28 February 2017

When Facts Don't Matter, Make Them Laugh

Debates by their very nature are contentious. Political debates probably more so than most. Just tune in to a UK House of Commons debate sometime. But the current political climate in the US has devolved to a particularly low point. Families gatherings have turned into lugubrious affairs. Facebook purging, defriending those on the opposite side of the political spectrum en masse, has become the new form of sociopolitical snubbery. Our entire culture has veered sharply adversarial.  You're either with us or against us.

Especially frustrating is the apparent inconsequence of facts. It's difficult enough to persuade someone to your point of view, it's practically impossible when you can't even agree on the foundation of the topic. Debating, for instance, which smartphone is superior with someone who repudiates their very existence would be pointless. No line of argument is stirring enough to sway one way or another. So how is it that we find ourselves in this current historical moment, the era of alternative facts. How did opinion become lord over fact? How did facts become so irrelevant?

New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Kolbert recently reviewed a book, The Enigma of Reason, by two cognitive scientists who try to explain the phenomenon.  Human minds, you see, are very tricky things. Once we make a decision, usually formed by an oftentimes erroneous initial impression, we selectively gravitate to those groups whose views align with ours, amplifying the rectitude of those views while increasingly marginalizing opposing ones. It's evolutionarily advantageous. But here lies the danger of silencing opposing views. The more you're exposed to that which only supports your way of seeing things, the more hostile you become to those who don't. You're either with us or against us.

Consider our current President, who like a feudal lord, demands absolute support of his every word, action, impulse. Anything less than fawning approval is perceived as a traitorous attack. Suddenly the debate isn't a debate anymore. It's two sides speaking completely different languages. When adversaries can't even agree on basic facts (ie. whether it's raining or not), there is nothing to debate. All that's left is the hurling insults and epithets.  

Logically speaking, how to combat the repudiation of basic facts? Restating the facts won't work, that has become glaringly obvious. Name-calling won't either. The only viable tool against willful ignorance is laughter. Laughter and empathy. Laughter is the ultimate truth serum. Empathy to understand. Consider the recent Saturday Night Live skit of Melissa McCarthy impersonating White House spokesman Sean Spicer conducting a White House briefing. The genius of it: only slightly exaggerating what a typical session looks like. No restating of facts or figures. No name-calling or accusations of channeling fascist dictators. Just pure laughter. Laughter doesn't lie.

Comedy, satire, mockery. Not in bad taste or demeaning, but shining a bright risible light onto hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and insanity. Laughter is involuntary.  We can't control what we find funny. Some things just make us laugh. And laughter cuts through bullshit like a sword through tallow. 

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