The Challenge of Writing Humor in Dark Times

From Publishers Weekly:

The two of us blinked at each other. We had just swapped edits for chapter one of our latest coauthored book, You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, and there was a problem. This chapter focused on the Satanic panics of the 1980s and ’90s, which we argued marked the beginning of the network crisis: a period of intensifying polarization and information disorder now central to our politics. For the second time, we’d rejected each other’s suggestions. Whitney was being too somber for Ryan, and Ryan was being too slapstick for Whitney. Clearly, we needed to have a conversation.

So we opened negotiations. Front and center was the question, on a scale of one to 10, how funny should You Are Here be? Ryan said seven. Whitney said two. We’d developed the one-to-10 scale while working on our previous book, The Ambivalent Internet; it was a way of posing questions, soliciting answers, and brokering compromises with minimal ego bruising. This was how we made decisions about everything from language choice to argument structure. But this was the first time we disagreed about jokes.

Previously, humor had characterized our work. A running editorial goal as we researched, drafted, and edited The Ambivalent Internet was to make each other laugh. We even opened its second chapter with a story about our own raucous laughter as we prepared to give an aggressively absurdist, meme-heavy academic presentation about the book.

But that was in 2015, the very tail end—for us, anyway—of the “lol nothing matters” myopia that had characterized our early work on internet culture. How we felt about humor at the outset of the project and how we felt on the day of our final submission—not incidentally, the day after the 2016 election—shifted considerably. Laughter still came easily in 2015. By the time the book was published in 2017, we’d stopped laughing—because all the dangers of all that laughter and that “lol nothing matters” mentality had grown painfully clear.

Whitney tackled these dangers in a follow-up project to The Ambivalent Internet exploring journalistic amplification of far-right memes. But in 2018, when we started writing You Are Here, we hadn’t fully dealt with our own laughter.

What began as a discussion about the appropriate number of Satan jokes in chapter one quickly broadened out to everything we’d overlooked—as scholars, as authors, as people—because so many of us had been so busy laughing for so long. The real question became one of how we were going to position ourselves within the crisis we were describing. Were we going to separate ourselves from it, and in that emotional distance crack jokes? Or would we place ourselves within it and take responsibility for our part?

These questions hit especially close to home as we reflected on internet culture. As we drafted The Ambivalent Internet, white supremacists had already adopted the trollish winking, ironic racism, and weaponized laughter that was so common online. But too many people didn’t notice, because all the jokes and all the memes looked the same as they ever did. Stealthily, smirkingly, white supremacists used these “jokes” to push the Overton window—the range of discourse politically acceptable to the mainstream—further and further to the far right. We couldn’t gloss over this history in You Are Here; we couldn’t fall back on easy laughter. We needed to address the political and ethical consequences of internet humor directly. So we devoted a chapter of the book to how fetishistic online laughter, our own very much included, had accelerated the network crisis.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “The Challenge of Writing Humor in Dark Times”

  1. I have to say, I’ve been finding it difficult to read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s otherwise very knowledgeable and helpful “Business Musings” for the last few months because she can so rarely anymore resist inserting gratuitous dumps on Trump et alia, and (by implication) the half of the country that goes with it. At this point, she takes it as received wisdom that 50% of us are just, somehow, deranged or bad actors or idiots and (in any case) “not one of us” that have the only valid point of view or received wisdom. Makes it hard to receive her non-political messages.

    I feel the same way about the “smirking white supremacists” so glibly dismissed in the above article.

    The casual narrowness of scope to the anointed vision is sweepingly reminiscent of religious strife, and everyone seems to have forgotten what happens when that (rejection of huge quantities of your fellow citizens) becomes intractable. It feels more and more like it’s going to take rude and physical reality to make an impact about the unwisdom of no longer trying to get along as a way of life.

    • Agreed, Karen. I probably should have not included the smirking white supremacists comment in my excerpt from the OP.

      There is a highly-regrettable tendency in the US these days for too many people to regard those with differing political or social opinions as beneath contempt instead of simply accepting that not everyone agrees on every subject.

      • Its easier to demonize than to engage.
        You might have to face harsh, undisputable facts, otherwise.
        Thing like, “folks didn’t vote for the orange guy because they liked him, but because they aggree on the issues he highlighted.”

        They may make him go away but the isues will remain, to be picked up by somebody more electable and harder to demonize.

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