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The Death of Humor?

Is there a middle ground between hypersensitivity and social cluelessness?

Is there a better way to deal with difficult people? Maybe we need to look on the lighter side and laugh it off.

Comedians are complaining that their job has gotten harder. So much harder, in fact, that many of them refuse invitations to speak or perform on college campuses.

It’s good that we’ve become more sensitive to the caustic effects of thoughtless speech. But our concern over giving offense and causing hurt feelings, it seems, has left us with no sense of humor.

Comedy is always a tricky business. Laughter arises from the unexpected, from the incongruent, from absurd juxtaposition. Like my father’s favorite joke, which I heard countless times:

What has six wheels and flies?

(Wait for it…)

A garbage truck.

However, much humor gets laughs at someone else’s expense: ethnic jokes, dumb blond jokes, the insults of Don Rickles, sarcastic put-downs of David Letterman, and profanity George Carlin.

What’s instructive about George Carlin is that when he had to perform on network television and couldn’t use profanity, he was much funnier. What separates great comedians from the only-so-good is their ability to reject the low-hanging fruit of cheap laughs in favor of authentic cleverness.

But today humor is a minefield. Even the most benign joke is likely to make someone feel uncomfortable. And when someone’s feelings are hurt, it no longer matters what your intentions were or even if offense was justified. You’re guilty of hate speech or, at the very least, microaggression.

But what if we grow our skins just a little thicker?

What if we give people the benefit of the doubt and start by presuming positive intent?

Jordan Peterson offers a simple formula, applying the rule of three:

The first time someone says something that might be taken as mildly offensive, let it go. Maybe it’s a one-off. File it away, but don’t respond.

The second time, let it go again. It’s a red flag, but it’s not enough reason to assume the worst.

The third time, it has become a pattern. Now you can bring up all three incidents and respectfully observe that they were less than respectful.

If you choose your words carefully, have the conversation in private, aren’t demeaning or accusatory, you might just get the other person to acknowledge that they could have been more careful with their words.

It might take a bit, or more than a bit, of perseverance and patience. But if you can get them there… wow, what a victory!

Instead of attacking, which will likely encourage them to double down, instead of playing the victim card, instead of staying silent and nursing your hurt feelings, your softer approach might make the world, your workplace, or your home, a slightly more civil and cordial place to live.

If we do that repeatedly, over time, imagine how different our world will look.

We might even get back our collective sense of humor.

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