Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Using Humor in Public Discourse

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
October 24, 2022

Recently I showed a brief Saturday Night Live skit called “School Board Meeting” to the students of my Leadership and Political Life course to comically demonstrate the situations they may encounter in their public service.

In my various political positions I’ve experienced very similar onslaughts from sometimes irate, sometimes misinformed citizens who’ve come to public meetings to vent, often expressing views on non-pertinent subjects.

The laughter in the classroom told me the students were enlightened and entertained by the video. But one student approached me after class and told me how disappointed he was that the skit had made fun of the citizen characters in the scene.

“People who come to such meetings are real people with sincere points of view regardless of how ridiculous they may seem,” he said.

With a desire to help my students think through the ramifications of using humor in public discourse, I gave them a subsequent assignment to write their opinions about it.

For the most part the students felt that the use of humor in such events is a good softener of emotions, but expressed some cautions.

“It is important to be self-aware and understand your audience,” wrote one.

So called humorous references to race, genders of others, sexual assault, COVID deaths, 9/11, the Russian war on Ukraine, physical defects and other such negatives, should be avoided, according to most students’ responses.

Nevertheless, seeking relief in good humor is a therapeutic way to deal with tragedy and despondency.

American professor Lanita Jacobs tells of her distress following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She found relief in a comedy club.

“Humor provides a salve in times of trouble,” she said.

However, to experience healthy laughter, we must seek the right kind of humor.

Some of my students and I discussed the recent, highly publicized and highly inappropriate use of racial humor by Los Angeles City Council members who were unwittingly recorded. That one ill-advised incident has damaged relationships, created animosity, exacerbated racial division and triggered a heightened level of governmental distrust, not just in Los Angeles, but across many communities. Even sincere apologies may leave lingering feelings, perhaps for years.

“To use humor correctly, you must have a good moral compass,” wrote one of my students. “To use humor correctly, you must be in tune with your audience as well as your non-intended audience.”

The best rule is never to say something that might be offensive to anyone else. A good question is, “Would I be offended if this line were targeting me?”

Members of Rotary International, in their weekly meetings and luncheons in every culture, all around the world, repeat the following Four Way Test of the Things We Think, Say, or Do:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Perhaps public officials and all of us should adopt that creed and repeat it to ourselves often.

The Golden Rule, advocated in its various forms by almost every faith-based organization on the globe, is a good measure for our words and actions:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In my view, it is totally inappropriate and totally undignified for a sitting governor to refer to the Biden administration as the “Brandon” administration—a veiled use of an extremely derogatory term. It is totally inappropriate for a candidate for President of the United States to refer to his opponents in negative terms about their appearance and physical features—something over which they have no control.

This happens far too often in politics for a cheap laugh. These things are not legitimate uses of humor. They’re simply mean-spirited. And then politicians wonder why their profession is so disrespected.

Well, hello!

Self-effacing humor is the safest way to endear an audience.

John F. Kennedy was once asked about his heroism in World War II.

“It was involuntary,” he said. “They sank my boat.”

Ronald Reagan, campaigning for president at an advanced age, and appearing so in a previous debate, cleverly referenced it in a subsequent televised encounter.

“I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he said.

The audience, including his opponent, broke into laughter.

After an assassination attempt on Reagan’s life, lying on the operating table with a bullet in his lung, the president looked up at his doctors and said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.”

President Kennedy’s brother, Teddy, was at one time expected to run for and win the White House. Through unfortunate circumstances, it never happened.

Self-effacingly, he dealt with it in this way:

“Frankly, I don’t mind not being president. I just mind that someone else is.”

Good natured humor always works.

Using humor in the practice of vulnerability is an excellent way to create positive bonds between politicians and citizens, employers and employees, educators and students.

And maybe a good comedy skit now and then can remind us all of how amusingly human we are.

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime political and nonprofit leader in Utah’s public service arena, who currently serves as public policy advisor to United Way of Northern Utah, and teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *