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The uses of humour

By Kevin Baldeosingh

Since July 2010, except for a couple of eulogies, I have written only satirical columns in this space. And the fact that politicians, bigots and religious believers could provide me with jokes every week for over two years either says how absurd this place is, or how absurd my brain is. Of course, I prefer to believe the former.

I do other kinds of writing. In the Sunday Express, when there's a news issue which can be treated with in-depth analysis and which I have some information about, I'll usually write a feature article which includes the latest research in policy or economics or social psychology (relatively easy, since I read such material anyway) and get the views of local experts in the relevant areas (much harder, because most local experts aren't very expert). And, in the T&T Review, I used to write analytical commentaries on various issues, again applying the newest theoretical concepts and data. But the Review stopped hard copy publication last November, so there is now not one print avenue for public intellectual discourse in this place. (UWI, the institution best equipped to facilitate such discourse, has no interest in it.) Interestingly, Trinidadians find nothing strange about a writer writing humorously on Fridays and intellectually on Sundays.

Perhaps this is because, although satire requires creativity while serious articles require analytical thought, both have the same purpose. Humour is the third most powerful kind of writing there is, after narrative writing and advertisements for Viagra. In Inside Jokes, a book which examines the psychology of humour, the authors write: "Science and literature are among the focal sets of processes that have gradually uncovered and resolved a host of conflicts for everybody...A whole society can be blissfully ignorant of the contradictions harboured in their 'common knowledge' until some reflective and industrious thinker rubs their noses in the quandary...It is amusing to realise that a comedian can be seen to be a sort of informal—but expert—scientist...helping us to expose and resolve heretofore unnoticed glitches in our common knowledge."

In our culture, humour is probably a far more effective device than empirical argument for making a point. As evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker says in his book, How the Mind Works, "Humour is also a prized tactic of rhetoric and intellectual argument. Wit can be a fearsome rapier in the hands of a skilled polemicist...We often feel that a clever aphorism captures a truth that would require pages to defend in any other way." For example, when men tackle women on the street by saying "family", does this mean that their first sexual experience was with their grandmother? And do Muslims bawl their call to prayer at 5 a.m. with a microphone because the Quran says Thou shalt call the faithful to prayer with Bose hi-fi speakers? When politicians argue that a statement is untrue because the person making it has a political agenda, aren't they simultaneously describing themselves as liars?

Pinker adds, "Humour is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and the high and mighty." Calypsonians from the Golden Era of the 1930s and 1940s thus did their part in changing the social mores and undermining the undemocratic rule of the colonial government. But, by the same token, they failed in their role as sociopolitical critics during the reign of the PNM from 1956 to 1986.

Perhaps this is why, as the eat-ah-food standard became more widespread, the society produced more comics but fewer comedians (a comic is someone who says funny things, while a comedian says things funny). At present, Rachel Price is the nation's sole comedian, since her material includes both trenchant social and political observations. This decline in comedic humour may reflect a more serious dysfunction in our society—the Inside Jokes authors observe that, "Since humour is hard to fake, both in the creating and in the suppression of appreciation, it is particularly valuable as a litmus test not just for intelligence but for enduring personality traits, hidden loyalties, and socially crucial attitudes and beliefs...people who cannot chuckle at satire when it is deftly on target may betray their political loyalties, just as someone who casually makes a racist quip betrays a cast of mind that might otherwise be concealed."

If humour is hard to fake, it is also pretty hard to write. And, in the realm of ideas, not everything can be expressed through satire. All of which is just to inform regular readers that my column in 2013 will vary to include philosophy, science and cheese, as well as satirical takes on inappropriate topics. Readers who are not regular can try Ex-Lax.

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