The Use of Humor
from Ballbuster? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman, pp. 66-68

By Bertell Ollman

...Still, with a few exceptions, the overwhelming response of the media was, "Here is an amusing game about, of all things, class struggle." Or, alternatively, "Here is a Marxist who is funny." What a surprise! Not that anyone missed the serious political message in the game—how could they? Socialist tracts were nothing new; a socialist tract in the form of a game was. And just because it was amusing, the socialist arguments were somehow less threatening, perhaps even less objectionable. In light of this, the square on the Class Struggle board that speaks of the capitalists' control of the media and its use to present the capitalist point of view requires at least this small qualification.

The almost total absence of political criticism took me by surprise. I had hoped for a positive response, and feared teeth-gnashing hostility. The degree of acceptance, indeed, of enthusiastic support, threw me slightly off-balance. What was at work here? Why were the capitalist media so enthusiastic about my anticapitalist game? Why are people pleased to learn that socialists (or capitalists) have a sense of humor? Is having a sense of humor incompatible with taking oneself seriously? These questions started me thinking about the role of humor in politics, and particularly about the function of radical political humor. I seemed to have accomplished something good, possible important, that I didn't completely understand.

The literature on humor gives three main reasons for why people laugh: because they feel superior, as a relief from tension or an indirect expression of forbidden urges, and as a result of the juxtaposition of two incongruous ideas. Class Struggle is constructed out of incongruities, juxtaposing as it does Marx and Rockefeller, struggle and play, politics and games, growth in trade unions and losing a turn at the dice. The amusement most people get out of playing and sometimes just on hearing about Class Struggle comes mainly from experiencing these incongruities.

Everyone likes to laugh, and we all appreciate and generally like the people who make us laugh. Liking them, we tend to react more favorably to whatever is identified with them—a country, a race, an ideology—or at least to be less hostile. With Class Struggle, I began to benefit, only half-knowingly at first, from this psychological predisposition. It is not easy for socialists to be funny. We are known to the general public as dour, often angry, superserious people—and with good reason. Life isn't funny. It is hard to be light-hearted in a world full of human tragedies, especially if one believes that most of them are the result of faulty social organization. Weighted down by this knowledge and its accompanying responsibility, most socialist humor takes the form of bitter irony, whether directed against capitalists or against oneself for being so ineffective. In either case, the potential inherent in a humor that nonsocialists can laugh at for "winning friends and influencing people" is lost.

Another reason I gleaned from Class Struggle's ready acceptance by the media is that people are more ready to listen to "disagreeable" ideas if they are presented in a humorous manner: "Smile when you say that." It removes some of the discomfort and anxiety associated with dissonance of all sorts. People construct ideological, emotional, and even physical defenses to protect themselves against such discomfort, but these same defenses also make it difficult to understand and sometimes even to hear contrary opinions. Humor gets people to lower their defenses not only because laughing is a relaxing activity, but also because humor is associated in our minds with what is nonserious and nonthreatening. In this way, a little space is opened up for genuine communication.

Then—and this is something I still don't understand well—leaving aside outright nonsense, people are more likely to believe the truth of whatever makes them laugh. For example, if you tell people that statistics distort reality, you'll get qualified agreement at best. But if you substitute, "When your head is in the freezer and your feet are on the stove, statistics is what tells you that the temperature in your stomach is just right," agreement is likely in general. (Remember this joke next time an economist says something about the average income.) Political speakers of all persuasions have made use of this bias in favor of the humorous version, but to my knowledge no one has adequately explained it. Is it too much to hope that Class Struggle, not despite but because of its clowning, actually taught some members of the Fourth Estate a thing or two about the class struggle?