There is wisdom in crowds.
Ask a classroom full of children to guess how many gumdrops are in a jar. They’ll give you a small margin of error. Groups are better at estimating than individuals. Bring researchers with different theories together and watch them cancel out each other’s biases. Groups with diverse opinions are good at making rational decisions. Go to trivia night with friends with different interests and you’ll increase your odds of success. When people with different focuses collaborate, they raise the collective knowledge pool.
There is madness in crowds too.
Fill your Facebook feed with people who share your beliefs and they will never be challenged. Groups of like minded individuals are less inclined to let new ideas in. Get your news from one point of view and you will see through the same narrow lens. Groups with spokespeople are less open to independent thought. Limit your Twitter tribe to users on the same side and they’ll choose your battles for you. Groups that don’t value outside perspectives will tell you your opinion.
Our peers pressure us to raise a torch to someone who tipped our sacred cow. Someone who made a joke that didn’t connect. Someone who said something that wasn’t politically correct. We form cyber mobs before our target has time to explain. We turn their humiliation into a game. We hurl insults just to feel like we’re part of something.
Our cause may be pure, our indignation may be righteous, but when so many of us are wielding pitchforks we overkill our target. We cost them jobs, their sense of security, and sometimes their lives.
The madness of a crowd is never more apparent than when it’s on a witch hunt.
George Carlin once said, “People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3AM.”
Social media has given us surgical control of the groups we pledge our allegiance to. We don’t have to tolerate family members with opposing viewpoints. We can simply ‘hide’ them. The editorial nature of the news allows us to select which reality we want to see. We bookmark the world we prefer to live in, and pity those poor saps looking in the other direction. Online reporters are so comfortable with our allegiance that they resort to name calling within the headline.
My Superstition About A Public Shaming
I have my share of politically polarizing beliefs. It doesn’t take much to trigger my anger. My blood boils at room temperature. Still, every time one of my groups drafts me for war, I dodge it. The networked name-calling seems inviting. Some people seem like they really have it coming, but I have a superstition that keeps me from joining in. I can’t help but imagine what it will feel like when the mob comes for me. I say, “will” because in this day and age it feels inevitable.
Share your thoughts online, grow your audience, spend a lot of time doing it, and the odds of a backlash increases. For every off the cuff tweet I make, there’s a greater chance someone will take offense. For every article I post, a public shaming feels inevitable. For every photo I upload, there’s a higher probability I’ll turn myself into an unflattering meme.
The repercussions are at the ready. The mockery is in the mail. The insults are inbound.
I’m not a target of significance, but I can’t shake that irrational notion that the mob is coming. That one of my dumb jokes will go viral and a group’s rage will not be quelled by a retroactive artist’s statement. That even after I issue a sincere apology, my words will continue to haunt me. That after my 15 minutes of shame has passed, I’ll still be backpedaling over a toxic brand.
I want to keep participating in the conversation without worrying how my words could be used against me. I want to make jokes without crossing the line, but I’m sure your line isn’t the same as mine. I want to use satire without dumbing it down so much that it’s obvious on first glance. I want to embrace the totality of language without limiting myself to well trodden topics.
On Comedic Irony
On Pete Holmes’s podcast You Made it Weird, Comedian Patton Oswalt said, “I like social justice. I like political correctness. I like progressivism, but I don’t like when it’s used to silence and control other people.”
Oswalt likes to make fun of difficult subjects to reduce their power. “If you start laughing at that, that’s how you get your control back.”
Comedians make absurd statements about absurd situations like racism, rape, and homophobia, to undermine them. Often an offensive joke isn’t meant to make light of a situation, but to cast a light on the reality of it.
If you’re too afraid to address a taboo you give it power over you. If you can’t joke about “He who shall not be named,” then Voldemort has control over you.
Not every moral message needs to be delivered with a straight face. Comedy can be a round about way of reenforcing our ethics. Satirists have the power to enlighten while they entertain.
This doesn’t mean that comics can say anything with reckless abandon. It means we should ponder their intention before we overreact. Sometimes they’re being offensive for the sake of it, and sometimes they’re doing something with a little more nuance.
When comedian Sarah Silverman makes a joke about racism, her intent isn’t to perpetuate a bias. She’s making a joke at the expense of her dim witted onstage persona. The joke isn’t the racist statement. It’s that her character is too dumb to realize she’s being a bigot. An entire group of people aren’t the crux of the joke. Prejudice is. To chuckle at the racist statement, is to laugh at the wrong part of the joke.
Silverman calls this laughing with a mouth full of blood.
Someone who hears an endorsement of their own bigotry, didn’t get the joke. Someone who takes personal offense, didn’t get it either. The question is just how clear does a humorist have to be?
Sometimes a comedian’s intention gets away from them. When Dave Chappelle left The Chappelle Show Time Magazine reported he felt his sketches were reinforcing racial stereotypes rather than sending them up. His cowriter Neil Brennan told Maxim Magazine that Chappalle walked out when a crew member laughed at the wrong part of a sketch.
In Jonathan Swift’s book A Modest Proposal, he suggested solving poverty in Ireland by selling Irish babies as food for English aristocrats. Swift was being intentionally offensive to draw attention to human suffering in the wake of the Irish potato famine. To this day, there are people on Yahoo Answers wondering if Swift was serious.
Maybe people are that gullible. Just look at all the people on Facebook who react to Onion headlines like they’re real. Maybe people just want an excuse to be offended, because deep down they like the feeling, as comedian Jim Norton suspects in his article for Time Magazine.
You Can’t Please Everyone
Comedians should consider their forum. Places like Twitter, where’s it’s hard for audiences to gage intent, might be the wrong place to workshop edgier material. If you can’t fit a disclaimer in a 140 characters, be prepared to own up to the joke later.
As for those of us sitting in the peanut gallery, we need to consider the speaker’s intention, and learn to accept apologies when they’re given. When someone offends our groups’ sensibilities, we need to downgrade our homicidal rage and show a little empathy. Our reactions shouldn’t force people to water down their language for fear of the consequences. If we do there’s some harsh truths we could be losing.
In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
If you disagree with someone, know that threatening them will only strengthen their position. Don’t give them a token resistance to point their finger at. Be the charming alternative to their misconception. Be a delegate for your belief system. If you don’t have the patience for a rational conversation, then you’re the wrong person to represent your position.