Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Humor and Power

I’ve been waiting a long time to blog about an experience I had, several weeks ago now, at the ROTC Military Ball. This event is VERY formal. Every cadet must bring a date. The seating is assigned. There is a strict down to the minute schedule. There is even a script (I somewhat wish I was kidding). That being said, it really is a beautiful event and looking at everyone in their military finery is a wonderful visual spectacle. The event ended on what was, for me, a completely unexpected note. The formality is completely turned upside down as each class takes a turn performing a skit that makes fun of their superiors. It was hilarious and brutal at the same time. The freshman, sophomores, and juniors took particular aim at the senior class. Completely understandable, given that the seniors essentially run the battalion. They performed skits in which they mocked personalities, specific events, mishaps, and even uncontrollable faults like speech impediments. I was giggling because it was silly to me, but everyone in the audience who was more familiar with the subjects was pretty much in hysterics. All four classes took aim at the cadre, or the high-ranking military professionals in charge of ROTC for Loyola and Towson. It immediately reminded me of the article by Victor Turner that described the traditional Indian plays in which kings and other high-ranking audience members were brutally made fun of. It’s basically the same idea. Humor was used as an outlet for feelings and opinions that had been kept quiet for months. The event allowed for the creation of a safe space. It was like everyone agreed ahead of time to say, “okay, we’re all in this together and I’m not going to freak out if you make fun of me”. Some dealt with the mockery more gracefully than others, but for the most part it was seamless.

Stepping back from that experience, I can see a pattern of those in power being targets of humorous criticism. If you watch any late night talk show any day, a significant number of the jokes are at President Obama’s expense. If you’re blessed with a position of power, do you then agree to withstand whatever ridicule is thrown at you?

I’m going to stretch here to connect this experience and these thoughts with what Bryson and Kalman do, but I had to share the story. A lot of what Bryson does is (harmlessly) mock the U.S. government. The chapters entitled “The Numbers Game, “ “Why Everyone is Worried,” “The War on Drugs,” “Your Tax Form Explained,” and “Drowning in Red Tape” are, to name a few, humorous gripes against the way our government conducts its business and gets things done. Bryson’s column gave him an outlet against those in power. Kalman is less specific in her targets, I think, but she does give us her take on the day to day world in general and what we are to make of it. Both books, when thought of in the context of the skits that I witnessed, are starting to unearth a strange relationship between humor and power. If you have power, are you an easy target for everyone and there’s nothing you can do about it? If you don’t have power, are you are free to sling brutal jokes at those who do have it? Just some thoughts.

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