By Karen Mannino Monday October 28th 2013
The passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he asks them not to set a stumbling block before a brother comes to mind often these days as cultural discussions of our time heat up. The debate over hot button issues, I have found, are full of stumbling block. Heck, we don’t stop at blocks we’ve got walls up to defend our convictions that anyone discerning a change of opinion must actually scale at his peril before he can join us. Getting down just to negotiate is at least as hard. Why do we do that, anyway? But then, the sorts of stumbling blocks I see most often are not easy to decry, because they are so much fun.
Laughter, my friends, can be a stumbling block.
Paul talked about Intimacy a few days ago. In every social situation, I am hoping for intimacy. When others respect me, and even reach out to find out who I am, that is a friendly place where intimacy can exist. Laughter is often a way to create this atmosphere and make everyone relax and open up. Misused, of course, it can have the opposite effect
We are all having a good time at a social gathering, when James asks an innocent question of Brian. Brian feels that the plain answer is a bit socially risky for one reason or another, or he doesn’t really think he owes James an answer, so he makes a joke of it. He answers with an exaggerated opposite of the truth and waits for James to catch the subtle sarcasm in his tone. He gets a general chuckle from everyone who catches it, and James even smiles, acknowledging that he has been had. Suddenly, there is a change in the atmosphere. Now everyone is listening for openings in the game. James “walked right in to that one” and Brian “couldn’t let it pass.” A fascinating game of hide and seek draws everyone in. We are often drawn to sarcastic characters in dramas. (I always think of House. I don’t know anyone who can do sarcastic quite as well as Hugh Laurie.)
Sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt. That’s the definition in my little dictionary app. I think people often mistake irony for sarcasm. There is a difference. It is in how it is used. It’s rather rare to find sarcasm used without some malice. That’s what the game of hide and seek really is. But we are laughing so we think we are making friends.
I often see, in our cultural discussions on a wide variety of topics, that when people disagree, they tend to mock each other. Instead of engaging the opposition, the culturally accepted response is to turn to the people standing by on your own side of an issue and parody the opposition for laughs. The temptation is great. I guess we all argue from a set of values, and an argument on a different set of values comes across as pretty ridiculous when I try to make it fit with mine. Straw men are funny. The argument might have bones, but we would have to actually talk to, and take our opposition seriously to find out what they are.
And here is where we stumble. You can’t have sarcasm and vulnerability at the same time. And guess what is necessary to intimacy and love?
When all the laughter dies away, we are not friends, we are people who have mocked each other for amusement. I don’t know anyone better than I did before. I certainly don’t understand the people who disagree with me. If I want to be understood, I have to seek and reach out to people I don’t understand. If I have been mocking my opposition, using sarcasm to heap scorn and getting laughs from all watching, what are the chances that I will be able to drop it all and ask “why do you believe this way?” To seek intimacy after wearing so thick a mask would mean that I would have to open myself to the sarcasm and scorn of everyone around me. After all, whoever drops their mask first loses. It is very hard to call off the game.
And the person I want to understand, to know as a person, will find it difficult to trust me after I have torn her convictions from their foundations, stuffed them with straw and set them on fire for the amusement of my friends. On top of it all, if I manage to open myself up to her, trying to explain why I believe the way I do, she must first step over the large block of my scorn before she can even hear me. We all know how hard it is to swallow pride. Why make it harder?
Karen Mannino holds a BA in studio art from Aquinas College. She lives in Washington State.