Telling Words Apart

Posted by on May 22nd, 2010 at 12:35 PM

From an ancient web controversy:

Incidentally, Cheung and Cheung’s rabid fans: I do not hate sex. I do not hate men or women, except in specific cases. I am neither Christian nor prudish and I don’t believe that keeping the lights on is the most exciting thing one can do in the bedroom. I’m just very clear on where an empowered female character who just happens to enjoy sex becomes a juvenile vehicle for fanservice and wanking.

She can’t just say, “I don’t care if you think this is sexy. I think it’s sexist, and I think that matters more.” Oh well. People take associated ideas and treat them like they’re identical. Sexism is bad, so “sexism” and “bad” become the same thing, and then the same trick gets pulled for “sex” and “good.” The result is output like the above: Because this cartoon is sexist, it cannot be sexy. If it’s bad, it can’t be good. (Responses to the quote here and here. The writer’s original post is no longer available.)

What if you changed “sexy” to funny and “sexist” to bigoted? Or, to fine-tune matters, not so much “bigoted” as, I don’t know, on the side of those favored by life and/or the social order against those whom life and/or the social order have disfavored: not only the racial ins versus the racial outs, but the high versus the low, the strong versus the weak, the whole versus the deformed. If you made those substitutions, you might then walk into the same trap as the writer above. Which is what I did here, during a review of Garth Ennis’s The Boys 41. The comic is shit, so I have no problems with the review itself. But at one point I made this comment:

I heard Jonathan Miller, a very distinguished Englishman, deplore the factitious sort of “humor” in which the favored laugh at the afflicted. He took as his example a Nazi soldier laughing at a peasant woman who has just been kicked in the ass.

I shouldn’t have said “factitious.” Jonathan Miller is in a good position to make pronouncements about humor (background here). Still, the Nazi laughed, and that in itself is an effective counter-argument — not as to the humor’s worth, but its status as humor. Usually practitioners of this sort of humor are only semi-competent, so we’re spared any hard choices about what we’re going to laugh at. But usually isn’t always, and this nasty, low-natured humor can be as real as any other.

Let’s take a top-drawer example: Evelyn Waugh. There’s a scene in Decline and Fall about a garden party. It’s politely enough written, but if you used it for “Is this racist?” the game would be over fast. Nowadays the same material couldn’t show up except in the middle of a Martin Lawrence comedy with a black writer or director. That scene is not, how shall I say, unfunny.

There are lower-drawer examples too. A commenter at my favorite political blog keeps posting and reposting a nasty play on words that appeals to the lowest in human nature. But it’s still a clever play on words, and the shock from its nastiness adds to the jump you experience when the meanings switch around.

To be clear, in all the above I don’t mean “transgressive” humor, the sort where society’s taboos and hidden psychic ills are flushed out, etc., etc. I mean humor that takes narrow valuations of superior and inferior entirely at face value and then laughs at the allegedly inferior so as to celebrate the allegedly superior. I would bet that many people honestly could not find such humor funny. For the rest of us, there’s a choice that always has to be made. Often enough it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes you have to face that being funny (or sexy) may not be as important as you normally think.

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