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"We should treat all the trivial things seriously, and the serious things in
life with sincere and studied triviality."
"Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies, any more than it
ceases to be serious when someone laughs."
Humor. It's the most difficult thing in the world. Some people get it,
some people don't. But, no matter what, humor is guaranteed to offend
someonethere's no way around it. With my photos and/or captions,
I shouldn't have to spell it out, but the long and short of it is that
the target of my humor is not the subject in the photo, it's deeper than that.
While it is rare, I get some very uptight email now and then from someone
who finds my photo captions offensive, that I'm making fun of the people
in my photos, that I am lacking respect for other cultures, or worse,
that I am simply ignorant of others' feelings.
This article isn't really going to change their minds on the subject, but
it does spark a consumate philsopher and deep-thinker such as myself to
ponder the more interesting and fundamental roots of humor: Why is
something funny? Why do people find offense at what others find funny?
To me, these are intensely interesting questions which I'd love to discover
through a dedicated a six-year doctorate degree, where I could spend
my time on lecturing tours around coffee shops and bookshops around
But, I've got other things to do first. Instead, this article addresses
the much, much norrower subject: why my captions really are funny,
even if they don't make you laugh.
Humor is a distinctly human characteristic, but what we find as humorous
is strictly a cultural phenomenon. When people find offense at my humor,
99% of them are Americans, or from countries very close to America.
The primary reason for this (among many) is that, as a percentage of
our population, we (Americans) rarely leave our own country. Hence, most
of our knowledge of the world comes either from television, or from
foreigners who come to live in America. The Americans that do travel,
tend to do so either as tourists, or with a specific and focused cause,
such as the Peace Corps, or to do humanitarian aid, or to evangelize
the gospel, or to teach or feed poor, starving people. While every one
of these are wonderful, noble ambitions, the one thing that all of them
have in common is that they are activities that
maintain the American perspective.
More directly, they do not see the broader context in which peoeple
live, they do not understand the full historical precedent that made
circumstances as they are, and most of all, they don't really "get"
ideas and views and cultures that are different than their own.
As a result, these people tend to "project" what they believe people think
and feel based on how they themselves would think and feel if they were in
similar circumstances. And this is the root of the main misunderstanding
not only of humor, but of America's foreign and economic policies.
But, let's not get too far afield from the main subject. The reason
the humor veries among cultures is because humor is only funny if you
know the context (or lack thereof) from which it came. Things that
Americans totally misunderstand about people from other cultures include
"humor", "respect", "God", and daily lifestyle, because these views are
often totally different from their own. In almost every case, people
I talked to in third-world countries are often extremely laid back about
themselves and their beliefs, taking everything with a very large grain
of salt. So, what they find funny is often us because they don't see
the context. That is, they love American culture, not because they want
to emulate it (although some do, usually kids and teens), but because
they think we're so "out there." I mean, way out there. Things like
our musical idols, cultural icons, obsession with material things, etc.
Don't get me wrong, they don't always find humor in thismany see it
as a sad reality about the world's military and economic leader, and thus
the source of most of the world's problems. But, there's some very dark,
sardonic humor associated with that. But, humor exists because the context
of what makes it so different. Even things that we take seriously, like
music idols and other celebrities are sources of much giggling around the
Maasai campfire at night.
In fact, one great source of humor for us Americans, but not for the
Maasai people is a real event: About nine months after the World Trade
Center attacks on Sept 11., 2001, a group of Maasai tribes in Tanzania
had just heard of the event, and sent us 49 Cows. They genuinely thought
that we needed help and support, and they sent us what they thought was
the most valuable and precious thing in the world. Food. As you can imagine,
Americans find this to be exceedingly funny, and nothing had to be said.
Late night comics didn't need to add a thing to it. Just the news in itself
was funny. Why? The context clearly showed thae differences in our cultures.
When you sit and talk with people, when you get to know them and who they
are, when you hear how they actually think and feel about us. And then
when you both know each other, and the humorous exchanges begin, you see
how they lightly tease and make fun of you, and you like it! You feel
welcome and part of the group. Similarly, they feel the same when you
do it to them. What's more, the next step of all this is when they do it
to each other, making fun of themselves using references to our culture.
Accordingly, the Maasai that I met love it when we compare them with
icons from our own culture because they view the way we see ourselves
as totally insane. We laugh at a cartoon rabbit with buck teeth named "bugs"?
They don't get it. But that we laugh at it makes us funny to them.
So, when they see a member of their own tribe with buck teeth and caption
their own photo with the phrase, "what's up doc?", they roar in laughter.
Of course, I find great humor in the fact that some Americans think this
is totally offensive, and pontificate to me about how disrespectful I am.
Yet, these assumptions are ignorant of how those people actually feel.
Of course, it's understandableafter all, if people were to do it
to them, they might feel offended. So, it's natural to think that others
would feel similarly. Well, again, it's all about discarding all one's
assumptions about other cultures and peoples. You can't possibly know
till you go. When I've shown my pictures (and captions) to the actual
people that I met there, they loved how they were portrayed. In fact,
many would email back with new captions for themselves that are
equally "jovial" and sometimesm more so. Sometimes, I can't even use
their own captions because of how totally diferent their perspectives
are on subjects. For example, sex. They have such different connotations of
sex in society than we do, that when they make a sexual joke, they'll
giggle and laugh, while our jaws are on the floor as we're thinking,
"they can't possibly think this is funny." Americans would find such
humor not only offensive, but bordering on criminal. When there, and you see
people think and feel as they do, you understand why they may find humor,
but you also recognize that it would never translate to an American audience.
So, that brings us full circle: what kind of humor translates to an
American audience? Does mine? It turns out that most people do not
find offense with my humor. In fact, most don't. They get my humor and
understand it because most people are intelligent. Another quote:
"If you can't laugh at yourself, laugh at other people."
This is funny is because most people know that those who can't laugh at
themselves are stupid, and we like laughing at stupid people. The world
is a paradoxically funny place, and humor is how we deal with the dark
side of life.
Perhaps the greatest humor is the people who take offense at my humor.
I'm not saying they should find my photos or captions funny; that
may or may not happen. I'm saying that by finding offense in my humor
really reveals a small mind indeed. If you are one of those, I refer you
to my series, portraits of the people of West Africa, exploring how outside influences has affected their lives., which makes my serious side very clear,
and how I recognize how bad some conditions can be in parts of the world.
I never make apologies for my humor, although on rare occasions, I may
rescind a photo caption if, upon further consideration, I find it could
be offense and my humor wasn't really all that funny anyway. Alas,
even the worst criticisms are never discarded out of hand. I fully admit
that my humor doesn't always hit on target, But, like any art form,
it's an ever evolving talent, open to interpretation and revision.
One thing I can guarantee: I never use humor with the intent to
offend or hurt; I always do my best to employ a good sense of judgement,
fairness, and taste.
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