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Two New Year's Resolutions

On humor and intelligence

I’ve taught interpersonal communication to college students for 20 years and I thought Gayle Landt’s viewpoint, “Difficult Conversations” [EW 12/8] gave excellent advice. But part of me thinks we’re in danger of re-fighting the last war. 

I agree we need to listen and de-escalate conflict, and that’s blue-chip advice for successful communication. But 2016 also points us toward radical steps to reinvent our habits.

I have two New Year’s resolutions I want to invite others to join.

I want to stop using humor to get things done. Humor is enjoyable, but it has this weird camouflage that makes it appear powerful when it isn’t. Too many of us thought the way to go with Donald Trump was to mock him relentlessly until all of us roared with laughter and rubbed our hands for the guaranteed electoral landslide.

 Can you possibly imagine a way we could’ve made more fun of him? Did we hold anything back? We took mockery as far as it could go and it failed us.

There’s something I tell my public-speaking students: Funny is easy, but powerful is hard. Too often they settle for funny because funny feels safe and achievable but powerful feels too earnest and soul-baring. They prefer the detachment and noncommittal pseudo-power of humor. But you almost never change the world with humor.

Honestly, it has a lot in common with masturbation: There’s a burst of pleasure, but it doesn’t bring anything to life. Instead, it just dissipates and is soon followed by a hunger for more. People who channel their power toward making the world better construct a satisfying legacy. Have you ever known a stand-up comic who could ever, ever silence the craving for the next laugh?

In 2017 I want to use jokes the way I use bowling nights, as a way to flavor my time with friends and family so we enjoy ourselves and make happy memories. But I want to stop deluding myself any longer that greed, injustice or any other threat to our social connective tissue is funny. They’re not.

We need the courage to speak earnestly, to have more McCarthy-confronting Joseph Welch moments and fewer John Oliver moments. Oliver can produce a rant a week for HBO, but virtually none of his critiques have any lasting force. He’s funny, bitingly so, but the messages are clever and disposable.

In the 21st century, there’s always someone just a few feet or a few minutes away with the next funny joke, and the thing about each joke is that it instantly makes us forget the one that came before. We need calls to action that stick in people’s minds and throats and won’t go away.
My first resolution might stir up some disagreement, but my second will probably spark anger. I think we need to recast stupidity.

Look, I’m an educator. For my entire adult life I’ve repeated things like “I don’t think there is such a thing as a stupid person. Stupid decisions, stupid mistakes, sure. No stupid people.” But I really am losing any loyalty to that idea.

There is no Lake Woebegon effect for thinking and reasoning skills. We cannot all be above-average, and some of us, honestly, are below average. The problem is, in the information age, people who are below-average are on the receiving end of contempt. It becomes a truly awful thing to say that someone, anyone, is stupid.

But there are stupid people. Not a few, either. A bunch.

Go back in human history, and you’ll find a time when it was equally bad to call someone weak. In your typical prison, it still is. But I’m fine with admitting publicly that I’m not exactly muscle-bound; at some point we made peace with the idea that some people are stronger and some are weaker.

What it took to be taken seriously by other people shifted from muscle to thought, and stupid took the place of weak.

But that also gets it catastrophically wrong. I have a Ph.D., and awards for my teaching and research, but I’ve known hordes of people who outdo me in wisdom, sensibility, kindness and problem-solving. David H. Freedman wrote a wonderful essay about this in The Atlantic last summer, “The War on Stupid People,” which I highly recommend you take a few minutes to read. 

Intelligence is useful, but lack of intelligence is not lack of worth.

My other New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to work hard at breaking my habit of being dismissive and contemptuous of those who reason poorly or struggle to understand complex matters. When I’m not strong enough to do something myself, I ask for or hire help, with no shame involved.

It’s time we understood relative intelligence as one trait among many, not the raw material of simple respect.