The “evil” of banality: the complacent acceptance of everyday “life” in the U.S. as trivial, demeaning, laughable. If “work” is often senseless and mind-numbing, the average, sublimely ridiculous American has plenty of panem et circenses—a cornucopia of snacks, amusements and games which may soothe his otherwise beleaguered, suffocating self. As part of a societal-wide, infantile regression, supposedly mature adults spend their “free” time playing with toys (gadgets) and sating their inordinate (“oral-receptive”) appetites for food, drink, and constant chatter.
A playful, flippant attitude prevails, both in the workplace and at home. “Making a mockery” of everything, from financial mega-fraud to torture and war: both wildly comic entertainers and hyper-manic TV commercials project a wisecracking, smart-alecky “attitude.” Nothing is to be taken “seriously.”
Mild satire and parody certainly help people to laugh at what they might otherwise feel depressed and hopeless about: feeling trapped in a Kafka-esque maze of daily frustrations and perplexing problems. Yet, unlike defiantly scathing, morally activating satire—such as, for instance, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal–such satire pacifies rather than mobilizes, providing a temporary relief which lulls citizens into taking “less seriously” matters which they should in fact confront with a fierce probity and unflinching lucidity.
TV sitcoms and the like can be said to offer a kind of low-grade therapy—if by therapy we refer merely to a temporary catharsis of tension rather than real insight. Indeed, as Freud wrote in his book on jokes: humor, by suddenly juxtaposing incongruous thoughts, momentarily dissolves an inner inhibition–thereby providing a sudden release of tension (laughter). By abruptly revealing absurdity or “non-sense,” a joke momentarily dis-inhibits the mental forces of tension and conflict —and, in so doing, provides a (temporary) release which may feel liberating. Think, for instance, of the absurd wordplay and spontaneous dis-order of a classic Marx Bros. film. Freudians have insisted, however, that catharsis alone does not “cure”—only a deep analysis of the causes of conflict may offer the real understanding that leads to constructive change (personal, socio-political).
When faced with probing questions about his war on Iraq, President Bush could often “dis-arm” his critics with a joking rejoinder or by turning on his roguish, Texan “charm.” No doubt the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib often laughed and joked as they tormented the victims placed at their disposal.
Lying mass murderers—the contemporary equivalents of Mussolini et al.—have in recent years appeared on comedic TV talks shows (Letterman, Stewart, ad nauseam). They exchanged inconsequential platitudes with their hosts, who gently kidded them (or timidly questioned them) about their past policies and “mistakes.” Think of Rumsfeld, Petraeus, and other unprosecuted war criminals. Young military recruits—conned into “defending their country” against a non-existent threat—were deliberately sent to their deaths. Bombs and missiles were rained down on tens of thousands of ordinary people and innocent children—pulverizing and burning their bodies. And then, in the dreadful aftermath: their victimizers—having sent the torments of hell upon them—blithely went on shallow TV talk shows to “express concern” about vaguely attributed “mistakes.” All in the lighthearted, bantering setting of a TV studio: the antithesis of a Nuremberg-type war crimes tribunal where they should have been sitting in the dock.
William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist, formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).