Which Direction Do We Punch: The Powers and Perils of Humour Against the New Conspiracism

In Rashi Bhargava & Richa Chilana (eds.), Punching Up in Stand-Up Comedy. Routledge Chapman & Hall. pp. 235-254 (2022)
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This chapter will evaluate humor used with the specific intent to reveal glaring epistemic errors that lead to injustice; flaws in reasoning so transparent that straightforward logic, argument, and evidence seem ineffectual against them, and in some cases, just silly to think such tools would be needed. Laughter seems to be one of the only sane responses. In particular, I will assess how humor can combat conspiracy theories, propaganda, lies, and bullshit. The last one I view in Harry Frankfurt's sense of a complete lack of concern for truth or reality, which I think sums up former President Donald Trump's epic lack of curiosity which has a trickle-down effect on his ardent followers. The sort of conspiracy theories I will focus on are an intermingling of propaganda, well defined and analyzed by Jason Stanley in his work How Propaganda Works, and the "new conspiracism", outlined by Muirhead and Rosenblum in A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and The Assault on Democracy. There are perils with this potency of pugilistic comedy. It is easy to punch up, humorously fume at the foibles and fantastical blunders of a world leader who seriously considers ingesting bleach to combat the plague, who also, without irony, regales us of his capacious mnemonic prowess in recalling the following words on a cognitive test: "Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV." The self-proclaimed "stable genius" aced it. But when Trumpism and QAnon e.g., spreads among many who are impoverished and disempowered, the very people to whom Trump and others in his powerful orbit have incessantly lied, it becomes less clear how to wield truth-and justice-seeking wit. Are consciousness-raising comedians seeking to uncover and undermine obvious and dangerous falsehoods punching in the morally correct direction, and how can we tell?

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Chris A. Kramer
Santa Barbara City College


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