Monday, August 5, 2013

Self-Effacing Humor

I was raised to be a good Christian before turning to Buddhism before turning to agnosticism before turning to quantum theory before arriving to a point where the answers to life's greatest mysteries wouldn't change my sense of self. Irrespective of whether those answers ultimately change or obliterate my form, I know myself in this form and that is sufficient for me. Perhaps that is all we're looking for: comfort vs. answers. Rather than make this a discussion on the nature of truth and answers, this opening passage "I was raised to be a good Christian" was initially meant to be the introductory statement to the fact that many of the people I have befriended in life are Jewish.

It has been my personal observation, something which history supports, that a number of Jewish people engage in what is called self-effacing humor. This retiring, modest, and often times gracious form of humor is, from what I can tell, behavior that is considered polite. It is akin to giving away one's authority as a gesture of good will. The only problem is that when one gives away their authority, others incline toward taking it. 

"I didn't really think they'd believe it," is an expression I have heard time and time again from my friends, Jewish or otherwise, who engage in this type of humor. "How could they actually believe that about me? Don't they know me?" 

Self-Effacing (self-deprecating) Humor

Self-effacing humor is defined as the act of belittling or undervaluing oneself. This humorous device is often times used to break the tension. 

Before reading the below passage in Beyond Good and Evil,  my understanding of self-effacing humor was rather traditional.  

(I have been rereading Nietzsche to better understand his philosophies, which I rejected for many years according to my misunderstanding of the legend that surrounds him rather than to a deeper understanding that might arise from personal investigation.)

I had impugned the value of this type of humor, considering it "negative" and therefore impractical. My personal inclination, as regular readers of my blog can attest, leans toward the positive side of life. This is not to say that I do not see both sides of the coin as a cohesive whole, interrelated by their commonality, but my preference is for positive encounters as a matter of pragmatics, meaning thinking positively and engaging with others positively makes it easier to live and interact in our present form. 

In Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, he states (of philosophers) that: 

"They are all advocates who do not wish to be regarded as such, generally astute defenders, also, of their prejudices, which they dub "truths," - and VERY far from having the conscience which bravely admits this to itself, very far from having the good taste of the courage which goes so far as to let this be understood, perhaps to warn friend or foe, or in cheerful confidence and self-ridicule. The spectacle of the Tartuffery of old Kant, equally stiff and decent, with which he entices us into the dialectic by-ways that lead (more correctly mislead) to his "categorical imperative" - makes us fastidious ones smile, we who find no small amusement in spying out the subtle tricks of old moralists and ethical preachers." 

What this passages says to me with respect to self-effacing humor is that self-ridicule is a way of dropping pretenses associated with conveying to others that we can know the truth about anything in life, admitting instead that we cannot know. In this respect, everything we do or think is funny, even if that which we do is perceived as weak or less than ideal. 

Typically, these are things which we only admit to close friends and family. In this respect, self-effacing humor not only breaks tension, which is often times due to a perceived or acknowledged difference between individuals, but it also genuinely invites someone into the uncertainty of one's inner world. 

It is understandable why this type of communication would naturally be delivered in a humorous way. Both humor and self-effacing communication serve as methods by which we can bridge the gap of misunderstanding, which ultimately brings people closer together. 

While I still do not believe that self-effacing humor is ultimately beneficial, I do understand, perhaps better today, why people use it and what they believe they might gain from it, as well as the true sincerity behind it. 

When people utilize this type of humor, it is difficult to suggest that they stop without that suggestion sounding like a criticism. It is out of sincere concern for everyone's well-being that I do so. 

Until we no longer live in a world where people will take simply because they can rather than questioning whether or not they should from a perspective that ultimately adheres to doing that which is considered to be the highest possible good, choosing a type of humor that allows everyone to reach their highest good is, in my opinion, the best type of humor to use with those persons whose integrity we do not know well enough to engage them in such personal discourse. All it does is put people in an awkward position whereby nervous laugher arises instead of the laughter that might arise from deeper understanding. 

We don't need others to understand us in order to understand ourselves. 

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