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To laugh or not to laugh

A necessary reconversion

Tamy Palma
Journalist Cover Photo: Juan Pablo Molina Santiago, Chile Á - N.1

A politically incorrect joke by a boy afflicted with a degenerative disease —precisely the person that political correctness aims to protect— leads the author into a long reflexive process on the social function of humour on the edge of the accepted.


Not laughing or laughing at a joke a person can pass for empathic or an idiot. I was from the first group, that has moral compass of humour when something crosses the line of the correct. That’s how I lived until I heard Joaquín, a 12-year-old with a degenerative disease, say a joke that I found cruel or at least didn’t feel right.

At one point some time later, I read the Spanish Evaristo Acevedo say that humour has, in spite of everything, a smile of indulgence, of comprehension and even mercy. And that’s not bad, although understanding is the first step to laughing without guilt. The brief text convinced me that I can like a joke, however cruel it might sound, and that I can enjoy it without any guilt.

We are all, it is true of our times, enslaved by political correctness. I see it when a comedian refers to an ex minister as “retarded” on television revolutionising social media, or when the same character on live television laughs at a model in her face because in a public discussion she told her opponent she didn’t know the word “truce”. “I only speak Spanish”, she excused herself before the stunned looks of thousands of spectators. And although the impasse might border innocence, the comedian was again condemned as if he was committing a cruel act.


Hospital Laughter

I also perceived the public correctness that I carried inside reluctantly watching the stand-up in which the American comedian Anthony Jeselnik told, apparently from the position of a victim, how a nun from his religious school hit him with rulers, pencil cases or note books in the class room trying and this his punchline to defend herself from him. The first this I did was wait for the cameras to pinch a woman to see if she laughed or not. When I saw that they not only applauded but laughed out loud, I only then felt like I could do the same.

I remembered Joaquín, his cruel joke and thinking of how my head was configured to look for an excuse to laugh or not to, in benefit of my social life and the correct image that every citizen wants to demonstrate. But the truth is that I got bored of pretending. To get to that conclusion I tested myself. For 5 years I have visited, at first as a student and then as a journalist, a hospital school where there are children that have just had transplants, with cancer, cystic fibrosis and endless other chronic or terminal diseases that force these children to be regular students of the Hospital Calvo Mackenna school, a luminous place in which the students inevitably rotate because they die, they’re interned, or they’re let out.

In this place there are children between the ages of five and 18 that are bald; others in wheel chairs; others in crutches with an amputated leg; and those that have been healthier, that look as if they didn’t suffer from anything. But this is just an appearance. They’re sure to be ill, only they don’t have symptoms or they’re going through a good period that in none of the cases means that they’re free to leave this place for a “normal” school as the kids call it. Those that are apparently healthy are the ones that invite the rest to play and lead the activities with most agility.

Joaquín was one of those kids with a healthy appearance that brought, from within the circle of sick children, humour. On one of my visits one of his classmates who suffered from an asymptomatic cystic fibrosis told another with a degenerative disease who had progressively been losing her sight to watch what she was doing. I didn’t laugh because this happened shortly before my conversion process, but Joaquín burst out laughing.

In time I understood that we who visited this place had the responsibility of following the humour of those who lived there because it was part of their reality. And we who go there, who have nothing really wrong with us, have to do this although it might seem imprudent.

When I say the word “humour” I don’t only refer to the idea of “good humour”, understood as the attitude that manifests itself on the exterior when something is enjoyable, but humour in the way of presenting, judging or commenting on reality, emphasising the funny, nice or ridiculous side of things, as the dictionary defines it. It’s different to mocking or falling into a kind of unilateral humour in which the receiver of the comment has to defend himself from an attack.
One of the first times I went to the school of the Calvo Mackenna patients I kept an eye on Joaquín. His laugh caught my attention, as it was heard from afar. He was next to five children playing volleyball in the colourful cement playground at the school. One of them that was on a wheelchair accommodated himself with absolute control of his apparatus to reach the ball; those that couldn’t move a lot would get into a strategic and unmovable position; and one of them that didn’t have an arm was lent one by a friend when the ball came towards him. The idea was to simulate that he had two arms and in that way, he could hit the ball hard.

I was on one side, watching them, dazed, trying to go unnoticed and full of compassion when one of the kids shouted at the one on the wheelchair: “Cummon, throw the ball already”. Joaquín, already laughing, joined in: “Don’t think about it so much, the worst that can happen is that you hit it too hard and send it to hospital”.
Everyone burst out laughing and the jokes on the subject kept going.

I on the other hand, remembered the first chapter of the 19th season of South Park when the new director of the primary school came in with a strategy to prohibit jokes that were offensive, incorrect or that could give way to bullying. After punishing a group of troglodytes, protagonists of the series, for laughing at each other and other classmates, Kyle Broflovski’s dad is called in for a meeting with the director. There the father makes a trivial comment about the transgender celebrity Catilyn Jenner, after which he is dismissed for being transphobic.


A fraction of reality

The following scene is no better: the same director who teaches a class on political correctness, beats the little Eric Theodore Cartman until he bleeds, another of the protagonist children, who had confronted him for his impetuous will to transgress the freedom of expression of others using violence. “If someone wants to say something bad I’ll punch them”, was the phrase of the bigshot from the primary school in South Park that I remember to this day.

I have to confess: I didn’t laugh at Joaquín’s joke, I only pretended to be amused. As I was about to laugh I thought, it’s a quick joke from a kid who talks about hospitals and directs his jokes at children that practically live in one. Not only did it seem to be disrespectful for me to be amused, but also an intromission to something that they share every day while I was nothing but a spectator.

Joaquín is 14 years younger than me. He called me “miss” the only time he talked to me, to invite me to play volleyball with them. It was after his joke. I said no, to which he replied: “Wow! It seems like we have more energy than you, and we’re in hospital.” Again, he alluded to his illness and again everyone laughed.

It’s been almost two years since I’ve seen him. I don’t know what happened to him, if they let him go, if he got better or if he died. But not having been an echo of his humour makes me remember him. It’s not a nostalgic or bitter memory, but a point of inflection between the comfortable and socially imposed position of being politically correct, and accepting that being this way also consists in ignoring a fraction of reality; in turning a blind eye to what’s happening; in not giving an opinion that doesn’t change what happens and, in this way, without being judge not accomplice, keep living in an unalterable peace.

Not laughing at the everyday, I understood, is a voluntary act of control. To want to control humour and our reactions is proper of the education model that authoritarianism aims to install. The linguistics professor Ricard Morant developed this subject in 2007 in an essay called El lenguaje políticamente correcto y el humor, (Politically correct language and humour), where he proposes that the biggest conflict of man around this subject is that some people see ghosts where there are none, because they ignore the fact that laughing isn’t bad at all. Because of this and as a means of challenging it, those of us who don’t adhere to being the best consider ourselves intellectuals and humourists that through humour try to take off the politically correct bandage from our eyes.

Humour necessarily involves playing with reality and that, without being intentional, brings us closer to truth; truth understood as a mix of subjectivities that when expressed bring us closer to what really happened. This portion of reality isn’t measured in laughs, but rather by a closeness to what is currently lived in a society.


Humour in critical moments

Truth is not trivial: it is the base of information that goes around in communication media and should be the basis of a democratic society. John Stuart Mill in his famous work On Liberty sustains that the only way in which someone can get to the bottom of something, is to listen to all the opinions that people have to then study the different interpretations. Meanwhile opinions, that according to Mill bring us closer to reality, help us as a society to make better decisions.

Opinions don’t have only one way of being transmitted, and humour, as in South Park in its more bloody episodes, is a softener to get to them easily. If humour achieves its aim with the excess of reality or exacerbation of it, making a big deal out of it and situating itself on the pole of superiority or uncomfortableness, it’s choosing to turn a blind eye and get into a bubble. In this way comedians who talk about racism, of men who hit women or are capable of laughing at politicians, they’re laughing at the baddies. On the other hand, the goodies, the correct, prefer to mute humour omitting the existence of dissidence.

Without going any further, if it were illegal in Mexico to mock authorities, caricaturists —known as “moneros” in the Aztec country— would not be one of the most important informants of media, as in the national papers La Jornada and Excelsior or the magazine Proceso. Thanks to them hard, brief political information can appear without retaliation against workers of that information. Gonzalo Rocha has been a political cartoonist in media for 35 years. It was in the last presidential elections in which for the first time in 30 years a left-wing candidate was elected, when his work started to make more sense. “The work of a cartoonist, at least the role I have taken, is to criticise and mock those that abuse their power”, he told me immediately following the triumph of Mexico’s new president elect, López Obrador. Might humour be the channel for information in critical moments? In this country it seems so. The Mexican Samuel Schmidt defines it perfectly: “the political joke shows the opinion of society about the actions of the regime that frustrate them”.

In my position as a reconvert and as someone that learned to get rid of the moral and social sanction that exists in the face of an easy laugh or a laugh that expresses an excess of reality, not only do I think that Schmidt is right, but I’d also add that humour is a flexible tool that clears any kind of crisis moment; that of a hospital school, that of a minister with questionable interventions or that of a man that shows the contemporary costs of domestic violence from an ironic point of view.

If I have learned something from anecdotes I didn’t laugh at is that I prefer to enjoy at the cost of making a fool of myself, rather than joining the social gravity that blocks me from even knowing what I’m missing.


«When I say the word “humour” I don’t only refer to the idea of “good humour”, but humour in the way of presenting, judging or commenting on reality, emphasising the funny side of things»


Tamy Palma