Amid the shocks, upsets and outrages that have characterised politics in the West over the past three years, it is easy to focus on a single basket of ‘negative’ emotions as the driving force of historical change. Anger, resentment, envy, fear and aggression have all palpably played an important role in populism and the return of authoritarian nationalism, which have heaped scorn and hatred upon ‘liberal elites’ who are accused of being ‘smug’ or ‘cold’. I think we can assume that these sentiments were not suddenly triggered circa 2016, but had been lying in wait for many years, shut out of ‘mainstream’ public institutions until a combination of brash celebrity populists and social media allowed them to all come flooding in.
But there is another affective state that has circled around populism, its figureheads and media for many years, which is far more politically ambiguous: laughter. Among the senses that are mobilised by many contemporary political movements, especially online, is a sense of humour. Reflecting on the social, cultural and physiological aspects of laughter and humour is crucial if we’re to get a fuller grasp of how populism and nationalism work on our emotions and feelings.
It is scarcely news that racism, sexism and nationalism have often achieved an everyday normality via the medium of jokes. Growing up in 1980s London, many of the first jokes I ever heard were at the expense of ‘the Irishman’. The white heterosexual male has distinguished himself from virtually every other possible set of identities on the planet via the telling of some joke or other. Many of the chesty laughs that have greeted these jokes over the years, ricocheting around pubs and clubs, are as much an affirmation of shared white heterosexual English male experience as they are about the quality of the joke or the comedic talent of its teller. And when someone with any other identity wanders into earshot and objects, there is the perennial get-out that they need to ‘get a sense of humour’.
Many of the earliest controversies over ‘political correctness’, the notion that now triggers such hostility on the right, were over the freedom to tell racist, ableist, sexist or homophobic jokes – the freedom that the ‘alternative comedy’ scene of the 1980s renounced and which has been progressively curtailed in the mainstream media ever since. ‘Alternative comedy’ referred to a cluster of young, left-wing stand-ups, such as Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton, who challenged the often conservative clichés of so much 1970s comedy. Long before campuses were afflicted by ‘free speech’ wars, the BBC was getting embroiled in controversies over the limits of acceptable comedy. Yet to understand our present cultural and political moment, we need to see that the terms of engagement and conflict have shifted in a number of subtle ways.
First of all, there is the role that men such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump played before their political breakthroughs, at a time when it felt as if the power of liberal technocrats could last forever. Each was – and in some ways remains – a figure of fun whose appearance and behaviour was held up to ridicule. In Britain, Have I Got News for You played a significant role in making Johnson, and to a lesser extent Farage, an attention-grabbing joke in the eyes of the cosmopolitan middle class. In the United States, Trump was notoriously ridiculed for his haircut and presidential ambitions by Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner. In the long build-up to the Trump presidency, American liberals relied on The Daily Show brand of knowing satire to vent their rising disbelief with the direction that conservative politics was taking. The Dutch populist Geert Wilders is also instantly recognisable for his extraordinary haircut, while Beppe Grillo, founder of the Italian Five Star movement, was originally a professional comedian.
The fact that these men attracted laughter and mockery from educated liberals, and did not shy away from it, no doubt played a crucial role in building their appeal in the eyes of those who felt belittled and sneered at by ‘elites’. The somewhat comical nature of their haircuts and outfits unlocked something politically. After all, Ian Hislop or Jon Stewart would never publicly laugh at someone for their accent or class, but didn’t hold back when the target was another white man with money. The feeling of being laughed at became routed vicariously through these pantomime figures, who seemed brave enough to withstand the ridicule.
Even since the electoral shocks of 2016 in Britain and the United States, some of this dynamic is still being played out. While it is often expressed along with a tinge of dread, even fear, one of the recurring political sentiments of the past few years has been ‘Oh my God, is this actually real?’ This may not be the same thing as laughter, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it nevertheless delivers a form of stunned enjoyment.