Humour and Anger

09 December 2016, South India -- I have been consuming all manner of coverage of the 2016 US elections, voraciously, compulsively. This has been a period of the heaviest Web usage since university days. In the face of what appears to be a pseudo-populist, neo-fascist uprising in the USA (and in other parts of the world) my feelings of appreciation toward a free Internet itself have peaked. Particularly, it is how this mode allows investigation and observation that defy the bents and biases of particular sources, which promotes effective independent synthesis. Of course this is highly preferable when there is so much disinformation, propaganda, ‘fake news’ and partisanship in news reporting.

After such vicious campaigning by the two main parties during the election spectacle, and as the dust of election rhetoric settles into sentiments of the nation’s resignation to its choices (joy, dread, disavowal and resistance), I am noticing two things:

1. comedy and satire have emerged as more effective critiques of politics than journalism overall, and

2. the country (and maybe the whole world) is being forced to deal with anger.

I have seen mainstream journalists in their exasperation resort to desperate bursts of humour (mainly jaw-dropping, and nervous laughter). Meanwhile angry comedians and satirists have adopted the mantle of serious journalists, since the commercialised press corps has abdicated this role.

Such observations, taken together, have led to recognising two notable qualities in both humour and anger that have philosophical interest.

The Jester’s Hats

Tentatively and crudely we could call the two qualities negative and positive, and they map to humour and anger in consistent ways:
  • negative humour: ridicule made funny in order to hurt, control, injure
  • negative anger: offense; aggression for the sake of power, greed, hate

And likewise for the positive kinds:
  • positive humour: making jokes to produce laughter, joy, kind critique
  • positive anger: defence; strong response to unjust force, violence

In a given time and place, in all but rare situations, to respond to angry discourse, threats, or outright violence by relying upon rational or subtler strategies is almost useless. There is just not enough time to get through to an aggressor with a calming message, because the aggressor is in a hurried spell of explosive feelings or even busy attacking — this state permits no listening, nor spares a moment for reflection. It seems that in a confrontation, self-defence sometimes must react as forcefully or even as ruthlessly as the incoming attack (at least with matching energy, although the opposite intention, sense and meaning).

Those unable or unwilling to experience and express positive anger apparently are doomed to succumb to others’ negative anger and abusive acts. This willingness to show so-called righteous anger (like Jesus clearing merchants from the temple) is associated with integrity, courage and bravery — but in a neutral interpretation, it is just a capacity to withstand and redirect the energy of positive anger. Whereas negative anger is highly emotional and passionate, positive anger may be detached, cool, relatively precise (as we see in heroes like James Bond who manage poise whilst being attacked — although his latest incarnation takes dealing with ultra villains into the realm of becoming an assassin).

Positive anger certainly can be stronger than negative anger (as in the Manichean poetics of Yoda’s light and dark sides of the Force). Even without counter attack, a deftly empathic message can be slipped through the aggressor’s wall and impatience (again using the Star Wars comparison, like Skywalker’s shot into the Death Star). This concept of the ‘force’ is interesting (inspired by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell) as a neutral way to talk about the raw energy that can pour into anger either as offence or defence, and, into humour as ridicule or merrymaking.

Cosmic Jokes

Think back to childhood: why did a popular schoolyard bully have such influence and control over a pack of children? There seems to have been something instinctual and persuasive, some kind of primordial carnality and aggression, working in favour of the bullying personality. This is the sad kid who had fallen into feeling negative anger and expressing negative humour against anybody who put up resistance (sometimes including adults, since this type of anger can create overconfidence in petty tyrants).

In a rare case, meeting negative anger with positive humour may work if it is skilful and overwhelmingly kind hearted — just as sometimes a plaintiff reaction, or, a shocking statement of raw truth may work to quell and dispel another’s offence, if that person’s mind has not fallen irrevocably into aggression and cruelty. Transmuting and reversing negative anger may be compared with a doctor curing a sickness; often it depends upon the ill patient whether a treatment works in response to illness.

Yet pulling back from both anger and humour, what do we have essentially? We might further reduce to the dualism of negativity and positivity — as they manifest within a personality, in psychological and ideological terms — and as they are ultimately primordial within the phenomenon of consciousness.

Can the conscious moment of selfhood itself be negative or positive? Perhaps if we remove all qualitative connotations of the bad or the good insofar as they appear with switching roles as negative or positive, destructive and constructive, rejecting and embracing, and then ask about the constitution of consciousness itself: again we might reduce the question to simply a matter of opposite but balancing energies at play within phenomena.

Consciousness itself is a phenomenon, although paradoxically it can witness its own phenomenality and supplies its own tools (perception, intuition, reflection) for that self-awareness. In mythological terms, consciousness is the snake eating itself: the phenomenological circularity: the cosmic comedy.

Whether the primordial and impersonal energies that permit perception are opposing, and the degree to which they may seem balanced, are aspects of consciousness, not an objective or material fact. This is why the classical jester or joker (a role found all over the world, similar to shamans) wears a costume divided into halves for the dark and light, or shows a face painted in two or more ways, and whose hat even has distinct shapes.

Like the jester’s job, our phenomenological reduction to the ontological constitution of consciousness exposes internal contradictions (see video below) even in the examples above of humour and anger. Evidently, these twin experiences do not exist exclusively in negative or positive ways, but paradoxically they are undecidable, beholden to a context of conscious awareness.

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