmit it. Sustained mockery of others, put forward as "constructive criticism," can be a way of blinding oneself to the fact that one is not actually interested in being constructive oneself.
I plan to post some examples of different humor, for entertainment and evaluation!