Sarcasm. Banter. Taking the piss. Schadenfreude.
The beating heart of humour, at least historically, has been cruelty. Often about mocking people for characteristics they can’t control—too fat, too thin, too female, (less often, but still frequently) too male, too black, too ugly—or about status (Roman writers and their endless slave jokes, complete with an unpleasant resemblance to 19th century blackface and minstrelsy), funnies from the past are a salutary reminder that the world has changed.
There is now a movement away from humour ad hominem: we have decided as a civilization that there’s nothing funny about slavery, so if you’re a classicist or a scholar of 19th century US popular culture, you just have to sit in the Bodleian feeling deeply uncomfortable when reading Plautus (he of the slave jokes), while Dixie goes in the “guilty pleasures” playlist on your iPod.
Similarly, campaigns against rape jokes, fat jokes, use of the word “tranny” (even writing it seems weird and transgressive), and so on: all these are siblings under the skin to the decision that we will not laugh at blackface and there is something inherently nasty about people living in gracious colonnaded country estates mocking the people who till their fields, people that they happen to own. (Note, this applies with equal force to both the Romans and the antebellum South.)
There’s a problem with this, though. Sometimes humor ad hominem is bloody funny, and sometimes it is appropriate. My friend Alex Gabriel, a queer writer with impeccable leftist credentials, put it this way: “The outrage of many at ad hominem attacks isn’t one I share. But they do need to be stylish.”Take the chap in the picture above. As soon as I saw him, I thought, “you poor sod, a hedgehog has invaded your skull and you look like Sonic-Gone-Wrong.” Genuinely as ugly as a hat full of monkeys’ bums.
Then I felt guilty, because, these days, we’ve decided we don’t like humor that lines people up because they look stupid. They actually have to believe stupid things as well, so we can attack the ideas, not the person. (Bonus round: he has a stupid name too, like something he won in a lucky dip.)
And yes, he believes stupid things. He turned up in a Texas high school cheerfully spreading what is not only bad dating advice but actively dangerous dating advice—the sort that puts young women in danger and young men in jail. He was pilloried mercilessly by the students in his audience, the hashtag #lookadouche went viral on Twitter, and—incredibly—even the wingnuts’ paper of choice, the Daily Mail, decided he was beyond the pale.
But. I was amused by bad dating advice emanating from someone whose face should be next to the word “ugly” in the dictionary (note, the photo is from Justin Lookadoo’s own publicity material). So were lots of other people.
That, however, leaves the most important part of Alex Gabriel’s comment to one side: How do we decide what’s “stylish”? These people from Edinburgh University’s LawSoc don’t make the “stylish” grade (although the smug losers who dobbed them in probably don’t either), while this complaint about a historically significant mural that just happens to feature golliwogs is the sort of overreaction that invites ad hominem (“anti-PC”) mockery.
It’s possible to argue that Lookadoo is an authority figure, so mockery is legitimized (even if not “stylish”), but I’m wary of wheeling out that justification: it’s a fair bet that I’ve had many more advantages in life than most conservative white Southern Christians, correlated as their status is with poverty, crime, and social exclusion.
Our conceptions of humor are changing. What we find funny, however, has yet to catch up with those changes.
And that is where I’ll leave it.