Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Just joking


Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for

declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.

Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.

Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins

THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.

Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.

What about people whose job it is to make jokes? There’s been some discussion lately of whether “political correctness” is undermining comedy. I believe strongly in the cultural and political importance of comedy, in all its manifestations. Yes, comedians should push against the boundaries of propriety, and the only way to know that their not playing it too safe is if they sometimes cross the line. But that means that they shouldn’t be arrested, they shouldn’t be blacklisted except in the most extreme cases. It doesn’t mean that they get a free pass to provoke without the provoked being allowed to push back. One of the most egregious examples was a comment of the comedian Jerry Seinfeld that was much reported a few weeks back:

I do this joke about the way people need to justify their cell phone: ‘I need to have it with me because people are so important.’ I said, ‘Well, they don’t seem very important, the way you scroll through them like a gay French king,'” he said, making an exaggerated hand motion. “I did this line recently in front of an audience — comedy is where you can kind of feel, like, an opinion — and they thought, ‘What do you mean, gay? What are you talking about gay? What are you saying gay? What are you doing? What do you mean?’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’

In his privileged world view it’s okay to use stereotypes of gay people as a punchline, and then when the audience members have some thoughts that go outside his bubble — in his imagination, as their only explicit offense was not to laugh at his awkward joke — he goes on television to denounce the unfairness of it all. But he sees the shadows of marching brownshirts:

“I can imagine a time — and this is a serious thing — I could imagine a time now where people would say that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion, and you now need to apologize,” he continued.

That’s pretty much how Hitler got started, telling comedians they needed to apologise for offensive comments. And what if they refuse to apologise? What then?! What then?!

(That said, there is such a thing as proper form in criticism. In particular, if you’ve taken no notice of a certain comic in the past, maybe the time when he gets shot to death by extremists who disapprove of his material isn’t the right time to jump in with your disapproval.)

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