Archive for the ‘rhetoric’ Category

It was a Joke!

August 17, 2011

Jokes about racism or sexism or homophobia are funny. Racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes are not.

The distinction is pretty simple. Humorous messages use social axioms and shared knowledge as tools to tell stories, violate expectations, and make people laugh. They convey attitudes, both through the assumptions they make about this shared knowledge and through the information they make explicit in the telling. It is possible – although not always easy – to parse some of the attitudes included in a package of jokes, and therefore it is possible to point out when those attitudes are bigoted. Some jokes reinforce stereotypes, some parody them. Some jokes endorse discrimination, some make fun of it. Some jokes use prejudice as a foundational axiom, some point out the absurdity of prejudice itself. The simple fact that a message is supposed to be funny does not change the need to criticize it if it endorses harmful attitudes, so it makes sense to be attentive to the difference between reinforcing, endorsing, or utilizing group bias on the one hand, and parodying, making fun of, or exposing group bias on the other. (more…)


A Hellish Chorus: Social Criticism in Thick as a Brick

October 31, 2009

December 8th, 2008

At first exposure, Jethro Tull’s 44-minute song Thick as a Brick may seem to be filled with nothing more than a bizarre and incomprehensible string of lyrics. Ian Anderson called it a “spoof” of other concept albums, and the album insert is a mock newspaper whose articles make ridiculous, seemingly accidental references to the song. The fictional back-story of the lyrics—that they were written for a contest by an eight-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock—further downplay their significance. According to the newspaper insert, Bostock’s poem actually won the contest at first, before a “hastily reconvened panel of Judges accepted the decision by four leading child psychiatrists that the boy’s mind was seriously unbalanced and that his work was a product of an ‘extremely unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and Country’” (1).[*] The comically severe traditionalism of their assessment highlights the poem’s atmosphere of satire and self-ridicule. The same article indicates that some who were exposed to Bostock’s work “felt that it was not one poem but a series of separate poems put together merely to appear impressive” (1). Their complaint feels superficial, as does most of the article, because disjointedness is precisely the point. Thick as a Brick expresses generalized social alienation: the semblance of a unified narrative is elusive because Bostock’s disaffection has no monolithic source. (more…)

God’s “Boss’ Life”: Humor in the Book of Job

October 30, 2009

April 15th, 2008

Job is a tale of power. It features numerous hierarchical relationships amongst God, Satan, Job, and Job’s friends, and it is dominated by long, repetitive discourses about these relationships. God’s culminating speech is an acerbic rant about how mighty he is—one which parallels some modern rap performances, such as Snoop Dogg’s narration of his supposed “Boss’ Life.”[*] God is undoubtedly the divine boss of Job’s world, but the tale portrays him as humanlike in his mannerisms to frame his seemingly senseless disregard for Job’s well-being in terms that a human audience can comprehend. For example, the audience might conceptualize this God’s apparent need to prove himself to Satan as rooted in self-consciousness. Even if such a view is an oversimplification, it gives the audience a “motive” to imagine while considering the other issues raised by the story. The juxtaposition of omnipotence and human traits thus serves a pragmatic purpose in driving the narrative forward, and an essential tool in producing the appearance of humanness is humor. (more…)

The Self and Society in Becoming a Visible Man

October 30, 2009

September 26th, 2007

Personal experience informs everyone’s ideas about gender so powerfully that it can seem nearly impossible to develop a posture approaching holism. An important route to progressive awareness is exposure to a diverse array of views and life experiences, so narratives in which gender is addressed rationally and emotionally are valuable on face—even ignoring any other purposes they might serve. Jamison Green’s Becoming a Visible Man is one such narrative: it provides meaningful descriptions of Green’s personal experiences of gender and of transition. But it also goes a step farther, incorporating descriptive views of gender which form a persuasive sociopolitical argument. There are a few instances where this argument becomes inconsistent, but they should not be allowed to completely devalue the work as a whole. Its overarching philosophy of tolerance and self-determination is valuable. Still, readers might wish to address the particular inconsistencies, which generally seem to arise from Green’s predictable instinct to define groups based on his individual experience—an instinct against which Green himself cautions. (more…)