The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief

I don’t know what to think of laughter anymore. I used to be happy with it solving so many issues, soothing so many cuts, but now I wonder whether it was only me all along just applying patches to the wounds. It would seem that humour is no laughing matter -or, rather, it’s the laughter itself that confuses the issue. And it’s not always fun and games that provoke it. There is a serious side to it as well. A guilt-ridden side.

Like most people, I suspect I have always taken the wonder of laughter for granted; it feels almost as delightful to witness as to perform. But it has not always enjoyed this role. I recently read Laughing Gods, weeping virgins, laughter in the history of religion, a 1997 book by Ingvild Selid Gilhus, a professor of History of Religion at the University of Bergen, Norway. I learned that laughter has evolved. She writes about a time when it was looked upon as sinful, or at least a tool used to maintain control by whatever gods a society honoured – it mocked or shamed disobedience.

Then in the medieval period, laughter was shunned as the secular body’s attempt to escape from spiritual control, escape from holding God foremost in one’s mind and it was suppressed with guilt. Of course, the occasional escape valve was necessary, so the church in France allowed laughter for the Feast of Fools and roles were briefly reversed, the lowly becoming powerful, the carnal spiritually acceptable.

A more interesting question, though, is why humour exists at all. Why do people laugh? Gilhus’ book only touched on its encounters with religions, and yet it seemed so much broader than that. We laugh a lot, it would seem -some studies suggest every 20 seconds in an average conversation. But studying laughter is fraught. As the authors, E.B. and  Katharine S. White observed, ‘Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.’

And yet, even bearing that in mind, there have been several theories that have attempted to explain laughter. One of them is superiority -we laugh when we think we’re superior to something. The purpose of the joke is to mock from a more exalted position. Freud had a say as well, feeling that we find something funny if had been repressed and then suddenly leaked out… I’m not sure how tenable that idea is, but Freud will be Freud, after all.

The theory that seems the most credible to me, however, is incongruity. This was championed by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his popular essay published in 1900,  Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. He realized that it was difficult to subject such a pleasurable and universal experience to any meaningful analysis -much as having to explain why something was funny, means that it probably wasn’t. But the incongruous is difficult, or impossible, to reconcile and the very attempt, in Bergson’s phrase, is something ‘mechanical encrusted on the living’. In other words, artificial when it shouldn’t  be, and the realization of this juxtaposition is ludicrous and therefore humorous. We’re trying to recognize ourselves in something that isn’t…

I’m not totally convinced by that argument either, and yet it may be that he is simply referring to what happens when we attempt to solve the incongruity. And I suppose it’s the very attempt to reduce the process to reasonableness that bothers me. So it’s more in the inept exercise rather than the success of the explanation that leads to the humour in the situation -the incongruity made manifest.

But Bergson dissected things even further, and felt that if too many emotional states were involved -sadness, fear, melancholy, and so on- they would interfere with seeing something as humorous -interfere with our ability at laugh at it. How then, to explain the comedy in Voltaire’s alleged deathbed response to a priest who was encouraging him to renounce Satan? “This is no time for making new enemies” was his reply.

And yet, laughter also ‘appears to stand in need of an echo’ according to Bergson. I came across a readable article in Aeon that summarized it more broadly. The essay was written by Emily Herring, at the time, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium:  Evolutionary theorists have hypothesised about the adaptive value of laughter, in particular in the context of social bonding… Most friends share ‘in-jokes’ that are meant to be understood only within the context of their particular social group, as do certain communities brought together by a football team, political opinions, or shared specialist knowledge… Our laughter ‘is always the laughter of a group’, as Bergson put it.’

Again, though, is he still dissecting a frog only to have it die? This is remains much too reductionist for me. Somehow humour lies in its spontaneity, its unexpectedness. When it is contrived, it may result in laughter, but is it the same animal…?

For some reason, the question takes me back to those days of innocence when my children were young and everything was new and fresh to them. They helped me see the world differently.

I remember one time when my son was fascinated by the reports on TV of continuing protest marches in some country or other. Although he was only about four years old and not at all clear about the reasons for the demonstrations, he was obviously fascinated by what he kept referring to as the ‘parades’.

“But actually, parades are different, daddy,” he eventually volunteered as he watched with fascination.

Thinking he had perhaps grasped the angst of the people protesting against their government, I asked him what he meant.

He looked at me as if to say that fathers could be so unobservant sometimes. “There’s nobody standing on the sidewalks watching them… Everybody’s walking in the street,” he added.

“They’re all protesting,” I explained, realizing he might not understand the concept.

“Is that why they keep bumping into each other with their elbows?” he said, and smiled knowingly.

I had to laugh, but was it humour I was reacting to, or his awareness of the seeming incongruity of their actions? And did the distinction actually matter? Maybe innocent detachment – and unexpectedly naïve observation- is really how it all starts…

Neither here nor there

I don’t think I’m very good at handling conflicts -I hate confrontation; I prefer the view from the top of the Bell Curve where I can safely watch the goings-on of the extremophiles in their respective antipodes. I suppose that’s why I gravitate to boundaries where, if I’m careful, I’m neither here nor there.

This is probably not a recipe for success, let alone conquest, but nevertheless it is a position well suited to observe the vagaries of both sides. After all, the victors should not always be the arbiters of history -not even history lasts forever…

But what, exactly, constitutes an ‘us’ and ‘them’? I realize we all seem to fit into categories -much like we all belong to families- and yet, exclusion from one list doesn’t necessitate exclusion from another. The allotment often seems quite arbitrary in fact. Random. If a member of another sports team is injured, say, should I rejoice? Their loss might confer an undeserved advantage to our ‘side’, but surely it means less than if we’d won with both sides playing their best.

I know this sounds naïve, especially when applied to teams and competitions -it’s what games are all about isn’t it? You’re supposed to pick a side… But does the choice imply that you are therefore expected to dislike the other team? Hate them, even? I think not. And what about victory? Is it for all times, or given that it is a competition, does the other side have a chance at the next encounter? After all, if the results were always a foregone conclusion, it wouldn’t be much of a contest, would it?

With this consideration in mind, I thought it might be valuable to canvass various opinions as to the origin and value of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing. It turns out that there seem to be as many opinions as there are conflicting groups, so in a bid for compromise, I settled on a rather lengthy essay by the journalist Marek Kohn entitled, appropriately enough, Us and Them:

‘We come into the world with open minds, ready to tune in to whatever language or culture surrounds us. But as we lock on to the strongest signals, the others become less distinct. As our sense of ‘us’ develops, our sense of ‘them’ degrades… New-born babies gaze with equal attention at faces regardless of ethnic appearance, but by three months they prefer looking at faces from their own ethnic group… These findings are unsettling. They suggest that a sense of ‘us and them’, with its accompanying biases, can emerge from vital processes that are not directly concerned with sorting people into in-groups and out-groups… During its first nine months, an infant seems to refine its models by narrowing its focus. In the process, it loses its ability to recognise less familiar-looking people as individuals.’ Unless, that is, they possess some feature that appeals to it.

Kohn sites innumerable examples of studies that suggest, much like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, that we search for features with which we can identify -shirt colours, fashions, opinions, talents, and so on- and join the groups that serve our purposes. ‘Humans are not simply social beings but political ones. From playgrounds to corridors of power, they are constantly forming, modifying, ending and generally complicating alliances. Stable cues that signal alliance, such as speech traits or styles of dress, offer regularities that help people orient themselves.’

But, what should we do with them? Is it ever a justification for discrimination? Mistreatment? Kohn is disappointingly coy in his ultimate conclusions: ‘Perhaps we simply have to accept that the relationship between us and them is always a work in progress.’

I was thinking about this when I met some friends for our still physically-distanced meetings outside the local coffee shop. The four of us were an elderly eclectic bunch: Harjit with his turban, Arthur with his accustomed woolen sports jacket and tie, and Jeremy with his long, snow-white Santa Claus beard. I, alone amongst them, was appropriately attired in my grey long-sleeved sweat shirt and contrasting black sweat pants -you don’t overdress for coffee. All of us, according to the custom of the day, had our face masks hanging from an ear, or tucked into a handy pocket however -each of us was ready for a nearby sneeze or cough.

But Arthur was already complaining by the time we’d found a sufficiently large patio table that overlooked the grassy meadow of the adjacent park. “Look at them,” he hissed, pointing at a group of twenty-somethings walking through the grass towards some trees close to us. We all turned our heads to see who he was pointing at. “No masks,” he continued when he was sure he had our attention. “Not one of them…” he added with disgust evident on his face.

“But they’re outside, Art,” Harjit said. “Not everybody wears a mask outside. And besides, they’ve obviously just come from a baseball game -look at their uniforms. We were like that when we were their age… Immortal,” he added with a wistful smile.

“More like vectors,” Arthur grumbled and had a sip of his coffee.

“Except for age, they’re not so very different from us,” Jeremy said, brushing some doughnut crumbs out of his beard as he spoke.

Arthur rolled his eyes theatrically, and put his coffee down carefully on the rickety table. “Come on, Jer,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “The youth nowadays are all the same. Look at them. They’re crowded together, and patting each other on the back… very irresponsible if you ask me.” Nobody did, however -Arthur was very sure about things. Too sure, sometimes.

The crowd must have won their game, because they seemed in a jovial mood, and gathered at a bench under the trees. Soon, a couple of members of the losing team appeared from trees on the other side of the grassy meadow. In contrast to the winners’ red, both were attired in grey uniforms, but one of them was coughing badly.

“What’s wrong with him?” I could hear one of the reds yelling at the two greys.

“Don’t know,” the healthier grey answered back. “He suddenly got worse after the game. I’m trying to get him home,” he explained.

“Was he okay before…?” the red asked.

The healthy grey that was helping his friend shrugged. “He said he was a bit tired, but he’d been out partying last night, so…”

“I told you,” Arthur said in a low voice to the rest of us. “They don’t think of anybody but themselves -no thought for the rest of us in the community…”

Suddenly the grey collapsed, gasping onto the grass, and everybody on the red team stood around in a wide circle as one red ran to help the coughing man. “We’ve got to get him to the hospital,” he shouted, obviously searching for a phone in his pocket.

Nobody had one, of course, so the red yelled at our table. “Can one of you phone 911 for us?”

“He’s probably got Covid,” Arthur whispered to the rest of us.

But Harjit already had his phone out, and signalled to them he was phoning. “Can we help?” he yelled at the crowd, and started across the field towards them. Two of the players ran to stop him from coming closer.

“He might have the virus,” one of them yelled at him.

“I’m a doctor,” Harjit replied. “Or at least was until I retired…”

But the two reds blocked his way as one of them looked over his shoulder at the young man lying on the grass. “Thanks, but he seems to be settling now,” he added. “We can manage till the paramedics get here.” And he gently took Harjit by his shoulder and guided him back to our table. “Thanks again,” the red said to him again, and turned to leave.

“I think the youth of today are just fine,” Harjit said when he sat down with us again.

Fortunately Arthur decided to sip quietly at his cooling cup of coffee.

“We are all ‘us’ nowadays, I think,” Jeremy said as he added a few more crumbs to his beard.

You Don’t Say?

It’s hard to be upset by something you don’t know about. It’s hard to be offended if you don’t know you’ve been insulted. And, if somebody has to point out that you really have, then have you? For insults, snubs, or even rudeness to be effective, they need to be understood as such.

I think that explains some of those comments that seem to slip under the radar -comments that we could term ‘micro aggression’. Things like: “I’d really like to hire a woman for the job, but they take so much time off for family matters.” Or even worse, perhaps: “Women are beautiful, but they’re fragile.” Are they compliments or insults? Of course these examples are also forms of sexism, and nowadays more easily spotted.

Suppose, though, you had the distinct feeling that what was said was something that crossed a boundary, but you don’t know why? You couldn’t quite pin it down? Then, what if I had pointed out to you that they are really forms of something called ‘benevolent sexism’ and asked you for other examples you might have encountered? Would categorizing them help with subsequent recognition? I suspect it would -now that you were aware of a term that describes the action more fully, it becomes more apparent.

This hypocognition is far more common than I might have thought. The concept was nicely summarized in an essay in Aeon by Kaidi Wu, who was a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan at the time:

‘It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences.’ So, ‘Lacking the concept of benevolent sexism blinds you to its occurrence. Knowing the concept of benevolent sexism renders visible its manifestation.’

Then, Wu gives a more humorous example of hypocognition: shoeburyness -something that I, at least, had never heard of, and so wasn’t aware whether I had ever experienced it until it was explained: ‘shoeburyness: the vague uncomfortable feeling of sitting on a seat that is still radiating warmth from someone else’s bottom.’ See what I mean? Mind you, I have no idea where the word came from, nor does knowing it cure the sensation of which I was only vaguely aware before. But still…

As Wu explains, ‘As cognitive psychology affirms, having a verbal label – even a nonsensical terminology, an apparent portmanteau – can distil a nebulous phenomenon into an experience that’s more immediate and concrete… In the absence of an expanding lexicon, we default to denotations bounded by the traditional descriptors.’ So, an example she gives is ‘Single parents are routinely asked what it is like to be “both mother and father”’. Embarrassing, perhaps, and yet often the lack of an appropriate understanding is just that: a default assumption.

But what would happen if, instead of attempting to use other words, the awkward subject was ignored altogether? Swept under the carpet? Would that solve anything, or help to promote further understanding of the situation? Would refusing to discuss gender issues really help those who struggle with it? ‘Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.’

Still, as Wu suggests, ‘the attempt at hypocognising a concept can often propel a more urgent need for its expression. The emergence of a unifying language of #MeToo gives voice to those who were compelled into silence…  Ideas and categories that are yet to be conceptualised leave open aspirational possibilities for future progress.’

Her essay was very compelling, I have to say, and yet I fear I still have a lot to learn.

I had just ensconced myself in my favourite table by the window of a little coffee shop I usually go to for breakfast when I saw Agnes in the line at the counter. She’d been a good friend of my ex-wife Sally, and I hadn’t seen her for several years now. We’d never been particularly close, and strangers since my wife left, so I was surprised when she brought her coffee over to an adjacent table.

“G,” she said, smiling and using my nickname. “I haven’t seen you since…” She hesitated for a moment, obviously wondering if it was polite to mention the divorce.

“Since Sally,” I filled in for her, trying to diffuse the awkwardness.

I could see her face relax, and her smile broadened, transforming her into the person I remembered from the dinner parties of yore. “So, how are you?” she continued, staring rather curiously at the pancakes and sausages on my plate. “Breakfast?” she asked, rather unnecessarily, I thought.

I nodded and had a sip of my coffee, following her example. “I like the selection here,” I answered.

She was quiet for a moment and then glanced at my plate again. “I’m surprised you go out for breakfast, G…”

I chuckled quietly to myself. “I eat out a lot, Agnes,” I said, although I’m not sure why I felt I had to explain my habits.

Her expression turned from curious to what I can only think was concern… Or maybe it was disappointment -she had always been difficult to read. “Sally said you often used to have dinner ready if she told you she was going to get home late.”

I shrugged – a little embarrassed, I suppose. “Well, nothing special, though -nothing like she could do, that’s for sure…”

I could see her eyes narrow almost imperceptibly, and then quickly revert to neutral. “So you don’t cook much anymore?”

I shook my head, and attempted a little self-conscious laugh. “Well, sometimes, I guess, but Sally was so good at it, I haven’t been able to duplicate it…” It was a bit weak, I realized. “She was such a great cook!” I added, almost hearing the exclamation mark. “In comparison, I’m afraid I just play in the minor league.”

But my feeble attempt of humour only caused her to look concerned again, and she, too, began to shake her head -but slowly. Sympathetically. And then she sighed, and fixed me with a curious stare. “Don’t you think that’s a bit of benevolent sexism, G?”

I was surprised at hearing the expression again. “Why do you say that, Agnes?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

She smiled sweetly, finished off her coffee, and stood up to leave. “Because you’re boasting about her reputation at the expense of your own, G,” she explained and left without the slightest trace of irony. Only a wave and a wink.

Sometimes it’s good to hear another opinion…

Is Lateral a Direction?

Damn! There they go again, pulling the masks off the faces of those of us who grew up hoping we were uniquely creative; those of us who eschewed the logical pathway of thoughts and instead stepped off the trail to see if anything was hiding in the bushes. That’s what we lateral thinkers like to think we do -I say ‘we’ laterally, of course. Although I certainly wasn’t a child in the 1960ies, it was a time when my hormones had settled sufficiently to allow me to think of things further afield -more laterally than chromosomally. In fact, I suspect it still wandered more than I would have liked, but the era was wrapped in sunlight and the resulting chiaroscuro made it hard to look in one direction only.

The stage was set, it seems, for someone like  Edward de Bono, a Maltese doctor and researcher, to write The Use of Lateral Thinking which espoused just what I had found myself doing: relaxing the need for vertical (logical?) thinking. Actually, he decided that several things needed to change if we wanted to be creative: things like recognizing that some ideas were especially persuasive, so we needed to find different ways of looking at them -and this meant pursuing a different way of approaching and solving problems, even if it involved incorporating serendipity.

It struck me as a relaxing way to approach life and although I never really went in for piercings or drugs, I could see how it might be seductive to some people. But it’s hard to maintain a belief when people keep poking holes in it. And it’s especially hard to feel safe within a dogma when the innards of the pillars you thought were supporting the roof are showing signs of decay. Still, I imagine stuff evolves as time moves on.

I suppose I did, anyway, although I couldn’t quite surrender the suspicion that there was value in approaching questions as if they were actually answers in disguise -well, at least that was the message I took from the lateral thinking craze. And then, I happened upon an essay in Aeon by Antonio Melechi, an honorary research fellow in the department of sociology at the University of York, which seemed to suggest that lateral thinking was, of all things, a pseudoscience:

Imagine my disappointment when I read that ‘Historians of science questioned why de Bono invested so much in the genius ‘eureka’ moment, when invention and paradigm shifts were more commonly the work of communal endeavour and disputation.’ Not that I’ve ever experienced a genius moment, or anything, but I’ve always revelled in sudden surges in understanding that seemed to spring from a good night’s sleep. ‘Psychologists had more questions than most. Lateral thinking clearly overplayed the importance of the creative breakthrough at the expense of trial and error, feedback and reflection, not to mention unconscious incubation.’

I suppose I’ve always been an incubator, though -much as the process may cast the strength of my underlying gender into shadowy regions. But nonetheless incubation, however unconscious, is still eurekoid, don’t you think? It’s still sort of lateral -something that conscious processes await until ideas can be suddenly and perhaps even mysteriously hatched from wherever.

De Bono and his lateral thinking has been criticized as being more derivative than seminal; but, does it matter who first named it? Melechi points out that, there has been ‘a long history of research into creativity, a rich treasury of thought and experiment that had almost certainly provided lateral thinking with most of its magpie principles and pre-owned methods.’ For example, in a lecture in 1880, the famous American philosopher and psychologist, William James ‘observed that the ‘highest order of minds’ had a knack for straying from the ‘beaten track of habitual suggestion… we seem suddenly introduced into a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzing and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems the only law.’

Actually, ‘Known to some Enlightenment philosophes as ‘negative imagination’, this mercurially creative sensibility remained in the shadow of pathology and degeneration for much of the 19th century, and it fell to a new wave of French psychologists to push for its study and rehabilitation.’ So, ‘the mathematician and polymath Henri Poincaré dug deep into the ‘sudden illuminations’ that punctuated his research. The unbidden insights that had propelled him to make discoveries across various fields were, Poincaré insisted, evidence of complex work being undertaken subliminally, over days and weeks, as he busied himself with unrelated issues.’

Gestalt psychology also identified the very notion of lateral thinking in all but name. ‘Wertheimer [psychologist Max Wertheimer] noted that logical-analytical thinking, or reproductive thinking, was hostage to repetition, habit and intellectual precedent. Insight and breakthrough, in science and everyday life, needed the irruption of ‘productive thinking’, the ability to look at a situation or problem from a new perspective.’

On and on goes the evidence to suggest that only the name ‘Lateral Thinking’ was new, and there I was thinking that I was finally surfing on a wave I could handle. That somehow it had unlocked the door to a personal heuristic (to use a lateral-thinkingly-derived change of idiom).

Perhaps there are no shortcuts to wisdom, though. There’s no sense in simply wandering through the woods only to stumble into an unsuspected field of flowers rather than the missing answer for which you were searching.

Is it a sign of Age, though, that searching always needs to be teleologically driven? Planned, in other words? That there needs to be a reason for the search, other than bald, ungarnished curiosity? That you need an already prepared question to get an answer…?

Answers lie all around us, scattered like those wildflowers in the meadow; surely what we really need to do is find the right questions. The right keys that fit the locks. I don’t know about you, but I have always travelled with questions stuffed in my pockets. And so, if I happen to stumble upon an answer I hadn’t expected to be sleeping just off the trail somewhere, I merely fumble around in my jacket for the suitable question that I didn’t even know I was carrying.

Is that Lateral Thinking?