Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to Deal: The Necessity of Post-Tragedy Humor

O for Sweet Irony! Nike's Pistorius campaign has been the butt of many jokes recently.

"Roses are red, Violets are glorious,
Never sneak up on Oscar Pistorius"- @JohnnyHouse (Twitter)

"The tragedy is that, if Oscar Pistorius had no arms, this would have never happened" - @frankieboyle (Twitter)

Wittty? Sure. 

Funny? Well, if you're into that sort of thing.
Distasteful? Absolutely.

Yet no sooner had the Valentine's Day tragedy involving South African Olympic track star, Oscar Pistorius, and his girlfriend came out to the public, it has been one joke (well crafted or otherwise) after another
. It is almost as if the world did not even allow itself a moment to fully digest what had occurred: we rose up and went on the humor offensive (or defensive) immediately.

What seems to have spurred the rise of the immediate, incessant and often seemingly insensitive post-tragedy joke?

Reaching to humor to help us deal with tragedy is no new phenomenon. In fact, studies show that humor and laughter are some of the easiest go-to remedies that human beings are wired towards. History has shown communities resorting to jokes to, put colloquially, stop themselves from going crazy. For example, there are reports of both rampant self-deprecating and anti-Nazi humor among the Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. A study by Chawa Ostroyer describes instances when Jews in transit to camps would remark that there was no soap, and one of their own would remark "Wait till we get to Auschwitz, they will make soap out of us!" to their dark amusement. When asked why, their reasoning was simple:

 "...without humor we would all have committed suicide. We made fun of everything. What I'm actually saying is that that helped us remain human, even under hard conditions..."

Recently, there has been a surge never before seen. For every catastrophe and fallen icon, there are a thousand jokers waiting to show off the work of their wit. A quick look at modern day comedy reveals an evolution towards humor directly aimed at, if not blatantly attacking, certain people or groups (think Family Guy, SouthPark, Tosh.O, the Burn, Ridiculous, The Offensive, Borat, etc). Jokes have been cracked about 9/11, mass shootings, Tsunamis and other modern catastrophes. It, again, is easy to write these jokes off as insensitive (as they often are), but there is an undeniable societal leaning towards humor as a coping mechanism.

The thought process employed here has been ratified by numerous philosophical and socio-scientific studies. Pundits often refer to one of the foremost scholars of human behavior, Thomas Hobbes, who believed "humor arises as a result of a realization of some superiority in ourselves compared with others or compared with our former selves." So, for example, Holocaust victims would have found some solace and sanity through their ability to maintain their sense of humor. Through their ability to laugh, they had subtly overcome. 

When jokes come a dime a dozen about, say, Oscar Pistorius, it is not because folks are mean or they don't like him (most people, I would assume, did not have a personal appreciation of him other than the inspirational story of his rise to Olympic stardom) - it is because:
  • Here is an individual who seemingly exists on a plane that most humans do not. A double amputee who went on to become one of the world's foremost sprinters? Demigod, a demigod I swear. Thus when a fall occurs - unfortunate as it may be- we dash to the joke in a bid to restore the individual's ego and reputation in its rightful cloak of humanity. With humor, we reclaim him as 'just another guy.'
  • He is, like many other icons before him, someone who inspires society. In committing such a crime, he has let down the multitudes of fans and motivated people that adore him. Joking about it all distances people from that personal connection that amplifies the hurt of disappointment. 
  • There really is nothing more that laymen can do about it.

Truth is, human nature hasn't fundamentally changed over the years- at least in this regard. The apparent increase in post-tragedy humor is a function of easier information exchange. While back in the day, only the people immediately surrounding the incident would have been privy to information, the internet and other facets of globalization have made sure that we know all there is to know. Both the stories and the jokes born from them are moving faster and have a larger reach than in the past. A Tsunami in South East Asia is felt by everyone in some form. Students shot in a school shooting could be any of our children. Oscar is a hero to millions across the globe.  In an era where we are inundated with unfathomable tragedy and perceived pillars of inspiration that continually fail us, society is on its last nerve and thus less forgiving. Whether Hurricane Sandy, Lance, Tiger, or Oscar; we can ill-afford yet another heartbreak! Thus, in as much power as bestowed upon us, we will serve justice in the way we can most easily access it: with a disappointed shake of the head, an immediate withdrawal of personal attachment, and the best witticism that we can come up with on the spot.

1 comment:

Tawanda Dengu said...

I think this is a good piece, I agree to an extent. I think the growth of the internet and social media enables a lot more people to be insensitive about such situations. There is no personal attachment to the parties involved in any way and hence you "can" make a joke of the situation. In that regard I can't see humour as a coping mechanism, you cope if you are affected by an event. I strongly doubt the families and friends involved would use humour to cope with the tragedy.