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February 26, 2013

The Social Negotiation Process of Humor

Specifically, humor at someone else's expense. Mild-mannered humor or self-deprecating humor doesn't need this sort of a negotiation.

I've talked about this before but never this clearly.

Laughter can be modeled as a three-party game in which the parties bargain for inclusion in a two-party coalition (wit and listener) that excludes the third (the butt). No one party can dictate what is risible. Instead, the selection of butts is a matter of negotiation between wit and listener. The wit proposes a butt for laughter, and this offer may be accepted by the listener through a return of laughter or rejected through silence. In such a laughter exchange, individuals may be seen to trade off butts through implicit agreements about who is risible. These bargains determine what counts as a comic vice...

I've mentioned that while the joke-teller (the "wit") is free to make any joke he likes, only the listeners, in concert with him, can decide together that the joke works or is funny or that the target is a valid one (and targeted for the right reasons).

Sometimes people will propose just "joking about how dumb Obama is," and while I agree he is kind of dumb, I don't see that as a likely avenue for widespread transmission of the idea. Too many people would disagree that that's a valid target, and hence, wouldn't laugh. And hence, while the joke may work for a smaller audience (engaged conservative partisans) it would fail at the purpose for which it is deployed (shifting the conventional wisdom of the public).*

Even though it wasn't humorous, I'm pretty confident a similar social bargaining principle underlay Romney's frequent statements that "Obama is a nice guy, but he's in over his head." I think he believed (and polling would back him up) that Obama was adjudged a "nice guy" by 55% of the public, but only a minority had confidence in his ability to do the job to which he was elected. Ergo, he made the case upon which Obama was vulnerable and avoided the case which would be more difficult.

This post is very apropos given that leftists around the blogosphere are right now claiming "I just don't see why Michelle Malkin's funny dances are funny." Well, the media -- which swears it's not liberal -- doesn't understand how anything at all about Obama or liberalism could possibly be funny. They don't agree that these things have any "comedic vice" in them at all to be valid targets of joking.

Thus, the stone-faced act.

* There's also a misguided anti-racism that thwarts such a joke. Too many people would automatically think "Gee I can never say a black person is dumb, that would be racist" without pausing to consider the more sophisticated idea that that itself is racially condescending -- that such a "rule" that black folks can never be, for reasons best left unsaid, treated Just Like Everyone Else, is itself a bit racist.

Obviously you wouldn't want to have to explain that in the middle of your joke!


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posted by Ace at 01:18 PM

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