Artillery Row

Are we entering an age of post-humourism?

Just when we need it more and ever, society’s sense of humour appears to be in terminal decline

“Good luck, officer cadet Jeffrey, I think you’ll do all right,” said my platoon instructor during my final interview at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, having survived the third and final term to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army. “But,” he added, “always remember to keep a sense of humour. Otherwise you’ll be fucked.” An exchange officer from the Australian Army, he had a habit of speaking more candidly compared to the British academy staff.

The ideology of identity politics leaves very little room for humour to exist

He was an excellent instructor, and that was indeed great advice which anyone would do well to follow. It was sorely tested during my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, during the latter of which, eventually, I lost my sense of humour with—confirming my instructors prediction—unfortunate results at a personal level. A similar, though much larger, problem throughout society now is that there appears growing momentum in the demise—possibly to the point of extinction—of a collective sense of humour. This shift into post-humourism was perhaps the logical next step of the 20th century’s scourge of post-modernism with its cold scepticism and cynical relativism. But it obviously hasn’t been helped by the 21st century’s social media explosion accompanied by the censorious nature of many activists and social justice warriors. The ideology of identity politics and the attitude of many a so-called liberal progressive admit very little room for humour to exist.

And now we have Covid-19 and its strictures to further compound the crisis in humour. Hiking through northern Spainon the Camino del Norte and Primitivo, everywhere I encounter disembodied eyes floating above masks—Spain’s mask policy is particularly strict, and locals appear to have embraced it with gusto. The eyes may be the gateway to the soul, but from them alone it is particularly hard to read a person’s attitude. That lower portion of a person’s countenance is critical, hinging on that most dextrous appendage of the mouth to communicate verbally or simply through shape alone, including the most winning form that is a smile of warmth to put someone at ease.

Having studied, worked and lived in the US on and off since 2010, this loss of humour has appeared particularly acute—especially during the years of Donald Trump’s presidency—when compared to the America of not that long ago.

This decline in humour started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has continued apace ever since

Growing up, I was steeped in Bruce Springsteen through my father’s musical preferences. Watching old Bruce Springsteen music videos now, or ‘90s sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends”, offers a glimpse into an apparently lost world, in which Americans had a lively sense of humour bolstered by all the virtues that typically attend it. It’s hard to qualify. It’s not just the content of what people are saying. It’s something about the quality of the smiles on people’s faces, of their entire countenance, how they smile and goof around so freely; there’s a different energy and attitude emanating from people then compared to now. And it’s not just in the music videos and sitcoms of yesteryear—you can see it in films, even in news broadcasts. Since then, there seems to have been an entire attitudinal shift in society toward less light heartedness and a diminished capacity for joy.

That many Americans have struggled to keep a sense of humour about Donald Trump’s presidency has not been without reason. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of his re-election chances, if a second term comes to pass, the implications for America’s sense of humour could prove fatal. But the humour decline—and along with it the demise of two of its keenest allies: kindness and grace—predates Trump.

I would argue that this decline started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has continued apace ever since. Humour is typically bolstered by self-confidence, and that dreadful event in New York hammered America’s self-confidence, perhaps far more than Americans—and the rest of us—ever truly appreciated; and to endure that followed by two disastrous wars as an aftermath only dented that confidence more. And as Americans have stopped laughing—instead turning pensively in on themselves—so have the rest of us. The UK has jumped on the humourless bandwagon—especially since Brexit—whose mad-eyed horses only gallop on as we ape the US in failing to deal with the likes of LGBT and intersex issues and societal friction points such as abortion with free, frank and open discussion.

In our defence at becoming more sour faced, beyond the exaggerated impression generated by an internet-connected world and the 24-hour news cycle that the world is going to hell in a handcart, much of what passes for comedy today on television, radio and film is a travesty; the hilarious linguistic gymnastics of the likes of Woody Allen when he did stand-up comedy in the 1960s—his sketches “The Vodka Ad” and “The Moose” are comic genius—and of the BBC’s 1960s radio show Round the Horn are ever harder to find nowadays. The latter would be impossible to commission now: its content would be accused of being homophobic, sexist and likely racist too—someone would find something to complain about and cancel it for.

Laughter can split two ways—it can be kindly or spiteful; it’s an importance distinction

There are, thankfully, examples of witty resistance and hope: the American comedy television series Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David plays a fictionalised version of himself as he tramples over social conventions and expectations, is one example that has weathered the demise, carrying on for 10 seasons. But there are not many Larry Davids out there in the entertainment industry. Likewise, in real life, where increasingly everything is taken so seriously. Admittedly these are serious issues that people get impassioned about: trans rights, racial tensions, women’s reproductive rights, and more. I’m not saying we should be able to freely crack jokes at the expense of people at the coalface of these highly charged and sensitive issues. But laughter can split two ways—it can be kindly or spiteful; it’s an importance distinction.

Also, it’s striking which contentious issues are judged more acceptable to lampoon. In 2018 at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, when comedian Michelle Wolf took the stage, she offered an effective illustration of how abortion is really hard to translate into a laugh-along format, as she ridiculed Vice President Mike Pence’s pro-life opposition to abortion.

“He thinks abortion is murder which, first of all, don’t knock it ’til you try it — and when you do try it, really knock it,” Wolf said. “You know, you’ve got to get that baby out of there.”

There was significant backlash, though the number of commentators who leapt to Wolf’s defence with asinine arguments about her words being justified as a means of speaking truth to power and of making the ruling elite uncomfortable, served as further evidence of the worrying state of liberal America’s sense of humour.

As the aftermath to Wolf’s performance highlighted, the argument remains ongoing about whether certain topics are off limits for humour. From Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov to Kurt Vonnegut recalling his World War II experiences, the death of a child—especially if a violent killing—remains an event against which arguments about God’s mysterious nature, let alone the potential for humour, fall flat.

Without a sense of humour, you are fucked

But having a sense of humour does not mean spinning jokes about everything that happens, rather it’s a state of mind fuelled by a shifting alchemy that mixes the likes of humility, self-deprecation, cheerfulness and a sense of the ridiculous, and without which life can quickly become overwhelming. The capacity for that type of alchemy appears entirely lacking from many so-called activists and progressives, a fact that does them and their mission a great disservice and more often than not only serves to unnerve those they are trying to convince/clobber over the head with their assertions.

For such activists, and for the rest of us facing this pandemic punctuated by even darker moments such as the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in France and Austria, I return to my instructor’s point: Without a sense of humour, you are fucked.

During the tour in Afghanistan, soldiers and civilians had limbs blown off or were killed in the morning, and by the afternoon you had put it aside—which is different to discounting it—and returned to being able to joke and treat the general course of events humourously. Without that capacity, you could easily become unstuck, as I learned the hard way.

The Jewish people offer the clearest example of meeting the most appalling and unimaginable disaster—the Holocaust—and finding a way to continue on afterwards while maintaining a life-affirming stance underpinned in no small part by a rigorous sense of humour. We would do well to note and give credit—something Christians still struggle to do regarding the Jewish community—to their reaction as we navigate these austere times that we handle so earnestly.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover