Context for Humour – The Memes Matter

I have a string to my agenda I call “The Court Jester“. It’s not just about our “freedom” to mock, but also about how it is an essential part of progressive dialogue – dialogue towards human progress that is. Once we understand the limits to logically objective argumentation in human decision-making, proper dialogue is all we’ve got going for us and humour is an essential part of it. The court jester analogy reinforces the point that who mocks what and whom and in what context matters as much as the fact of the mockery and the freedom to do it.

Historically those who mocked were recognised as such and had the leeway to play the fool – the court-jester – and mock the powerful and in doing so express criticisms and prick concsiences publicly that might be politically incorrect or personally insulting if done directly by anyone else. The king is dead, long live the king, reinforces the distinction between human individuals and our social roles. For all its grotesque extreme forms, PC’ness really does have its place in separating valid criticism (including mockery) from personal insults to individuals. But this court-jester role-play aspect is just one of several reasons why the context and nature of humourous mockery matter.

In these days of instantaneous expression via social media and on-line commenting its all too easy for anyone to fall into the role of joker, even if they are not a socially recognised “court” jester such as Frankie Boyle (say, my archetype). In fact it’s almost expected, de-rigeur, and many threads are simply wags trading comic takes. All good fun.

Except, we do still need to be concerned at the public message left in the ether.

I do it myself, casually too, like this example this morning. Hopefully the irony is self-contained. The emphatic multiple God references in the original (US) tweet were already ironic. My additonal (UK) comment simply extended the ironic “thank God” meme, but in contrast to secular (UK) politics. The latter is self-contained in the 5 word sentence. I don’t think there is any other meme released into the environment beyond the original context?

And in this thread started by Tom, there is irony at several levels – in the originally science-fictional reference to the reported actual-scientific investigation story and in the XKCD cartoon version of my own response also added by Tom. But the final commenter at the point I snipped the clip below, adds two new levels worth discussing. Nothing personal, a very typical witty on-line comment, but worth unpicking.

Now, I have no doubt that Andrew was being ironically humourous in his remark, and at several levels intentionally. The “pray” is ironic contrasting religious hopes with the science content (if any, my original point) of the story. Lol. The second level is the hope (whether religious or simply human) that there is intelligence out there, given (unstated) that we don’t have enough of it here on earth. Chuckle, chuckle, ho, ho, ho.

But this leaves open ended the meme – however genuine or ironic – that alien or artificial intelligence is somehow going to be better for humanity than our own. And it leaves it open ended in a public thread outside any well-bounded court-jester context. Now that’s a scary thought, that anyone here and now might believe or hope that?

And why does this matter? – The very next post!


And lo and behold, tweeted later today from a couple of days ago New Scientist also questioning the context for jokey science. All good fun, except …. repeat as necessary (above) …. no-one wants to be a humourless kill-joy, humour is essential, but we have to care about – take responsibility for – the actual messages left out in the public domain.

And, how could I forget, even my previous post was prompted by a spoof scientific post and a comment thread that (a) failed to get the joke initially, and (b) therefore even now failed to recognise the actual point underlying the satire.


[Post Note 2018 –

Combining two UK political stories Toby Younmg and Carrie Gracie maybe ;-)]

[Post Note:

another un-funny science spoof.]

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