In defense of mockery as criticism

Democritus, the “laughing philosopher,” was described by Laurence Sterne as “trying all the powers of irony and laughter to reclaim” the town of Abdera, “the vilest and most profligate town of Thrace.”

Surrounded by the ridiculous, Roman satirist Juvenal declared, Difficile est saturam non scibere. It’s difficult not to write satire.

Many centuries later, H.L. Mencken found himself similarly situated and wrote that “only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night.”

When Thomas Drant published his translation of Horace’s Satires in 1566, he included the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the same volume. “I have brought to pass that the plaintive Prophete Jeremie should wepe at synne: and the pleasant poet Horace should laugh at sinne,” Drant wrote of his decision. “Not one kind of musike deliteth all passions: not one salve for all greuances.”

The need to balance weeping for sin with laughing at sin was a key rhetorical principle behind Renaissance verse satire. As English satirist John Donne wrote in the opening meditation of his Satyre III:

Kinde pitty chokes my spleene; brave scorn forbids
Those teares to issue which swell my eye-lids;
I must not laugh, nor weepe sins, and be wise,
Can railing then cure these worne maladies?

“The thrust of [Donne’s] announcement is that he must not laugh only at the habitual sins of his countrymen nor weep only for their failures,” wrote Donne scholar and North Carolina State English professor M. Thomas Hester in Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn: John Donne’s Satyres. “Rather, because these maladies are “worne,” that is, habitual and therefore not easily displaced, he must illustrate the moral idiocy of such practices (through ridicule — “brave scorn”) and explain the need for and acceptability of healthy alternatives (through charitable exhortation — “Kinde pitty”) in order to “be wise.”

“The satire of philosophic nonsense is one of the oldest literary forms,” George Mason professor of law F.H. Buckley wrote in his book The Morality of Laughter. Buckley saw satire in two forms: the “bitter satire” of Juvenal, and the “witty, ironic, and detached” satire of Horace. Since his concern was not satire, but laughter as a signal for a superior way, Buckley favored “Horatian playfulness” in satire, because even though a Juvenalian “denunciation of vice” also signals a superior way (through “indignation”), “bitter satire is simply not amusing.”

Why is amusement necessary? Because, as Buckley argued, “There is no laughter without a butt, and no butt without a message about a risible inferiority.”

Humor is a crucial part of the satirist’s message, because “laughter serves as a bonding device between wits and listeners,” and “Whether they recognize it or not, those who laugh are moralists, because they uphold a set of comic norms.” Buckley continued on this point. “Our laughter identifies a set of comic vices, and the sting of laughter contains its own sanction for transgressors. When we turn that signal about to ask how we might immunize ourselves from laughter, we reveal a set of comic virtues.”

As “laughter teaches us how to extract joy from life by holding the joyless up to ridicule,” then, “the principal beneficiary of laughter is the butt himself.” In other words, it seems that Donne’s “railing” — ridicule and exhortation — can “cure these worne maladies,” if the butt is sensitive to the effects of laughter. Not all are, however.

Hollow criticism — or Aristotelian test of ideas?

What prompts this brief survey of Western philosophy toward satire is this: apparently there’s a real fear among some faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that a conservative might broadcast what they’re teaching, and people will laugh. So they argue that the mocking isn’t appropriate criticism.

Consider what some at UNC-CH said recently about satirical criticism from the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and the possibility that UNC-CH will have a program in Western Civilization supported by the Pope Center’s benefactor, the John William Pope Foundation:

• “Judith Bennett, a professor of medieval history and Western civilization, said teaching in a Pope-funded program would make her feel like ‘Art Pope is sitting in the back of the classroom.'” — Jane Stancill, The News & Observer (N&O), Nov. 25

• “She [art professor elin o’hara slavick] said she had hesitated showing some artwork in her classroom, for fear of a political organization putting ‘a plant in my classroom that will tell on me.'” — Jane Stancill, N&O, Dec. 13

• “On the contrary, the only climate of ‘fear and protest’ at UNC is that fostered by the mocking, hollow attacks leveled by the Pope Center and its supporters.” — Kimberly L. Dennis, UNC-CH graduate student, letter to the N&O, Dec. 19

• “The problem is the tone of hostility, of mocking. … It’d be one thing if it were incisive criticism. Bring it on. But the mocking, vicious hostility, it really bothers me.” — UNC-CH English professor Reid Barbour, the Herald-Sun, Nov. 15

Is mockery not incisive criticism? Aristotle saw the matter otherwise. “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor,” he said, “for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”

Aristotle’s test requires the mockery to have a point to it or else be “false wit.” He also regarded inability to take a joke as “suspicious.”

But as noted above, there are those who resist laughter. The Puritan is one example. As Buckley wrote, the Puritan fails to laugh “through an excessive concern for moral or political duties.”

Remember Mencken’s famous jest about Puritanism? “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy.” Combine Mencken’s epigram with Buckley’s observations that “The modern Puritan devotes himself to political rather than religious duties” and that this Puritanism “is particularly pronounced in the academy.” Have you not found a compelling explanation for this spectacle of self-righteous professors carping about mockery and fearing political infidels in the classroom?

Modern Puritans are suspicious of laughter, Buckley wrote, because it distracts people “from the serious business of remedying injustice.” As they see it, people are “given a finite number of minutes to live, and those not spent in the struggle to end sexism or racism are wasted.” A chuckle means an injustice goes unremedied.

Apropos of that, UNC-CH associate professor of Women’s Studies Karen M. Booth wrote in to the N&O Dec. 19 in response to this satire: “They [the Pope Center] have condemned the creation of programs designed to make our education more accessible to racial and ethnic minorities … I am sure that if UNC created a disability studies program — something that [Charles] Dickens’ [Tiny] Tim could have used — Sanders, with the Popes’ blessing, would make it his immediate task to ridicule and condemn it.”

Well, of course. What thinking individual could resist the urge to ridicule? Subjected to such nonsense, who — to paraphrase Juvenal — couldsemper auditor tantum, always remain only a listener?

Tiny Tim needed … a disability studies program? What a curious justification for a new academic program at a flagship state institution. Academic programs are designed expressly for the purpose of “mak[ing] education more accessible to racial and ethnic minorities”?

Why, then no wonder they oppose Western Civilization! That’s just time wasted studying history, politics, philosophy, art, literature, language, etc. It can’t be academic!

Oh, it is to laugh.