Jonathan Eida | Opinion
The death of George Floyd was tragic and most people in the West are rightfully disgusted by it. Attention, after atrocities such as those witnessed in Minneapolis, must turn to solutions that would ensure that incidents such as these continue to be reduced in number and are eventually wiped out.
Reasonable suggestions have been posed to the alleged police problem, chief among which is increasing the levels of police training and attempting to come up with better methods of policing. It should be a constant goal of any industry to continue searching for methods that produce better results. More focus is rightfully placed on the police, simply because they deal with high-risk situations on a day-to-day basis, which if mismanaged leave a bad impression.
There are also wider issues of social cohesion that must be tackled. After watching Saturday’s clashes, it would be very easy to perceive this in the context of “black vs white conflicts”. However, firstly on the whole most Britons do not view society through the lens of race. Secondly, these are the very boundaries that we are supposed to be breaking down, not reinforcing. To coerce people into looking at it through this lens will only cause more division.
One of the, I believe, ill-advised backlash responses to these problems has been to go through decades of old comedy to comb out any minutely offensive content. Some of the most iconic television comedies fell foul of the “woke” assessment, with Fawlty Towers and Little Britain among the most notable takedowns.
Needless to say, the majority of people did not react too well to hearing that the shows they liked had been censored. This was not only due to the fact that these programmes were highly popular, but also because nobody believed that their removal would halt racism in any measure. Nobody, for instance, watched John Cleese ruthlessly mock Germans and then immediately felt the need to join the Gestapo!
The assault on comedy, I believe, stems from a false narrative that has been pushed for decades. The calls for “tolerance” have been parroted by the establishment as a virtue for decades, and are often portrayed as a solution for divides between communities. Well, let’s just put it this way: imagine the Bible had commanded “tolerate your neighbour as you would yourself”; it wouldn’t have had the same ring to it. This is because there is nothing intrinsically good about tolerance. In fact, I would argue that tolerance is a negative attribute.
The underlying crux behind tolerance is that you can hate those that surround you, so long as you do not express that hate. There is no positive push for unity or cohesion, but rather it is seen as a success when people don’t go around beating up their neighbours. According to this ideal, we may as well stay in our homes and avoid all contact, in order not to encounter those who we may hurt. This would lead to an overly sad reality.
Quite in contrast to this idea, we should not be seeking a merely “tolerant” society, but rather one that is cohesive and positively serves its inhabitants.
One of the methods that humans use to form these positive relationships is comedy. Comedy not only serves as a centre around which people can come together; it also helps to break down the boundaries dividing people. So long as humour remains non-malicious, the ability to laugh with people is far more uniting then the alternative, which creates barriers between people. This is even true of edgy, offensive comedy, which can similarly be used to bridge gaps as long as they are understood in their respective humorous contexts.
A study conducted by the University of New Hampshire details the uses of comedy in respect to human societal norms and the effect this has:
“Martineau (1972) claims that humor can be used to create strong groups as well as initiate and maintain social relationships. Strong groups are characterized by high morale and cohesion, little social distance, good communication patterns, and strong social bonds. Weak groups lack these favorable characteristics. Martineau (1972) indicates that humor is an important factor in strong groups when humor is viewed as favorable to the group. Inversely, humor is a factor in the evolution of weak groups when humor is not favorable to the group. It is conceivable that strong groups have positive attributes because of the higher levels of trust that result, in part, from the more frequent use of humor (Hampes, 1999). Strong groups may result when humor is applied as a socialization tool (Vinton, 1989), when humor reduces social distance (Graham, 1995), and when humor is used to increase the sense of group identity. Therefore, humor can be an important component of strong group culture and have an inﬂuence on other culture variables mentioned above.”
The message from the study is clear: in order to form strong social units and a cohesive group of individuals, the characteristics provided by comedy are needed.
The study cited also highlighted a link between free speech and humour. It stressed how important it is as a society that we communicate with each other, addressing the role of humour in allowing us to achieve this:
“Poor communication may be the single most cited cause of interpersonal conﬂict and lack of group productivity (Thomas & Schmidt, 1976). Since communication is the vehicle by which group members interact with each other, create goals, plan strategies, and critique ideas, it plays a critical role in both group productivity and overall group effectiveness. Humor helps to ensure good communication by inducing positive effect, which in turn makes people more receptive to the receiver and message.”
The ability to discuss sensitive issues is key if we are to avoid societal breakdown. Divisions in society are continually growing, threatening to spiral out of control. The only defence mechanism that we have is the promise of discussion, which can be used to find common-sense resolutions to our issues. Humour can act as a catalyst for increasing our levels of reasonable and often essential discussions.
The results of the last few weeks should strike fear into anyone who values our society and wishes to see it continue. There is serious work to be done in terms of reaching a more unified place. However, restricting comedy will not help achieve this, but on the contrary would further distance people from each other.
 Romero, Eric & Pescosolido, Anthony. (2008). Humor and group effectiveness. Human Relations – HUM RELAT. 61. 395-418. 10.1177/0018726708088999