Humor reveals social identity of Americans

Lee McClelland

A culture’s core values can be derived from its humor, an indicative measure of what people find important.

Humor, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “that quality of action, speech, or writing, which excites amusement.” What a culture finds humorous usually amuses, elicits laughter or both.

Humor has been evaluated by many great minds such as Thomas Hobbes, who, in “On Nature,” disliked humor: “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”

Hobbes shares the same philosophy regarding humor as Aristotle and Plato.

They thought humor to be a negative quality of human pettiness. To make fun of another to make oneself feel better was deplorable and to be done as little as possible.

Others disagree with this view, though not entirely.

Mordechai Gordon, Ph.D of Education, speaks about humor in his journal article “Learning to Laugh at Ourselves.” According to Gordon, “humor allows us to view the world from a perspective that is amusing and comical rather than serious or sad.” I agree with Gordon.

The human experience is complex and profound. People have been trying to answer some of the same questions since the beginning of existence, and our failures are numerous. Learning to look at the world through humor—a social experience that ties a myriad of different individuals together—is crucial.

In the United States, every four years an election occurs. Without humor as an outlet, how else would Americans keep from clawing their eyes out and going the way of the lemming?

Television shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” have become staples in American culture. They are mothering the masses by metaphorically airplane-ing politics into our mouths. They make politics fun and engaging.

Comedic newscasters like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert employ one of the theories of humor: incongruity, or the failure to meet a set of standards of society.

These men point out the short-comings of politicians using humor, and they help show Americans their national identity.

In a journal article entitled “Humorous Communication,” Owen H. Lynch explains, “jokes and humor, in general, play an important role in determining who we are and how we think of ourselves, and as a result how we interact with others.”

This can be applied both to the individual and the group—a nation of people. Americans are often disjointed from politics, and political approval is quite low. According to the latest Gallup Poll, America’s approval rating of Congress is a measly 13 percent. Poking fun at this group of individuals gives the American public a feeling of superiority and control.

During a time of political unrest and economic uncertainty, humor is what reminds people that they are human.

If not for American humor, surely the nation would have collapsed under the weighty years of former President George W. Bush. The ammunition he provided comedians with allowed Americans to shoot holes in his presidency, giving the people back a sense of control.

Former President Bill Clinton did the same for America, and the jokes stemming from his two terms still have yet to blow over.

Of course, politics is only one genre of humor. Social humor helps people navigate the murky waters of the human condition. American pop culture prescribes a superficial self image that is unhealthy. To be skinny is to be beautiful. To be intelligent is to be arrogant and elitist. To be progressive is to be socialist.

When I think of these constructs in present day society, there are a few comedians that come to mind. On the topic of self-image, Hari Kondabolu stands out.

Kondabolu has a joke about the popular musical group “The Pussycat Dolls.”

In this joke, he describes their hit song “Don’t Cha” as a degrading stereotype perpetuated to women, but he also knows something about the song: “There are missing lyrics… ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me, even though she was there for you that night when your Dad died and as you cried in her arms you realized she was the only reason left for living…but still, though, don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me.’”

Kondabolu points out an obvious affront in American culture. As a collective, our music perpetuates superficial standards that no one can live up to. It is a culture driven by a lustful want for beauty, though it is only fleeting.

A study from Loyola University of Maryland has shown that humor is one determining factor for selecting a mating partner. Amongst other things, mates look for a prominent funny bone in a potential partner.
Of course, humor is not always used for the most virtuous of purposes.

Humor can be linked to vulgarity and racism, but, like everything else, it has potential to unite human beings by allowing us to laugh at ourselves, our failures and our connection with one another.

I have been a proponent of humor my whole life. It is through this social medium that I find clarity in the cloudy consciousness of my own existence.

Though life may seem bleak and dismal at times, all I have to do is look in the mirror at my receding hairline or watch Senator Carl Levin wheezing into a microphone on C-SPAN to know that there is a divine comedy taking place that even Dante wasn’t privy to.

With that in mind, remember to laugh with humanity and sometimes at humanity.