Chandler: “You didn’t read Lord of the Rings in high school?”
Joey: “No, I had sex in high school.”
…and the audience laughed.
I get why it’s a good comeback. But I also get why that, in itself, is a problem.
Don’t take me wrong, Friends was one of my favorite shows in the mid to late nineties. Back then I was a teenager with a lot to learn about life, yet even then I knew (at least intuitively) that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world as Friends portrayed it (starting with its lack of ethnic diversity). I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I came across this thought provoking post by David Hopkins where he makes a compelling case against Friends and what the show’s success says about us as viewers. While the initial premise that a single American sitcom triggered the downfall of western civilization is a gross oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon (which is obviously not meant to be taken literally), Mr. Hopkins’ description and critique of American anti-intellectualism is not only spot on, but easily applicable to other cultures and walks of life.
When a fellow university professor found out the Ethics course I teach involves actually reading Plato, he looked perplexed and asked “why not make them read more modern authors like Putnam?” (as if modern authors and classics were mutually exclusive). “Can’t my students appreciate both Plato and Putnam?” “Sure, but can they really understand the classics?”
There it was, the assumption I feared most coming from a fellow professor: that our students are too ignorant to fully grasp complex philosophical works. And, yes, as education continues to decline, every batch of new students has a harder time understanding these works than the last. Yes, I often find myself teaching my students things they should have learned in high school. Yes, at first they are reluctant to read because reading is no longer cultivated in school or at home. And, yes, it terrifies me because, as a law professor, I am educating the next generation of legal and political leaders. The fate of my country is in the hands of these young men and women in my class who have been raised in a culture that embraces harsh anti-intellectualism. And, yes, we are indeed “at a low point — where social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, where politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, where scientific consensus is rejected, where scientific research is underfunded, where journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.”
What’s even scarier to me, as someone who is also a professional translator, is seeing this anti-intellectualism invade a profession that was once intellectual par excellence. This is, in part, what caused my long silence and retreat from the online world. While attending various translation conferences in Europe a while back, the anti-intellectual tendency in translation hit me like a ton of bricks and it’s taken me months to recover.
It wasn’t the insta-gurus using scare tactics to get people to buy their products or the presentation that was so poorly researched it was hijacked by the audience. In fact, it wasn’t even the 50-minutes of social torture where I politely listened to a fellow translator blab on incessantly about why she not only evades taxes, but also uses her tax evasion as a “clever marketing strategy.” No, it wasn’t any of that. What terrified me in Europe was the mortifying unquestioning acceptance of what is becoming a dominant narrative that reeks of BS. It was that moment when a self-proclaimed big fish of some sort jokingly compared those of us who don’t feel threatened by “changes in the translation industry” to ostriches hiding our heads in the sand… and the audience laughed.
But here’s the thing with the ethics of humor as illustrated in this brilliant article by sinologist, philosopher, and editor of Philosophy Now, Anja Steinbauer:
“At first glance it seems that there is little work for ethicists to do. It is great to laugh: Humour can help you deal with the often inevitable awfulness of life.[…]
[However, t]he very definition of humour has been associated with a moral issue. Next to Immanuel Kant’s incongruity theory, the idea that things are funny when something doesn’t quite fit, and Freud’s relief theory, stating that humour is a release of tension mechanism, the so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, it has been so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson. Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own, formerly.” If he is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. […]
I would suggest that the two most serious problems […] are these: Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements.” (Emphasis added.)
I’m not advocating against laughter and humor. But I do think we need to pay more critical attention to what is being said, more or less jokingly, about the future of translation and about those of us who reject the two equally harmful dominant narratives, which I will be discussing in my next post.
On a lighter note, I would like to thank my friends Mercedes and Ana for encouraging me to come out of my shell and start blogging again. Thank you both for reconnecting me with something I love.