In 1974, Joni Mitchell recorded the song “People’s Parties,” a classic example of her sometimes jaunty, sometimes moaning repertoire. Some of those lines stick with me even in my most distracted moments of cynicism and righteous anger: “I wish I had more sense of humor / Keeping the sadness at bay / Throwing the lightness on these things / Laughing it all away / Laughing it all away / Laughing it all away.” I, too, wish I had more sense of humor. Lately, though, the ubiquity of jokes about matters of life, death, and love has left me cold. As anyone who knows me can attest, I love few things more than a biting bit of wit that leads to raucous cackling. That’s the stuff of joy. Humor can, however, land with a force more devastating than more straightforward, serious language.
I remember the days when we queers and women and dissenters would tell jokes among one other—about our furies, our lusts, our fears. In the most recent years, I’ve noticed a distinct change in how people at Davidson talk about gender, sexuality, and their attendant ethical projects of feminism and queer justice. When I first got to Davidson, I readily perceived the crevices in our social landscape that would prove all too easy to fall into. My friends and I would joke about homophobia and sexism among ourselves, and we had a common enemy: the institutions that harbor predatorial and prejudiced people and the people who perpetuate them. The solution was as patently obvious then as it is now: we must remake our institutional commitments. With new places to flock to, we thought, we might become new people, together.
Now, I realize just how naïve such a hope was. Our principles at this school are just as flimsy as the historical artifice we call our heritage. I’m not as concerned here with principles changing from one thing to another, but, rather, how our social patterns and cultural knowledges can help us turn sincerity of belief into vacuous laughter. Within the last months, the number of jokes I’ve heard about gay people has far outnumbered the sum of spoken references to gay people who exist at this school. Often, these gay jokes contain a sense of a socially viable contract of reassurance that we’re all making fun of homophobia these days. Some straight people even go so far as to assume that talking about their queasiness at experiencing their parents’ homophobia allows them to toss the word “faggot” around as an object of shared disdain. Indeed, the most focused discussion of anything gay at Davidson this year has been the phenomenon of “Fagg Field,” the name announced for the new football field. Only when homosexuality became fit for a quip, a meme, and a halfhearted passing comment did people raise it to the level of serious discourse. The cutting moral scandals of loneliness, violence, and other intimate matters at Davidson manifestly cannot excite our consideration.
I myself cash into this humor economy quite often. Recently, I’ve been tossing around the phrase “Fourth-Wave Feminism” to describe the lacksadaisical, libertarian approach we take to matters of safety, belonging, and identity on campus. Fourth-wave feminists, as I say, tell jokes among ourselves that our antagonists hear and recognize not as a threat but as a perennially abandoned figment. We all laugh together now. When I look around at the social groups and institutions on campus, I see a collection of cowardly, mediocre, and violent people who inebriate each other through the mutual reassurance that this status quo is just “silly,” “normal,” and even “college” itself. Perhaps humanity is just as intellectually nonplussed as these folks. I think, instead, that we have all come to view flippancy as a way to mask or defer our weightier thoughts.
We’re all coming off the worst of the pandemic, apparently hurdling into a global war, getting closer to our climate reckoning, and mostly flailing in our powerlessness and helplessness. Such a combination yields an unprecedented nihilism. Never before has the world had as much media as we do, and never before have the world’s people been more mediated with this information. In the face of this night sky of knowledge, we can only muster the strength to guess the jagged shapes of make-believe constellations, resembling our worst fears and deepest desires. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other fears contour these constellations. And so we get the parodic results: the conscious and facetious cosplay of freakishness through sordid jokes about gay sex, mockery of caricatures of Blackness, and the replacement of feminist thoughts with feminist punchlines. The oracles of ridicule are now our high priests.
What once might have inspired laughter and joy now provokes ire and nausea. The threads of our empathetic connections to one another have receded into a vague fabric of desperation—for immediate comfort, for assured validation, for ephemeral pleasure. This desperation encourages us to fall back on our traditional, retrogressive, conservative mores like marriage, gender-segregated institutions, and otherwise unimaginative and exclusive arrangements. At Davidson, I’ve seen this already traditional culture obtain even more entrenched legitimacy in the general chaos of the last years. White supremacist and heterosexist images have long dominated our campus’s ideations of contentment, but now, more than any moment in my time at Davidson, these images are conjoined with institutions that have ever more widespread appeal. I believe our collective humor-laden flippancy has fabricated this veneer of naturalness over the institutions that, in previous years, we have sought to denaturalize.
Perhaps our cultural sense of humor will swing in other directions. Until then, we are faced with the reality that many people see questions of intimacy, violence, and belonging primarily as jokes rather than forces for immediate and lasting harm. Making matters of life, death, and love into merely jokes inevitably leaves us all feeling even more disconnected and nihilistic. In the face of nihilism, where our values slip away from their core meanings, we seek to make some light in this darkness. To invoke a perhaps crudely anachronistic religious metaphor, let us consider Thomas More’s keen observation about humor’s power against evil: “The devil… that proud spirit… cannot endure to be mocked.” Things capitulate, however, when the devil starts laughing with us.
Ross Hickman ‘22 (they/them) is a history and gender & sexuality studies double major from Winston-Salem, NC. Ross can be reached for comment at email@example.com.