Sometimes The More You Study Something, The Less You Know It

How does one know humor?  I was struck by this question as I was reflecting upon having read a joke book directed at our current president and the prospect of soon reading another book labeled as humor that involved the lies we tell children.  In truth, I found neither concept to be funny, and it struck me that these books were labeled as humor without seeming to be very amusing to me.  I’m not inclined to think that ridicule is the proper way that we should deal with authorities, regardless of what we feel about them, and that often ridicule is simply a way that we view ourselves as superior to what we make fun of, something that has always deeply offended me as someone who has frequently been an object of ridicule over the course of my life.  Likewise, I do not find the thought of lying to or manipulating children to be particularly amusing either [1].  My attitude towards fraudulent or manipulative education is outrage, which is why I’m not amused at fake news or the sort of bad philosophy that masquerades as science so often.  Rather than laugh at people being deceived, I view it as a catastrophe.

I would like to set aside this emotional response, though, for the moment, because it tends to make disagreements more serious and because my lack of humor is directly related to the way that I take such matters seriously.  I take issues of authority and legitimacy as extremely serious, and because of that I do not find them funny.  These are particular illustrations of a more general tendency that the things that we take seriously we do not find as acceptable sources of humor.  Humor, by its nature, is an attempt at trivializing something.  There are times when this attitude is entirely appropriate, such as when we trivialize the trials and difficulties of our lives by making light of them, so that we do not take ourselves more seriously than we ought to.  In general, I find it to be a good thing when people tell jokes about themselves as a way of building a sense of fellowship with other people and preemptively dealing with ridicule from others.  I find it a bad thing when people try to trivialize what is truly important and have a cynical attitude of laughing at the corruption and wickedness of society without feeling a sense of moral outrage or a sense of looming catastrophe about it.  Still, it is worthwhile to note that humor and seriousness are inversely related to each other and that the more we take seriously the less we will find funny, a point that ought to be fairly obvious.

There is another way, though, apart from taking things seriously as a matter of principle, though, for us to appreciate humor less.  One of those is by studying humor.  Some might find it bizarre to study humor, but it is fairly common for people who are outsiders to want to study something in order to understand it without realizing that the act of studying something further alienates one from the people whose behavior one is studying.  The French movie Ridicule, for example, has towards its ending a French aristocrat living in exile in England who replies with “Humor” in an exaggerated fashion to a witty comment from one of his English hosts, showing that the understanding of different approaches to humor and wit and comedy as a whole across cultures does not mean that we find it funny.  I know it happens all of the time to me in that I can very easily recognize that someone is making a joke but simply do not find it amusing and other people think that I did not “get the joke.”  I understood the joke just fine, but I don’t laugh because I wasn’t amused by it.  Explaining the joke isn’t going to make it any more funny.

It is pretty easy to conceive of how we might study jokes.  We might, for example, read joke books and see the examples of jokes and how they are structured.  We might note the difference between the structure of humorous limericks (one of my earliest genres of poetry as a child) or your mamma jokes or knock knock jokes, and so on.  We might note the sort of subjects that are made fun of in jokes about a given person or a group of people, to better understand the stereotypes and negative feelings and impressions and assumptions that underlie the jokes we hear or that we say.  We might note, as some have [2], that we may fancy ourselves braves by telling jokes in dangerous circumstances and fail to understand that we anesthetized ourselves to the dangers of our situation by resorting to humor rather than a more active resistance against the evils of our time and place.  Our study of humor and of its context and repercussions would be one way of taking humor more seriously, and it would lead us, as we noted before, to be less likely to adopt to humor.  Collecting the jokes of the Eastern Front of World War II, for example, would not likely improve one’s mood or make one a more lighthearted individual.

If we wished to cultivate a better sense of humor, we would have to practice it rather than study it.  Rather than reading joke books and analyzing the structure of different genres of humor or comparing the subject matter of jokes in one culture as opposed to another, we would need to practice a sense of humor.  We could do this by putting some distance between our lives and our perspective, seeing a bigger and less heated picture than we do by looking only through our own eyes.  We could do this by practicing turning our experiences into bits and seeing what portrayals of ourselves bring humor to ourselves and others.  For example, are there any occasions where we show ourselves to be fish out of water or behaving contrary to expectations?  These are the ways we need to highlight the humorous and elements so that we see ourselves as funny people, for we are all a great deal more humorous than we often realize.  We would almost have to be, given how darkly we often view ourselves and the world in which we live.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Sometimes The More You Study Something, The Less You Know It

  1. Pingback: It’s Better If You Don’t Know | Edge Induced Cohesion

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