I can’t tell you how delighted I was to read this statement by bell hooks in a recent interview:
“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community.”
The value of humor is completely overlooked in both revolutionary pedagogy and critical theory – one suspects because revolutionaries and critical theorists don’t like to admit how funny they are. Another reason: and revolutions are often pursued by the kind of people who like to think that if they just explain things hard enough everything will fall in line. But humor is a pure demonstration of the fact that not all things in life are reducible to reason or amenable to politics – and that therefore revolution and theory have their limits.
It is often said that intellectuals are the first to be lined up against the wall and shot when the revolution comes – but this is a bit of self-flattery on the part of intellectuals. In fact they are the second group to be lines up and shot, if they’re acknowledged at all. It is comedians that a tyrannical force does away with first, every time.
This is not to say that humor is always good and activism is always bad – as I’ve noted before, even Nazis could tell jokes – but it does indicate that however unfair and unreasonable humor is, we simply cannot advance any closer to a better world without it. It is not a sufficient condition for progress, but it is essential.
Hooks, however, goes even further in this interview, noting that humanization and love are in fact the only engines of social progress – nothing else works. In which case it’s not at all coincidental that a time when we are most inclined to get angry and polarized at the thought that people don’t share our views is also a time when we seem to be able to get the least done.
The whole interview is worth a close reading – and clearly I haven’t been reading enough bell hooks closely.