Laughter in the Time of Insurrection

Maybe it’s not a bad thing Twitter is filled with jokes following the breach of the US Capitol.

If the US Capitol breach was a coup, then it looked like a bad Seth Rogen movie. But still, 5 people died. The images of people occupying the Senate chamber were both comical and devastating. Is this a joke or a tragedy? I couldn’t decide.

Maybe it was both. Maybe it was a tragedy that much of social media viewed through the lens of humor. But why sarcasm? Why humor?

Well, that’s how we make sense of our world. While in collective shock, those short quips on Twitter could have been our first attempts to process what happened. After all, the proper historians will take a little while longer to develop a robust understanding of January 6th. And we don’t have time — no one wants to sits with the tension of not being able to process the events around them. Not for long at least.

I’ll be honest — when I read that a Trump supporter was shot by a Secret Service officer, I didn’t feel anything. I watched the video, and didn’t feel a thing. At the time, I tried to reason: this woman was threatening the security of our Senators — that’s really bad, right? In an ideal world, I would have also tried to remind myself she was brainwashed or unstable. Still a human and all. But at the time, I couldn’t process it.

I felt indifferent. Too stunned to hate, too stunned to love. Too exhausted to have any concrete thoughts at all. So naturally, I spent the evening chuckling and scrolling through snappy memes on Twitter.

This was a desperate attempt to cope with the tension in my head.

Tension and Release

In her stand-up special, Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby explains how she’s done with comedy because she’s tired of giving tension a release. Gadsby walks the audience through how she uses tension to set up a joke, and then later provides a release via the punchline. Near the end, she says:

“Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker? It’s because, you know, I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a children. […] It was a survival tactic.”

Gadsby grew up gay and gender nonconforming in a time and place where that was a literal crime and considered a punishable offense. Her comedy, she claims, has always been self-deprecating; she saves the audience from knowing her full suffering in order to deliver a cathartic punchline.

“This tension, it’s yours,” she says while declaring she’s quitting comedy. “I am not helping you with it any more. You need to learn what this feels like.”

I’ve watched Nanette several times now. It’s incredible. What I’ve understood from Gadsby’s argument is that having a release stunts your understanding. And I say this with respect, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I don’t think the depth of your understanding depends on if you’re able to regulate your tension or not.

While I see her argument, I’m not so ready to give up on the release. That — I could still use (and employed in full on January 6th).

The Purpose of Humor

Hannah Gadsby does not think laughter is the best medicine (instead, she says that stories are). And she’s a comedian. But other comedians see its use. In an interview, South African comedian and Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, says:

“Humor is a tool that you can use to process information. It’s a filter that you see the world through. And so, it doesn’t minimize what’s happening to you. It doesn’t minimize how you feel about what’s happening. But it helps you cope with the information that’s coming in.”

For context, Trevor Noah grew up as a mixed child in apartheid South Africa. His personal history is also one of struggle, and he said his family often used humor to cope.

And maybe that’s what our memes this week are doing: helping us cope. I’m not comparing my personal suffering to Gadsby’s or Noah’s, but the tension of seeing my country, my community, and others close to me being swallowed by this madness is a type of tension nonetheless. What is happening? How do I process all of this? Gadsby might say you need to sit with that tension, and maybe someone like me really should. But I’m worried that the constant, unending tension might drive me to the indifference I felt while watching the US Capitol building being overtaken. And that indifference can’t be very good.

It’s not that I don’t understand the gravity of what happened — what’s happening — or am trying to laugh it away. Instead, a joke might be the best way to convey information and perspective in a way people can easily digest while under stress. I’d argue that, beyond the humor itself, a joke can ease tension by putting an understanding to your emotions. Seeing a clear analysis in words — or memes — might be enough of a salve to move forward.

For example, some of the “recap” memes clearly highlight the racist differences in the responses to Black Lives Matter protests versus the US Capitol insurrection. Is it any less impactful just because it features Paul Blart, mall cop? Do I understand it less because I chuckled?

In the end, I don’t feel bad for laughing. It’s funny, and more importantly, it’s true.

Hannah Gadsby is right; laughter relieves tension. And when she says it’s not the best medicine, maybe I agree with that, too. Twitter memes won’t save America.

But can we have our memes anyways?

Former President Barack Obama has to make a serious statement, but what kind of responsibility do every day citizens have to stay solemn through this national crisis?

Can we strive to achieve a full understanding, but then also consume some “cheap” laughs on the side — just to stay sane? I’m not even sure they’re mutually exclusive. After all, I don’t think we are turning out memes because we are turning a blind eye. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. Like Trevor Noah says, we are coping. We are processing.

We are tired. Some more tired than others. Even if joking is not “appropriate,” it seems that the ultimate inappropriate thing has already happened (the storming of the US Capitol). And that’s not even the most inappropriate thing Americans have ever done.

Being so, could our social media jokes please be excused as our efforts to process? Can I laugh on the heels of a national crisis? If it was up to me, then everybody gets a pass this time.

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