The Politics of Humor

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S1: I cannot swear to you that there is swearing on this show, but there might be. It’s the kind of behavior I engage in.

S2: It’s Thursday, December 12th, 2019 from Slate’s The Gist. I’m Mike PESCA. On a day when Boris Johnson wins a clear majority for his Conservative Party, let us turn to another international story. China, hi. Yes, from the blond, the fraggle to the Red Dragon. The U.S. and China agreed to a limited phase, one of a trade pact. Today was dicey, but they got it done.

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S3: The deal will prevent new tariffs that were planned for Sunday. Those tariffs would have affected toys and iPhones. This particular bit of leverage was effective on a president who proudly noticed that in two weeks it would be Christmas or as he calls a war on Christmas. And nothing angers consumers more than paying jacked up prices on a holiday that is basically a huge transfer of goods from Chinese factories to American stockings. Much like the release of prisoners of war, this is, of course, all facilitated by a Nordic intermediary B-day. Swedish diplomats are red suited exploiters of elf labor. When confronted with a charge, Mr. Claus laughed and shook like a bowl full of jelly. His spokesperson, Kelly-Anne Kringle, then sneered. Watch yourself. The naughty list has some space’s on it. It would been good if the U.S. could have gotten its act together and targeted the equivalent holiday. In fact, the even bigger holiday singles day, which is November 11th in China, it is the single biggest shopping day in the world. Maybe the U.S. could have used that to its advantage. You’d think Kraft singles a one steak sauce or Lean Cuisine single serving meals could get a small slice of single day action and then we could withhold them. But now no push from the U.S. as part of the deal. China has promised to purchase more agricultural products from the U.S. soybeans and pork. MAN 2 They like pork. You know, African swine fever and the trade spat have crushed the pork market. Foreign Policy magazine has called it the pork pocalypse. The pigs have called it literally the opposite of a pork pocalypse. Hello.

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S1: China, for its part, addressed an international audience a little before the trade deal was announced, and they apparently had other animals on their minds other than pigs. Here is Hwi chun-ying, Foreign Ministry spokesperson for China. She’s making the case that you should not fear the Asian behemoth. But I’m about the play is not a joke. We have confirmed this. The actual translation. Seriously? Here we go.

S4: Others are mad at us. We want to keep more quickly and effectively. Well, only fighting when necessary to win the dignity and equality. That’s why this of China is picking sides. Size doesn’t have anything to do with us. By the way, is a right on that. John, China is big in size, but is it more dangerous than its people? Even Kung Fu Panda is always doing injustice and being a good neighbor and a good friend. China phobia and paranoia is a dangerous disease, but it’s not without a cure.

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S1: That cure is apparently a cuddly cartoon voiced by Jack Black. But what does that insult lodged against bald eagles? We saw comment from a famous bald eagle.

S5: All right. My job is to make sure this program is morally upright and cultural.

S6: And so, yeah, the panda isn’t as dangerous as the bald eagle. But is it America’s fault that our symbol is a majestic raptor and China’s is a by chromatic, practically asexual fur blob? You know, if Venezuela were to adopt the tree cloth as its symbol, I mean, we’d have to love them, too. Even Maduro, I guess that’s all you need. Maybe Putin has been playing this all wrong. You don’t need cozy bear and fancy bear to hack U.S. elections to gain the upper hand. No, you just need an adorable cartoon bear.

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S7: You mean that they keep it that you see, while our country is seen as intrusive and dangerous, we really are nothing but Boris, a bumbling bear. But we do not wish to meddle with your elections. It was just that large jar of honey symbolizing friendship and trade that interested us. We have not engaged in an active disinformation campaign. This is nothing more than our lovable snout getting stuck in that honey jar of friendship. Sometimes we don’t know our own strength as when bumbling. Boris goes in for a hug, but swipes with his bare claws. Luckily intended hug recipient. Sorry guys, creepo will survive and trust us. One day bumbling Boris will return to hug him again. You do it, can you?

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S1: On the show today? I shpiel about the goings. On the Judiciary Committee in their discussion of impeachment and what a discussion it was. But first, Dana GOLDTHWAIT Young is an improper I mean, who isn’t? But she’s also a professor at the University of Delaware who teaches communications and she researches public opinion in the psychology of political humor.

S8: Her new book is Irony and Outraged The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear and Laughter in the United States. We have a fun time. Yes, anding each other into a state of near bliss. Well, a Venn diagram, my interests just walked into the studio, Dana GOLDTHWAIT Young is a professor at the University of Delaware who for weeks, months maybe I’ve been wanting to get on the show. I heard her do an interview with Ezra Klein. She’s out with a new book called Irony and Outrage The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear and Laughter in the United States. Here’s what she does. She explains what liberals find funny. What, if anything, conservatives find funny. The forms of communication that conservatives use, like liberals use humor. And then she gets down into the difference between satire, irony, exaggeration, how it all works. Thank you, professor. GOLDTHWAIT Yeah, thanks for coming in. Thanks, Mike. I’m so excited too. So let’s just start with this premise that I don’t really agree with. And I think you don’t agree with 100 percent, but it’s kind of true. Liberals are funnier than conservatives. I do think most stand up comedians are more liberal. Definitely people who make comedy films are often quite liberal, even if you can’t even see it. You know, the Adam McKay I don’t know how much liberalism came forth in Anchorman, but that guy is, you know, practically a Marxist. Love him. But that’s that’s what his politics are. But there are enough exceptions. So analyze that, if you will. Is it true that Schumer has a liberal bias cognitively in terms of how it’s processed in the brain?

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S9: Yes. So liberals and conservatives are fundamentally different, not just on the the way that they think about issues like gun control, but, you know, increasingly work shows that we are different in terms of our psychological traits and that can actually be traced to certain biological and neurophysiological processes and not that it’s all fixed. But in general, these things come as packages. So the way that our brains are structured and wired shapes how we respond to the world around us, shapes how we are motivated to process information. And those motivations also will incline certain kinds of people to really enjoy riddle solving and unpacking complex information. And while they make other people more oriented towards threat and more efficient information processors. Right. So in that equation, the latter of those people, the efficient processors, those are conservatives, the sort of maybe slower, more methodical processes might be liberal.

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S8: Is it somewhat about abstract thought and the willingness to engage in abstract?

S9: Yes, it’s not about capacity at all. People say, oh, you’re just saying conservatives are stupid. AU contraire. They make good engineers. They make super engineers. And when we look at political knowledge batteries, conservatives often score higher than liberals. So this is about motivation to engage in complex thought, a willingness to, not an ability to.

S10: Well, there are big conservatives and this has been shown and it’s in your book and some of the people in your book have been in this studio. The sensitivity to disgust is pretty big among conservatives. And that correlates to some of these human traits as well.

S9: Yes. So this disgust, sensitivity factor is kind of wild. And it’s not. It is. It’s not a choice. I mean, that’s what I think is fascinating, is that I do think that there are certain kinds of people whose bodies are hardwired to orient towards threats in our environment to help keep us safe. I mean, these are the people who I think should be like are protectors and our warriors, because when everybody else wants to run away from a threat, like they’re like ready to engage or mock a threat, ironically. Right. Lock it ironically, because that will help some liberals make that zombie go away. That will.

S6: Well, there is there is a thought. You don’t get so much into this, but you do a little bit how effective satire can be. Maybe we could use satire to defang a threat. And there’s a lot of compelling research about the ways that works in the ways it doesn’t.

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S9: Right. So satire is really good at getting people to think about certain issues. It’s really good at framing issues for us. I think that John Oliver did a wonderful job framing the net neutrality debate, just as Kolber was successful in framing the Citizens United super PAC issue. Satirist generally don’t go into these issues trying to like bang a drum and persuade people about something to eat. Maybe a little bit more. Oliver with that then, Kolber. But the fact that they’re engaging with these issues in these ways brings them to the top of people’s minds, shapes the aspects of those issues that they’re that the audience is thinking about. And it actually causes them to then dive deeper into the issues. And this is important. It makes listeners and viewers feel more confident in their ability to navigate the issue, which seems like kind of a squishy thing. That doesn’t matter. But it’s everything. Efficacy is the linchpin that links information and knowledge to action. So those kinds of things are really democratically healthy. We tend to think and you know what, Mike? All that stuff also results from consuming these sort of conservative political talk and outreach programs as well.

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S8: So are these programs serving the same role that.

S9: Called Barriers for a liberal in some ways they are by setting the agenda, by increasing certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge that is useful for their side, because guess what? I’ll tell you what, conservatives know a whole lot about Benghazi. Yeah, right. Wherever else. Not so much.

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S8: Now they know more about Benghazi, but I don’t know if they have all the facts.

S9: Right. So this is interesting. So how do you deal with this in the book? How do you deal with the issue of belief versus knowledge? You know, if people have information, but that information is predicated on false false facts. Can it fact be false? Okay, then. Then is that knowledge or is that a belief? So I deal with that a little bit. The real difference between these two programs and their listeners is the fact that whereas liberals are higher in need for cognition and tolerance, for ambiguity and the content that they’re exposed to is so layered and requires this mental leap to get it like irony is kind of tricky to unpack. Yeah, because of that it makes people kind of learn and gather information and ruminate and kind of gather more facts on the issue. It’s not necessarily great at mobilizing liberals to like go attack something or as the outrage, the political talk that’s threat oriented, it tells you exactly who to be mad at, why to be mad at them and how, you know, if this person gets elected, we’re all gonna die. That kind of stuff, especially coupled with a psychology of the audience that is ready for threat, like show me what to look at because I’m ready to protect. That is like a perfect storm. That is ideal for mobilization and it strikes me.

S8: And how does this play in that a lot of the very good progenitors and the people who engage in especially talk radio, which, as you note, has the single host, and that’s pretty important. They’re usually funny. Not always like Bill O’Reilly’s not funny and Sean HANNITY is not funny. But, you know, Rush Limbaugh is. Yeah, funny. And I don’t say that like he’s funny. He he his assizes find him very funny. Beyond his listeners, I don’t laugh out loud because it’s very hard given the context in the rest of it. But if you had an unbiased checklist of what constitutes humor, he would check. He would often when he was trying to check most of the boxes, acceleration and voices and mocking the enemy and things laughs.

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S9: He he uses hyperbole on the regular. Yes. The kids say, you know, so he does this stuff saying, oh, well, I’m forty three. My I know it gets my fifteen year old son is like crying right now is listening to this. But the idea that hyperbole is humor, it absolutely is. You hope there are these very, very serious people called humor scholars who have studied the psychology of hyperbole. Yes. And it is, in fact, less difficult to construct and less difficult to unpack and comprehend then is something like irony.

S8: Would you do that study? You you have studied the difference between. You could have in fact, I think. What did you assemble a team of humor writers to make? So my friend Don. That’s cool.

S10: So you did an experiment where you showed that it wasn’t just making a joke about a subject. There are certain types of jokes that liberals might get more in certain types of jokes that conservatives might get more and or anyone would get. And the liberal joke is the ironic joke, and the conservative joke is the exaggerated joke. And there were some pretty good jokes about Bears songs in there. I appreciate that. What’s an example of like an exaggeration?

S8: What’s an example of an ironic way that might excite a liberal?

S9: OK. So the in terms of the general definitions, when I’m talking about irony, I’m talking about describing something as amazing and wonderful when it’s awful or describing something as awful when it’s great. Yeah. And so understanding intent is key here because you as the listener have to understand intent and then flip everything upside down to get what it means. Yes. As opposed to hyperbole, which is simply an overstatement. Right. So the Rush Limbaugh example of like classic hyperbole that people may have heard of even if they don’t listen to him, was back in the day when he described the graduate student who had testified before Congress about wanting insurance to cover her birth control pills for pre-existing medical conditions. And he said, OK. So she wants us to pay her to have sex. And that makes her a slut, right? Makes her a slut. And the audience found that really funny. And that is one of those things where that is classic, like he’s taking the valence of the situation as presented in as it as he actually intends it, which is that she is someone who is engaging this behavior. She wants us to pay for it. And then he’s heightening it. That’s it. It’s the same direction as the valence that he was starting with. Right. Okay. So the two jokes that I used in the experiment, I used a bunch of pairs of jokes. But one of them that I include in the book, the key here was finding something in the news that was not political, to be able to create jokes that make an argument one. The same argument, one ironically on one with exaggeration. So the ironic version was the U.S. Forest Service issued an advisory to park goers warning them to stop taking selfies with bears. Well, excuse me, U.S. Forest Service. How am I supposed to enjoy my vacation if I can’t document every moment leading up to my own mauling? Right. So the obviously the valences flipped. Right. And these were videotape like desk jokes with my friend Don Monterey from Comedy Sports behind the desk and the whole thing. So it looked like a Late-Night set. The exaggerated version was the U.S. Forest Service issued an advisory. Same setup. This would be a helpful advisory to the point 0 0 1 percent of the population who would actually want to take a photo of themselves with a bear. If only those people could read. So again, that valences the same. It’s like these people are stupid. They’re so stupid, they can’t read. That’s it. So all of the kind of cognitive involvement that we have when we’re listening. You don’t think about you’re not like, wow, this is really hard. Oh, my God. But actually, every MRI studies show that. Yeah. Irony in particular is really hard.

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S8: Now you have this contribution that I love to the discourse about when politicians or anyone making a point when they’re using comedy. Why is that effective? And I think the old way of thinking about it is something like it’s disarming and it makes the user seem funny and approachable. And then you’re open to their argument, but you kind of try to argue that it’s actually because I heard in humor is a little bit taxing and we become less critical thinkers when we’re faced with something humorous.

S9: Correct. So, Mike, you are alluding to the resource allocation hypothesis. That was my dissertation, the Annenberg School. Wow. Yeah. So basically the idea here is that because humor is layered and requires more cognitive contributions from the audience, it is implicit. The meaning is not actually stated in the text. There is a lot more activity going on in the brain. And because we have a limited capacity in working memory to work through information, which is why we do all kinds of dumb things all the time when we’re processing a joke and we are motivated to like get the punch line, we do not have the resources left over to actually challenge and take that different track, which is is this fair? Is this right? Is this accurate? Does this match the info I already have? Instead, you’re like, oh, this is going to funny. Going to get the joke. I don’t get the punch line in your engaging in that riddle solving.

S11: So our brain can only do two things at a time. DUNNICLIFF We’re Young is a professor at the University of Delaware and her book is Irony and Outrage Depolarize Landscape of Rage, Fear and Laughter in the United States. Thank you so much. Thank you, Mike.

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S1: And now the schpiel the House Judiciary debated articles of impeachment today. The Republicans attitude was much like the reaction to the guy who made a you can’t afford theater joke to Mary Todd Lincoln in 1866. In other words, too soon.

S12: Now, Democrats in this committee are determined to sweep all this under the rug, ignore it, not let us call witness on it. Instead, a rush to reach this this president.

S8: The rush to impeach echoed by committee Republican lawyer Steve Castor the other day, this time from a legal perspective.

S13: The artificial and arbitrary political deadline by which Democrats are determined to finish impeachment by Christmas leads to a rushed process.

S8: And today, Louie Gohmert picked up this theme.

S1: So once this thing is rushed through, probably tonight, whenever he said that, by the way, in the seventh hour of testimony, just the seventh hour today, by the way, so rushed, so fast going on so quick because Republicans hate haste. I mean, remember the criticism of the fact gathering during the Mueller report?

S14: Look, I think the American people are very tired of this long investigation into nothing.

S1: That was Corey Lewandowsky now. To be fair, that was in May. And the Mueller investigation started much before that. Of course, we have Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation in April making the same complaint has been I think it’s a sign that the American people are tired of this.

S15: This went on for two years.

S6: And. And also here’s. Huckabee Sanders. She was complaining about the Mueller investigation in January of 2018.

S14: People that are frustrated most isn’t the president. It’s the American people. They’re sick and tired of being inundated with Russia fever. They’re ready.

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S6: So Mueller too long. Ukraine too short. How would the Republicans have us baby bear that just right length of investigation into the U.S. president improperly interacting with foreign adversaries for political gain? I mean, I wish I knew the sweet spot. What’s the right amount of time looking into that? I guess a legitimate investigation into the president trading his office for political gain. It’s like a cherry blossom. It blooms once a year. Very briefly. Got to time it perfectly. Or maybe it’s more like Brigadoon once every hundred years and possibly a thing of myth. But there were other arguments put forward by Republicans non temporal ones. Here’s Republican Doug Collins being passionate.

S16: The article itself, which is biased against the president, actually says there is no way to link it. But yet we’re doing it every time in here. Keep giving them. I’ll keep accepting a wonderful article. Great job. Because you’re making my point. I guess I can hush and let you make my point for me, but all you want to do is a smart the dead. And pray and go after Mr. Wolanski as weak and powerless. That’s what’s going to come out of this. So I guess Mr. I withdraw my objection on this. It makes my point. You’ll have any more you won’t put in. Keep going. But it’s working. And that is not gonna get you anywhere.

S17: You’ll be smirking. I thought maybe you mispronounced it once. But now we come back by smirking. Maybe they were searching for Adam Schiff smirking. And they found it just combined that into a bit smirking. Then again, this was the guy who said nepotism the other day. We played that. Of course, my mocking a down-home country lawyer for his mispronunciation. Well, that just plays into the shirtsleeve the arms of Jim Jordan, who had a really compelling explanation as to why Democrats were up in arms over that non issue of the president trading official U.S. foreign policy for political gain. It’s that they don’t like us common folk.

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S18: And it’s not just because they don’t like the president. It’s not just because they don’t like the president. They don’t like us. They don’t like the sixty three million people who voted for this president. All of us in flyover country. All of us common folk in Ohio, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas. They don’t like us.

S1: I got to say, as a supporter of impeachment, I can confirm Jim Jordan is right.

S17: I do not like Texas. The Yankees have lost to the Astros in the playoffs last few years. Also, Willie Nelson, who needs that guy also. I don’t like Ohio. It’s got three vowels. It’s got one consonant, the consonants h. What’s that all about? And don’t get me started on Wisconsin cheese curds. I mean, those Kurds didn’t fight against ISIS, but have been stymied. I’ve been stuck on a way to get back at these states and the people who live there, all these horrible fly-over people as I fly over Wisconsin and Texas and Tennessee. Kind of a dumb flight path, if you ask me. But I have no means of attack. I as a hater of the simple folk and by the way, if you ask me, I’d have said folks, because I pluralized with esses in the big city.

S1: We also say besmirching. So who needs us, right? I do. I do. And I have long been looking at just some effective way to stick it to those rubes, to stick it to the folk. So I bided my time and I waited because I knew that one day the president would offer to withhold aid to help his political chances.

S17: And that’s when I would say yes, yes. The entire Austin metro area is gonna pay. Ha! Take that.

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S1: Appleton in Fond du Lac and Eau Claire and tenno shop all the time. Is mine rushed? No, sir. The opposite of rushed patients waiting vengence. All right. Let’s hear one more time.

S16: Littleness working, and that is not gonna get you anywhere.

S19: I rest my case.

S2: That’s it for today’s show. Daniel Shrader produced the gist, he made sure all the facts were right. He researched it thoroughly. Christina de Josepha, just producer, used to work in retail, but she was nervous she might break or damage the merchandise. The just look, I don’t mind praying on your own time, but I do believe in a strict separation of church and durch and her desperate do Peru. And thanks for listening for all those.