Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Culture, humor, and pain in majority-male cultures

This is not a response to any single event or conversation. It sprang fully formed from my brain this past weekend, fertilized by many years of input. Hence I am sharing it now.

The goals of this piece are:
To make unconsciously learned or instinctive cultural behaviors visible
To make the intercultural effects of those behaviors visible
To encourage self-assessment, introspection, and dialogue among readers

Please pass it on. It is written in somewhat pedantic language, so you may need to "translate" it.


1) Not de-norming or making value judgements
In this piece I am not going to characterize any individual, behavior, or group as anything -ist. I do understand the importance of de-norming injurious viewpoints and behaviors, and I am not an apologist. But because my goal with this piece is to encourage self-assessment and dialogue, and labeling folks' behaviors is likely to cause them to become defensive and stop listening or thinking, I think it is important in this argument to start from a place of description.

2) Duplication and nomenclature
I have not done any research to find out whether anyone else has come to the same conclusions I have. I am likely duplicating the work of any number of sociologists, cultural theorists, anthropologists, cross-cultural specialists, and psychologists. I may not be using the right terms for things despite some acquaintance with anthropology. However, I am writing this anyway.

3) Model
I am using majority male cultures as a model here. However, this model could be adapted, with appropriate adjustments, to other circumstances. To be honest, I do not know enough about majority female cultures to comment on them or their characteristics.

The uses of humor in multiple western male cultures

Why western?
Because although these principles may be applicable outside of the cultures dominant in North America and Europe (and I am pretty sure they are, including in some non-dominant cultures in those regions), I am not confident of my knowledge, so I'm circumscribing the argument in this way.

Who am I to write this?
I am both an insider and an outsider in male culture, as a member of a different gender the majority of whose social interactions, acquaintanceships, and close friendships have taken place in mostly male subcultures. This positions me well for an anthropological assessment.

Important note:
This assessement does not necessarily apply to all males. However, just as one can talk about American society although individual Americans may not all reflect cultural trends, so too one can talk about cultural trends in a male culture without taking into account all males.

Description. A tool used in multiple ways.
Some hurtful humor is not intended by its interlocutors as an attack. Instead, they may be functioning within a cultural context that may not be shared with their listeners. This description aims to raise their awareness so they can make sure what they say is consistent with their expressed values.

1) Community norming and toughening the young: "You've got a lot to learn, young Jedi"
Norming. When new individuals join communities, they are exposed to a lot of norming behavior from existing members of those communities. The intent of this behavior is to help these metaphorical neonates to acculturate and adapt to community expectations, or to enforce their compliance.
Training. In socially supportive communities, elders often engage in similar activity with the goal of preparing juveniles for successful lives in the adult world. Members of subcultures or minority cultures often feel intimidated by what they experience as the dominant culture; thus a higher premium is placed on preparing juveniles to defend themselves.
Selection. Individuals engaging in community reception or elder mentoring may also consciously or unconsciously be weeding out the "weak" perceived to not be worthy of their effort or of membership in their communities.

2) Strength testing and dominance behavior: Building social hierarchies
When two males encounter each other, they may engage in dominance behavior to determine which of the two has or will have a senior position in the social hierarchy. This is true of other animals as well as humans. "Teabagging" an opponent in an online game is one example of this kind of behavior.
3) Expressing affection: "We can do this because we are us"
Just as males may punch each other on the arm to express affection, so too aggressive language may be used to reinforce an existing bond, indicating that even normally confrontational behavior is unimportant among comrades.

4) Blowing off steam: "Pants off"
The demoscene, a computer arts subculture, has a concept of "pants off" -- like watching football in one's underwear, a context in which one can relax. This is relevant to other circumstances in which a recreation period follows one of intense stress and effort. Playfighting also fits into this category.

5) Self-defense / demonstrating superiority in  a position of insecurity

Classic example: geek or nerd intelligently insulting dumb jock in a movie. Omega males also try to do or successfully do this in real life; so do other vulnerable individuals and communities.

6) Expressing fear
This can be fear of an "other" or fear of what oneself is doing, and be used to defuse a situation.

Potential effects of humor that may not be considered by members of majority or dominant groups
When a member of a historically dominant group makes a joke to or at a member of a historically vulnerable group in a way that refers to the second individual's status, this may be intended within the context of one of the concepts described above. However, the meaning that will come across is most likely to be "You are less human than I am, and you are beneath me."
If an individual or an organization has specific goals or values, what goals or values would expressing this message reinforce?

Is what you say and how you act consistent with your values? Are you aware of intercultural differences that may result in what you say not expressing what you mean?

Take this not as an accusation, but as a call to brains (instead of a call to arms).
You are capable of more than you realize.

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