Self-expression through humour
by Thys de Beer
Caveat: Big words and Latin phrases, subjective arguments, references to philosophers (to impress), and (possibly) offensive statements appear in the musings that follow, but rest assured that no jesters, comedians, and sensitive petals were (purposefully) harmed during the composition of these paragraphs.
So I was wondering
Every morning I walk past a window decal that reads “Inappropriate comments bind us all”, and I wonder what that means for us now that Vega has come of age?
Which got me thinking
About self-expression. Specifically humour and comedy. Would Aristotle still refer to us as homo ridens (the laughing man) in an age of political correctness, outrage culture and oversensitivity? Or are we creating a society with a veneer of artificial pleasantry that muzzles free expression and undermines the crucial role that humour plays? But before we dance over to the dark-side, let’s ponder this elusive concept called humour.
Like storytelling, humour is hardwired into our DNA and society. As the academic and modern philosopher Dineh Davis says "Humor is the quintessential manifestation of the human psyche". According to award-winning creative mind and former Vega Copywriting Navigator Leon Jacobs “Humour is the lubricant in the machine we call society. Without it, everything would overheat and explode… Humour reminds us that we are all in this together. It creates connection.”
Humour is also a powerful social lubricant. Have you ever noticed how the underdog, the (enter gender here) with the big mouth, or the one with a face for radio, uses humour as a persuasive tool? We know that once one moved on from ‘one-night meaningful relationship status’ to ‘in a relationship’ status, humour becomes a key ingredient to a satisfying relationship and developing a meaningful bond. It helps us cope with difficult situations, to release those happy brain chemicals that reduce stress and anxiety. Oh, humour also supports creativity, the sine qua non for any Veganite worth their salt.
Scholars argue that humour can help to foster virtues like tolerance, humility, and courage. According to Basu a sense of humour in citizens is necessary for a liberal democracy to flourish because it facilitates openness and playfulness regarding creating (new) ideas, knowledge and knowing other people. Vega values.
But many a truth said in jest
Humour is not just about playing silly buggers. Enter the Court Jester - the person tasked with entertaining the royal court in medieval times; and often the satirist holding up a mirror to society through witty repartee. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as "wise enough to play the fool". The academic Lyn Snodgrass, a student of political and conflict studies, reasons that “in the single-minded pursuit of their agenda – laughter – they (comedians) inadvertently provide the socio-political critique that has the potential to activate transformation in society.” Satirists are therefore activists and change agents in society. In our current era they would be the Trevor Noah’s and Tumi Morake’s.
So, are you free or are you dom?
According to our Constitution, freedom of expression can be distilled into the freedom of the press and other media, to receive or impart information or ideas, or birth artistic creativity, and of encouraging freedom of research. We South Africans may not burn the national flag or picket at a funeral as they may do in the land of the (not so) free; but like our friends ‘across the pond’, we can publicly and privately ridicule our leaders, whether they be a shade of Hawaiian sunset or sport showerheads on their crania.
That said, any right has a limitation clause where a court applies the ‘harm test’ when deciding what the reasonable person would find offensive. The court’s purpose and role, therefore, is not to ‘cater’ for the supersensitive snowflakes in society.
I am offended! You are offended! We’re all offended! (How very Winfreyan!)
We need to chat about the elephant in the room whilst being accused of fat shaming, which is just not PC. According to the Collins Dictionary “Political correctness (PC) is the attitude or policy of being extremely careful not to offend or upset any group of people in society who have a disadvantage, or who have been treated differently because of their sex, race, or disability”. On the face of it, this seems fair and just, but some would argue that the term has become loaded, a placeholder for anything and everything involving a dissenting viewpoint.
This goes hand-in-hand with outrage culture where we listen in order to respond rather than to understand. According to the Urban Dictionary’s definition by PortableBacon outrage/call-out culture is “when people play the victim card and bend over backwards to be as offended as possible when they really aren't. Using hissy fits, political correctness, character assassination and a false sense of moral authority, the outrager hopes to gain power and public recognition for their brave act of justice”. Eish. Not very academic and not very nice.
Lawyer, writer and cynical idealist Michael Shammas tends to agree that outrage culture tempts us to cram a political opponent into a simple box, e.g. sexist, racist, xenophobe, bigot, etc. Humans are, however, much more complex. For Shammas the underlying psychology is identical: an anti-democratic stigmatisation of the Other. Productive discourse is trampled upon by closed minds “who value comfortable opinion-holding over uncomfortable soul-searching…Outrage culture therefore turns productive discourse into dumb competition”.
Comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Mel Brooks have complained that political correctness is killing comedy. According to British actor John Cleese of Monty Python fame, the enforcement of political correctness has come at the expense of comedy, and he refers specifically to college campuses, where he says he’s been warned not to perform because any kind of criticism of any individual or group could be labelled cruel. He points out that the whole point of comedy and humour is that it is critical. “If you start to say, ‘We mustn’t criticise or offend them’, then humour is gone. With humour goes a sense of proportion. And then as far as I’m concerned, you’re living in 1984”. Cleese also recalls the words of London psychiatrist Robin Skynner: “If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behaviour’. And when you’re around super-sensitive people, you cannot relax and be spontaneous because you have no idea what’s going to upset them next”.
Fellow Brit, Ricky Gervais says in his Netflix stand-up comedy show Humanity, that people can’t stand comedians having the superpower of freedom of speech. “People see something they don’t like and they expect everything to stop as opposed to dealing with their emotions. People take everything personally – they think the world revolves around them”. He might not be everyone’s English Breakfast cup of tea, but he might be onto something.
But some beg to differ
In her article Political Correctness isn’t killing comedy. Scared old stagnant comedians are (2018), Rebecca Shaw states that it is not about being overly sensitive, but it is simply about growing and adapting to what the audience will accept, and figuring out how to be funny within those parameters.
Leon Jacobs agrees and predicts that the pendulum is swinging toward society becoming more aware of the fact that it allowed people to be suppressed and oppressed based on race, gender or sexual orientation. “That’s never ok. We are all in this together, right. It is perfectly OK for humour to come from a place of mutual respect. Never laugh at people. Rather with them. If humour is the reminder that we are all in it together, then the sharing of a joke is the act of reminding those close to you that you think of them, value them”. Jacobs feels that social media is the perfect channel for this.
You mean the new global Kangaroo Court?
Many would challenge Jacobs on his view and argue that social media only exacerbates the issue. Comedian Andrew Doyle noted in an article for Spiked that he has seen an increase in people taking stand-up comedy at face value. “Many comedians I’ve spoken to agree that this kind of entitled, moralistic response is more commonplace than ever before. Perhaps it’s related to what psychologists have identified as a general escalation of narcissistic behaviour. Or maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of social media, through which offence-seeking has turned into a kind of amateur sport”. Context and intension should be the litmus tests to any form of expression, which is often not the case on social media.
The world’s a stage. You’re on in 5!
Quo vadis dear reader? One can but hope that the stage will be one where fearless jesters will be welcomed and celebrated for their comedic tough-love. Discussions of this nature always bring me back to what the in/famous raconteur, Oscar Wilde wrote in A Picture of Dorian Gray: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming…those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope”.
Which takes us back to the very beginning
And that window decal next to Sunspot on our Cape Town campus. After all, our common goal is to be creative solution seekers that are brave in our thinking and doing, and to celebrate and honour the ‘crazy ones, the misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes’, for we know ‘that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do’.
Some interesting references:
Brown, J. 2018. Is the snowflake generation really about to kill off comedy? The Independent, 3 January 2018 [Online]. Available at:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/comedy-snowflakes-millennials-over-sensitive-jokes-political-correctness-pc-a8129756.html[Accessed 15 October 2019]
Collins Dictionary. 2019. Political Correctness. [Online]. Available at:
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/political-correctness [Accessed 20 October 2019]
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996. Chapter 2: Bill of Rights. Cape Town: Government Printers.
Davis, D. 2008. Communication and Humor. In: Raskin. V. ed. 2008. The Primer of Humor Research. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 547.
De la Fuente, P. 2019. On Political Correctness. Social Sciences. [Online]. 8. 277. 10.3390/socsci8100277. Available at:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336201595_On_Political_Correctness [Accessed 28 October 2019]
Derschowitz, J. John Cleese condemns political correctness on college campuses. Entertainment Weekly, 1 February 2016. [Online]. Available at:
https://ew.com/article/2016/02/01/john-cleese-political-correctness/ [Accessed 30 September 2019]
Genius. Apple Inc. Think Different Ad Annotated. [Online]. Available at:
https://genius.com/Apple-inc-think-different-ad-annotated [Accessed 28 October 2019]
Humanity. 2018. Directed by Ricky Gervais. [Film]. London: Netflix.
Miltimore, J, 2018. John Cleese Has a Theory on Why Political Correctness Is Rampant in Our Culture. Intellectual Takeout, 24 May 2018. [Online]. Available at:https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/john-cleese-has-theory-why-political-correctness-rampant-our-culture [Accessed 28 October 2019]
Humanity, 2018. Directed by Ricky Gervais. [Film]. London: Netflix.
O’Hara, M. 2016. How Comedy Makes Us Better People. BBC, 30 August 2016. [Online]. Available at:
https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160829-how-laughter-makes-us-better-people [Accessed: 29 October 2019]
Otto, B. 2015. The Court Jester Is Universal…But Is He Still Relevant? Management and Organization Review, 11, pp 559-573 [Online]. doi:10.1017/mor.2015.41 [Accessed 29 October 2019]
Shammas, M. 2016. Outrage Culture Kills Important Conversation. Huffpost, 27 January 2017. [Online]. Available at:https://www.huffpost.com/entry/from-liberal-college-camp_b_9070894[Accessed: 29 October 2019]
Shaw, R. 2018. Political Correctness Isn’t Killing Comedy. Scared Old Men Are. The Guardian, 28 May 2018. [Online]. Available at:
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/may/28/political-correctness-isnt-killing-comedy-scared-old-stagnant-comedians-are [Accessed: 28 October 2019]
Snodgrass, L. The Trevor Noah Phenomenon: young, black South Africans are standing up. Mail and Guardian, 19 January 2016. [Online]. Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-01-19-the-trevor-noah-phenomenon-young-black-south-africans-are-standing-up/ [Accessed 20 October 2019]
Steinert, S., 2017. Amusement and beyond (Doctoral dissertation, lmu). [Online]. Available at:https://edoc.ub.uni-muenchen.de/23180/1/Steinert_Steffen.pdf [Accessed 28 October 2019]
Tallantyre, S.G. 1906. The Friends of Voltaire. Smith Elder & Co.: London.
Urban Dictionary. Outrage Culture. [Online]. Available at:
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Outrage%20Culture [Accessed 28 October 2019]