Comedy as Socratic Journalism

By Daniel Tippens

John Oliver appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night show a little while ago, and the two discussed how both of them had bid on, and purchased, some wax presidents. But of course, Oliver and Colbert hadn’t coordinated with each other to bid on these figurines at the same auction, and so Oliver took it upon himself to explain the coincidence by saying, “[it’s] because we are both attracted to things that are objectively ridiculous.”

There is a sentiment amongst many who watch “Last Week Tonight” that Oliver and his team are engaged in some kind of journalism. When this question is posed to Oliver, he replies consistently every time, “the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy.’”

If you are one of Oliver’s inveterate viewers, you are likely to feel like he is giving this answer tongue in cheek, thinking to yourself, “couldn’t you be both a comedian and journalist?” After all, there is a sense of understanding that one gets about the issues that he covers, such that you come away feeling that you have a grasp on something. This is most likely what explains the “Oliver effect:” the fact that his segments sometimes influence actual political events in the world.

But on the other hand, you can tell that he does not do traditional, news-style journalism, and that he gets something right in denying that charge. There is something about his way of giving you an understanding of things which clearly differs from traditional journalism. He is still making us lean forward with laughter in the process of providing us with his “take” on current events.

Despite Oliver’s protests to the contrary, it is appropriate not just to call his show a form of journalism, but also the institution of comedy more generally, though it is of a differentkind from the more traditional investigative and speculative forms of journalism with which we are all familiar. Rather than balking at this idea, I think that Oliver and comedians more generally should embrace the label; for if we take them to be journalists, that means that they serve a public interest — over and above mere entertainment — and so we ought to consider enshrining them with stricter free speech protections, of the kind that traditional journalists enjoy.

But here let’s just try to figure out what kind of journalism comedians participate in, and how it is it different from news-style journalism. To do this, take a look at a fictional society in which there is no comedy — the nation of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984. The Nation of Oceania is a totalitarian state which commands obedience from its citizens of all stripes, by subjecting them to a constant threat of force. It doesn’t matter if a citizen attempts to lead an uprising or simply entertains a thought that is opposed to ideology of the ruling party (IngSoc), the punishment is torture or death. Moreover, the citizens are constantly subjected to intense, gripping propaganda. In addition to engaging in what is called “hate week”– which involves citizens congregating and becoming angered in theatres as they watch propaganda videos about the current enemies of Oceania — citizens are constantly told to accept absurdities which serve the party’s interests.

Take for instance the illustrative example regarding how, at the start of the novel, the reader learns that IngSoc has been telling its citizens that Oceania has always been at war with a nation known as Eurasia. Despite the fact that Winston seems to remember being at war with a different nation, Eastasia, some years ago, all of the sources of information provided to the citizens — history books, news stories, etc. — have always confirmed the “fact” that Eurasia is IngSoc’s violent, malicious, long-standing enemy.

However, during hate week, a note is handed to the man leading the ceremony, and he proclaims that, actually, Oceania is, and always has been, at war with a different nation — Eastasia — and that Eurasia is now (and of course always has been) a friend to IngSoc.When citizens hear this, they immediately begin praising Eurasia and expressing hate for Eastasia with great resolve, tearing up any banners that are sympathetic to their new, long-standing enemy. When the population endorses this contradiction, they engage in what Orwell calls “doublethink:” willful acceptance of an absurdity, frequently in the form of a contradiction.

Orwell was trying to illustrate how totalitarian regimes use a variety of propagandistic tactics which serve to put their citizens into a state of constant confusion and persistent delusion. By incessantly proposing absurdities and getting party members to endorse them under threat of force, they disorient their citizens’ sense of reality such that the only grounds they have for belief is what the state says is true. In logic, we are taught the principle of explosion: if a premise contains a contradiction anything follows. If the state can get its citizens to believe contradictions, then they can get them to believe anything, and the citizens lose any sense of common understanding regarding what is true, otherthan what the state tellsthem. They are put into a post-truth world, so that they can soon enter the state-truth world.

But the absurdities that Oceania propagates amongst the population don’t all take the form of logical contradictions, some are simply incongruities — gross mismatches between attitudes and beliefs. The patriotic slogans of the ruling party provide good examples, which are “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Take the last slogan: is it a logical contradiction to say that ignorance is strength? Maybe not, depending on what one means by “ignorance” and “strength,” but there is certainly something very weird about feeling pride or patriotism in being an ignorant population…

As you can imagine, Oceania is not a very humorous place. As the reader navigates the world of Winston Smith, she will have many emotional reactions to the society that Winston is embedded in, but none of them are likely to be laughter. This is because there is no Ministry of Comedy in Oceania, and Orwell makes the reader painfully aware of this by refraining from inflecting his writing with any comedic tones.

But what is it about comedy that threatens IngSoc? Why would a totalitarian state eradicate it? The answer, I think, should be making itself clear — the bulk of what comedians do is try to indiscriminately point out absurdities in the world. As Oliver said to Colbert, comedians are simply attracted to things that are “objectively ridiculous.” Had there been comedians in Oceania, they would have been working overtime, pointing out the ridiculous things contained in the propaganda which IngSoc disseminates. You could imagine someone like Bill Maher saying something like this:

“We are at war with Eastasia now because Big Brother says so? Yeah, and I believe in God because — haven’t you heard? — the Bible tells me so.”

The idea here being, of course, that for someone like Maher and his followers, believing something because the Bible says so is just as absurd as believing you are at war with Eastasia because Big Brother says so. Neither have anything to do with the truth, and thus the comedian has drawn our attention to an absurdity. In doing so, they have also given us a certain understanding of truth — it is not dictated by the state, and to believe that would be crazy. Comedians help to provide a population with a shared sense of reality, ensuring that if some of our beliefs are false, they will at worst be specious, but never absurd.

John Oliver’s show almost exclusively does this sort of thing, and it isn’t hard to find examples. His recent segment on the National Rifle Association’s television programming (NRATV) is a nice illustration. In one clip that he draws on, the hostess of the show is introducing a woman to the AR-15. After she fired the weapon, the hostess asked her, “how did it feel?” to which the woman replied, “not as scary as I think I was anticipating.” The hostess, seeing an opportunity to advertise the product, enthusiastically exclaimed, “Exactly! It’s just this nice, light, poof of happiness!”

Oliver, expressing his incredulity, says, “A light poof of happiness? It’s a little weird to describe a semi-automatic rifle the way Bob Ross describes a f*cking cloud!” He is right, of course, although it isn’t just weird, it is ridiculous, and for the remainder of the show he points out a plethora of absurdities that constitute NRATV’s message.

In this sense, then, comedians serve a negative journalistic function. While traditional journalists, when working properly, try to instill justified beliefs in the public which can be used in political action, comedians prevent us from believing unhinged claims, clearing away a fog of absurd disinformation — typically from propaganda, advertising, and political rhetoric — which is intended to disorient us. Comedians criticize, and rarely construct.

The idea of being critical and not constructive is one that is embodied in the philosophical method of Socrates, who always described himself as being the wisest because he only knows that “he knows nothing.” When Socrates would converse with interlocutors, his intention always seems to be more that of pointing out what we don’t know, as opposed to what we do. As a result, his interlocutors would often leave a dialogue without knowledge of what is true, but with knowledge of what isn’t true. In this way, Socrates frequently frustrated his opponents, but also ensured that nobody (according to him, at least) could reasonably leave the conversation with any absurd beliefs.

It is important to note, however, that while Socrates might have primarily intended to be critical, he would obviously employ some facts in order to achievethis goal. In the Meno, for instance, Meno suggests that “the capacity to govern men” is a universal virtue, to which Socrates says this can’t be right, because if slaves had such a capacity, then they would cease to be slaves. Similarly, comedians like Oliver might employ statistics, news, and other facts in their comedy, but this is in the service of pointing out an absurdity. I should be clear, though, that comedians can at times help us understand something simply by removing the cloud of absurdities that surround it — in order to see a predator, sometimes all one needs to do is remove its environmental camouflage.

Comedians, then, are Socratic Journalists, serving the public interest of combatting absurd rhetoric, advertising, and propaganda, and preventing us from losing our grip on reality. This explains why shows like Last Week Tonight have become incredibly popular. As the Trump presidency unfolds, and his administration picks up the pace for peddling absurd claims — like the idea that Trump’s inauguration was the most well-attended in history, and that saying so is isn’t a lie but an “alternative fact” — it makes sense that we would turn to comedians to report on the propagandistic absurdities that are being pushed onto us, and to instill in us the belief and feeling that we have a grip on reality, one laugh at a time.

(This article was originally published on the blog of The American Philosophical Association)

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