Laughter indicates that humans are getting on well together - that's a resource for politics (if used right)
You know a meeting of any kind is going well when laughter bubbles up spontaneously from the corners of a hall. This is different from the laughs punched out of people in the stand-up comedy club - they have their own legitimate role, in finding a way for frustrations and confusions to be manageably expressed. But laughter, like play in general, indicates a fundamental capability for the tensions of life. And in these dramatic times of political and systemic upheaval, it’s maybe a good medicine.
British anthropologist Chris Knight has written a superb essay for Aeon on the important of laughter as the seat of human consciousness. He starts from the hunter-gatherer moment:
For most of the time since the emergence of our species some 300,000 years ago, we have been hunter-gatherers. To answer the anthropologist’s question about what it means to be human, then, modern hunter-gather societies remain particularly important.
Every aspect of our minds and bodies has evolved in response to this long-lasting and immensely stable way of life. It’s true that as a species we have evolved to be flexible, a kind of second-order adaptation – but when we find adapting to power inequalities stressful, as many of us do today, it damages both our physical and our mental health.
Our need for companionship, for relaxed playfulness, for opportunities to sing and laugh together – all these things have their roots in the hunter-gatherer way of life.
It was once imagined that people in these societies must have always struggled to survive, teetering on the edge of starvation, their relentless quest for food leaving them with no time for leisure or play. It’s hard to know where this strange idea came from, because it is utterly wrong.
The prejudice was refuted by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics(1972), which describes ‘the original affluent society’. Today’s hunting and gathering peoples, Sahlins explained, have a far more healthy and varied diet than people who farm or live in cities.
Theirs is an economy of abundance, even super-abundance. Hunter-gatherers typically enjoy hours of leisure time for creative activities such as art, dancing and singing.
A striking feature of these societies is their profound egalitarianism. As an anthropologist, I can report that in any hunter-gatherer camp, equality is maintained by almost nonstop laughter aimed at anyone who is getting above themselves.
Everywhere you look, there is a palpable atmosphere of playfulness and fun. It’s no coincidence that the gods of hunter-gatherers are not solemn guardians of morality, but mischievous tricksters whose antics provoke helpless mirth in listener and storyteller alike…
Chris goes through some detailed studies of early humans and laughter, and comes to a startling political conclusion:
Looking at laughter from the perspective of an anthropologist, it’s possible to claim that all humour is essentially political. That insight transcends comedic forms such as satire; my point here is that humour in general, whatever its content, is political by nature.
Down to the smallest details of our lives, our relationships and encounters involve exercises and exchanges of power. In the face of these dynamics, laughter is an equalising gesture, a restoration of a rightful order in the face of an unjust hierarchy.
Similarly, when we find something funny, it’s often because of some incongruity between mind and body, the ideal and the real. That division is political to the core. The humour of medieval carnival, according to Bakhtin, relied on the way that the body makes a mockery of the lofty purposes of the mind.
Buttocks, thighs, coughs, splutters, farts, ‘the bodily lower stratum’ – all mock the spiritual solemnities of humourless bishops and other supposed guardians of morality.
Comedy is about exposing the gap between our supposedly noble intentions, and the grimier truths about our condition. For this reason, the amusing features of life are never far away; if something seems funny, it’s because it’s uncomfortably close to home.
Perhaps this explains why nothing in nature can be truly comical. A strange rock formation or a pattern in the clouds might seem weird or intriguing, but it can’t be amusing; rocks and clouds don’t have human-style intentions and motivations, so they can’t be tripped up.
Animals might seem funny, but only because we anthropomorphise them. They can’t really be brought down to earth, because that’s where they are already. For a situation to provoke genuine laughter, it must form a pattern that we recognise from our own mental and social lives.
Laughing, then, appears to be intimately tied to our ability to reflect back on ourselves. When we chuckle at our own foibles, we show that we are no longer trapped inside our individual egos, but can see ourselves through one another’s eyes.
Likewise, when speaking, we separate ourselves from those around us by using words such as ‘I’ or ‘me’, drawing attention to ourselves as one person among others, as if from outside. Language would be impossible without the ability to adopt such a reverse-egocentric standpoint.
Humans are instinctive egalitarians, who work best with one another when no one has absolute authority, when teasing is good-natured, when there is sufficient affection and trust for shared tasks to constitute their own reward.
Laughter is a vital part of this picture – not simply a psychological relief valve, but a collective guard against despotism. When moved to laugh by those around us, we reveal ourselves to be truly human.
There’s an important rule of thumb that needs to be born in mind when invoking the power of humor to dissolve tensions in any nonviolent interaction: remember that you are not against the well-being of the person or people you are opposing.
There is no conflict that cannot be resolved in a way that benefits all of the parties in some shape or form, so no good is served by making alienation even worse. Humiliation is the most potent way of alienating anyone, a fact that activists sometimes forget.
The underlying good of all is served when a conflict can be moved towards the ultimate goal of reconciliation. This isn’t just a moral maxim; it makes solid, practical sense. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”
This rule of thumb applies even when we are laughing at ourselves. Of course, it’s always helpful not to take oneself too seriously, but self-directed humor has to be aimed with the same precaution in mind - to laugh at something that we’ve done or said, not at who or what we are. In nonviolence, we should not accept humiliation any more than we should dish it out.
Whether we ourselves or others are the target, the key is to poke fun at the behavior or the attitudes that are causing the problems, not at the person. This allows opponents to put some distance between themselves and what they are thinking or doing - to relax their identification with destructive feelings and actions as an inherent part of their identity, and thus begin to let go.
When we can use humor skillfully, we’re well positioned to apply this basic rule of thumb in situations that aren’t funny at all.