Accessibility via Humour

How do you make a difficult topic more palatable with humour? Is it a pedagogical technique of the masters or a tool from the charlatan’s repertoire of rhetoric?


There are a bunch of questions loaded into this one, as usual. So let’s break it down -

  1. What is a topic?
  2. What is a difficult topic? Or what makes a topic difficult?
  3. What do we mean by palatable?
  4. How is humour usually used to make a difficult topic palatable? In education? In public spaces / politics?
  5. Where does this technique stand on our moral scale?

Right, so let’s get on with it.

Setting common ground

What is a topic?

When I say topic, I mean any subject of conversation in pretty much any setting. So it could be two people talking about the snowstorm or a teacher talking about the Battle of Plassey with her students.

What is a difficult topic?

A topic could be made difficult for conversation if it has some “bad” emotions attached to it. This emotional evaluation could be personal or perhaps even a socially agreed upon standard. Bad here is not objectively negative, it also refers to indirectly positive emotions as well. Let’s clear that up with some examples.

  • Talking to a kid about his lost pet is a difficult conversation because losing something, especially a living being is a conventionally regarded as a “bad” emotion.
  • Talking to someone about their political or religious beliefs is usually a difficult conversation if your beliefs are contrarian to theirs.
  • Confessing your love to someone is a difficult conversation albeit packing an inherently positive emotion.

There’s another category of difficult - a pedagogical one. A topic is pedagogically difficult if the learners are cognitively not primed for it. Here are two examples -

  1. Talking about the sand mafia to an 8 year old is difficult because the child likely does not understand why someone would be deceitful to the extent of exploiting both other humans and the planet’s ecology (and in turn humans yet to come as well?).
  2. Talking about projections in the imaginary plane to an Algebra I class is difficult because they do not yet grasp the vocabulary for it and lack the understanding of prerequisite concepts.

What do we mean by palatable?

We are going to keep this fairly loose. A conversation becomes palatable when the parties engaged in it are able to maintain civil engagement for a reasonable period of time. Here are some scenarios where the conversation is not palatable -

  1. Starting a conversation with a (reasonable) stranger by saying that you think Hitler was just misunderstood. This conversation is likely going to either end in a fist fight or, if the stranger is reasonable enough, not proceed any further than the opening remark. No civility maintained, thus, not palatable.
  2. Teaching literature to Grade 5 kids by reading out a poem in Ancient Greek. In this situation the second party in the conversation, i.e., the students, have likely disengaged even before the poem began. No engagement, thus, not palatable.
  3. Opening a seminar on genetics with “how does a rat know where to grow its tail?” and then quickly devolving into a textbook sermon on mRNA, proteins, p-values and lab hygiene. Despite the strong opener, the audience is going to lose interest quicker than quicksand, thus, not palatable.

So what do we have so far? We are basically looking at how a conversation in a classroom or in a political rally is made engaging to a wide audience with the help of humour.

Let’s get to it.

Digging the ground

How does humour make difficult topics palatable?

Humour consists of two parts - building tension and releasing it. Turns out this straightforward process works great when trying to defuse preexisting tension as well.

It seems to me that classroom situations predominantly involve building tension and releasing it. Political speeches though could have moments with preexisting tension that is released by the speaker.

How does it usually occur in a classroom?

Well, for one, it doesn’t usually take place. It should, but it doesn’t. However, if it were to, this is probably how it would proceed -

Teacher talks about the history of the French revolution, all the way from Napoleon to the Jacobins. Throughout the conversation she makes jokes about the funny boots of the Jacobins, about Napoleon’s stubbornness and about how the King of France was brought down like Humpty Dumpty. However, the jokes are the condiments, not the sauce of the presentation.

It is whimsical, it is pedagogical, it is memorable.

In short: the kids love it.

There’s an important point to be made here about the memorable aspect of humour. When talking about memory anchors we recognise that our brains are really good at remembering whimsical narratives, when done well of course.

In this example it is useful to look at the fact that the topic at hand - history, is a traditionally dull topic for conversation. Adding a bit of humour to it makes it palatable to the learners.

How does it take place in a political rally?

This is a tricky one but I’ll try. I am using political rally as a placeholder for any situation that would require the orator to break the ice with the audience. Within this I am also considering situations where the orator would want to subversively plant an opinion in the audience’s mind.

Here are a few examples of how I imagine this occurs in political speeches.

One,

The speaker opens with a one-liner that is objectively silly/slapstick but in context it acts to release the built-up tension.

Two,

The speaker riles up emotion with a string of remarks exemplifying the ineptitude or corruption of the opponent. These remarks build up the tension. Which the speaker releases with a cheeky self-compliment.

Possible example - *“And what do the Tories know about worker welfare? They in their Oxford shoes, with their Oxbridge degrees and their posh accents? Have they ever stepped inside a bakery let alone bake bread? Have they? (No!) And what about us you may ask, and it is a fair question to ask. What does the Labour party know about worker welfare? Well, friends, worker welfare is Labour welfare! (Haha! Hurrah!)” *

Three,

The speaker aims to dog whistle. They cannot overtly make hate speech so they make a derogatory joke instead. Perhaps fired from the shoulders of a third-party, in a bid to preemptively absolve self of blame.

Possible example - “I was visiting my constituency the other day and this old lady who lives by herself in her little thatched house said to me something so remarkable that I can’t help but tell you about it. She said, “MLA ji, haven’t these Trinkies grown their population a bit too much? They don’t eat rabbits but they sure do breed like them!” (Haha!)"

It is worth noting that the speakers employ different techniques to build the tension.

What does our morality feel about this technique?

Well, this might sound underwhelming, but we feel that this technique itself is pretty amazing, it’s how it is used that determines the reaction of our morality.

An objective evaluation, or rather an evaluation that disregards context and consequences, would elicit appreciation for the technique. How marvellous that humans can be played with like that. Plus, jokes are a good thing most of the times, aren’t they? Unless they’re done in bad taste, of which we saw an example just above. But jokes in bad taste can be used by the crafty orator to subversively push agenda. That’s where it gets sour.

What’s uncool is that the people most proficient at this technique are the ones who use it for cunning purposes.

Perhaps we should train our teachers in rhetoric. A lot many of them love engaging in local politics anyway, this might just be useful for them in both the classroom and the union.


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