Banality, Laughter, and Mass Murder

Contra Arendt, one may speak of the “’evil’ of banality”—certainly a pervasive cultural pathology at the present time. Although the average American is not guaranteed sufficient panem, he almost always has access to circenses; i.e., the cornucopia of amusements and games which may soothe and refresh his otherwise battered, humble self. TV sitcoms and the like can be said to offer a kind of low-grade therapy—if by therapy we refer merely to a temporary catharsis of tension rather than deeper insight.

Indeed, as Freud wrote in his book on jokes: humor, by suddenly juxtaposing incongruous thoughts, momentarily dissolves an inner inhibition–thereby providing a sudden release of tension (laughter, etc.). Humor, by abruptly revealing absurdity or “non-sense,” playfully exposes those conflicting pressures in everyday life—and, in so doing, provides a (temporary) release which may feel “liberating.” Think, for instance, of the absurd wordplay and spontaneous dis-order of a classic Marx Bros. film. Freud insisted, however, that catharsis alone changes nothing—and that for those committed to greater awareness, the ultimate goal was deeper insight and change.

Enjoying their daily dose of comic amusements, people may feel a welcome release of tension (diversion, laughter)–but without achieving any deeper comprehension of social/psychological realities. (At the risk of succumbing to utter banality, I am reminded of the old Reader’s Digest feature: “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”) Moreover, mild satire—think of TV’s The Simpsons, for instance—helps us to laugh at what we might otherwise feel depressed and hopeless about: the relentless, confining absurdity and meaninglessness of so much of everyday “life” today. Yet, unlike the scathing, fiercely moral satire of, say, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, such satire is in a sense “counter-enlightening” — it provides an illusory comfort and aids us in taking “less seriously” matters which we should, in fact, confront with a resolute gravity and lucidity.

Such a pervasive comic irony—of “making a mockery” of everything from shameful scandals to torture and war—is part of a societal-wide “infantile regression,” in which supposedly mature adults demand the (oral-receptive) gratification of food, drink, games and sports, casual sex, and constant chitchat. The personal computer — which could serve primarily as a tool for improved writing/research/thinking skills — has been transformed into a personal “amusement park” of sorts (apps). And, of course, at least for young males, pornography websites remain the most popular (no surprise). The user is transformed into a stimulus-addict, ever-searching for the latest fix—demanding, narcissistic, consumption-driven. After all—at the risk of stating the obvious—the Internet has become primarily an at-your-fingertips shopping mall.

“Nothing is to be taken seriously”: sitcoms and hypermanic commercials project a wisecracking, smart-alecky “attitude” which may seem liberating—but without changing the oppressive social-structural realities in the slightest. Such ironic mockery, by ridiculing human tragedy and cheapening private emotions, fosters a self-satisfied, complacent, and ultimately cruelly sadistic outlook toward, for instance, maimed children in Iraq. (Tens of thousands—and each condemned to lifelong suffering because of the nightmarish destruction sent by Bush et al.) The moral ambiguity of laughter: no doubt, the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib, feeling “liberated” from legal-normative constraints, often laughed gleefully as they “playfully” tormented and humiliated the victims placed at their disposal.

Lying mass murderers—the contemporary equivalents of Mussolini et al.—are invited onto comedic TV talks shows (Letterman, Jon Stewart, ad nauseam). They engage in “harmless” banter with the hosts, who may (gently) kid them (and even timidly “question” them) about their past policies and “mistakes.” Think of Rumsfeld, Petraeus, and other unprosecuted war criminals. Young military recruits—conned into “serving their country”—were deliberately sent to their deaths. Bombs and missiles were rained down on tens of thousands of ordinary people and innocent children—pulverizing and burning their bodies. And then, consequently, their victimizers—having sent the torments of hell upon them—eagerly go on banal, worthless TV talk shows to “express concern” about “mistakes”—all in a lighthearted, bantering setting which is the antithesis of a Nuremberg-type war crimes tribunal.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.