The news cycle these days is more like a news cyclone. It moves fast, it’s unpredictable, and we are all concerned with swaths of destruction. It also means that an idea to explore or discuss is often simply the last hour’s events and out of date by supper. No matter, there a couple of events that raise some points I’d like the dive into and I don’t care that they are older news stories.
Last week we learned that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy during a private discussion with fellow House Republicans said:
“There’s two people I think Putin pays, Rohrabacher and Trump.”
The quote was denied until it was revealed that an audio recording of it existed and then the statement was described as a joke. A lot of people do not think it was a joke, but I disagree with them. I actually doubt that the House Majority Leader was stating as a fact that with Representative Rohrabacher or Trump were on Putin payroll. I accept that it was a joke, a jest, a jibe, but that doesn’t meaning the statement is meaningless. Jokes exist in a context or they are not funny.
Two of the contexts that you can find joke is exaggeration and incongruity. A joke that relies on exaggeration takes a context everyone knows to be true and plays it to hyperbole for humorous effect. Stating that the giraffes at zoo were hitting on the school’s basketball player is not meant to literally imply either that the player is 12 feet tall but rather exaggerates his height for the punch-line. In that context it is clear that while McCarthy’s comment can be viewed as a joke the underlying premise is unsettling. The joke is only funny if there is a baseline to exaggerate, if there is a closer than comfortable relationship between Putin and the two men, a relationship so well accepted and know that it can be the basis for a joke. That should give everyone pause.
The other context I’m looking at is incongruity. That’s where a joke plays against an expectation. This is the sort of joke where someone might say to a person over-reacting that William Shatner called and wants his sense of subtly back. It plays on the well know, though not always fair, ding for Shatner’s expansive acting method.
During the confirmation hearing for A.G. Jeff Sessions a statement of his came back to haunt him. referring to the violent, racist group the KKK Sessions is quoted as saying that the KKK was ‘OK until I found out that they smoked pot.’
Again this was explained as a joke, and let’s go ahead and examine it as a joke. Now the KKK is not known for pot use so this doesn’t look like a joke of exaggeration but rather one of incongruity. The idea that the serious, and bigots are always overly serious in their hatred, Christian warriors are pot heads is at odds with their image, but that does not remove the nasty factor in this joke. There are really only two ways of looking at this statement.
1) That smoking pot is more serious and morally wrong than being a group of violent racist bigots.
2) That being a group of violent racist bigots is not as morally wrong as smoking pot.
I know that those two statement seems the same but they really are not, though neither is an admirable worldview. In the first the idea that the racism and bigotry is bad, perhaps even extreme, but it is exceeded by pot smoking. With the second view pot smoking is so reprehensible that even being a violent racist bigot is not as bad.
The joke only really works by way of context with the first interpretation. That being a violent racist bigot is wrong but it is not as bad as being a pot smoker, this both exaggerates the pot smoking and downplays the bigotry. The joke only works if your consider pot smoking in the same realm as violent bigotry and no matter how you cut it that is a serious disturbed viewpoint that either considers the KKK not so bad or harmless pot smoking the same as murderous violence.
So jokes can be jokes, but they still illuminate the interior workings of the minds that find them funny.