Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blogging Against Sexism

According to Bethany over at Fair Trade Certified, the official day for this was March 8. I thought I'd wait until I actually things to say. It's a guy thing.

John Tierney over at the NYTimes - one of the bright spots in that wasteland - has an article on The Laugh Gap, the phenomenon of men telling more jokes, women laughing at them, as a window into evolutionary psychology. He quotes heavily from Robert Provine, who has done a fair bit of research into the matter.
Professor Provine demonstrated this difference by analyzing more than 3,000 personal ads in newspapers in eight American cities, keeping track of how often people sought someone with a sense of humor, and how often they advertised themselves as being funny. He found that women sought laughter more than they promised it, whereas for men it was the reverse: they were more likely to advertise their own sense of humor. “The evidence is clear,” he writes in “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” his 2000 book. “Women seek men who make them laugh, and men are anxious to to comply with this request.”


Dave Barry has revealed the secret that men actually have a special joke-storage area in their brains that women lack. The Joke Proper is a skill seldom mastered by women, for whatever reason. I know men who cannot tell a joke, because they always leave out a key component of the setup, or don't get the phrasing of punchlines quite streamlined enough to be funny, but I know far more women who can't get this right. I don't see anything of a general mental ability lacking in women that shows up in other areas that would explain the butchering of jokes. There may be some subtle interaction of brain differences which would give males some slight but innate advantage that leads them to expand upon this skill from a young age, but it's not obvious to me, at any rate. The better working hypothesis would be that it is a skill valued more in men, by both men and women, and thus attracts more effort. I don't buy that it is predominantly a mating strategy, as it shows up very early, and first comes to great prominence in males in latency.

Admittedly, an evolutionary psychologist would claim that this suggests there is an innate difference in male and female brains, because the ability expresses long before it is needed, granting the necessary development time for the skill. I have no good argument against that except to claim that such innate abilities would show up in other areas as well. Unless Dave Barry is right and there is a joke-remembering area of the brain.

More can be learned by regarding humor not as a separate phenomenon - because not everyone finds the same things funny - but as a tool one uses to advertise other aspects of one's personality. Outrageousness, cleverness, wordplay, insult, wryness, self-mockery, silliness, irony - these all telegraph different underlying personalities. A man who wishes to be funny might use all of these, but will gravitate to those he does best, advertising his other characteristics of courage, intelligence, self-control, self-confidence, or whatever he thinks will get him a job, or a meal, or a mate.

My wife finds that making me laugh is enormously gratifying. She has said it often enough that I accept it, but it seems odd to me, as I laugh at so many things. Perhaps because laughter is so important to me, she wishes to have the concrete proof that she is valuable to me. But quite frankly, I look to my sons and my male friends for laughter, with only a very few females seen in that role. When women attempt to be funny I do laugh often - they have commented on it at work, with mixed gratitude and surprise. That people would even wish to be funny I regard as a liberating signal in conversation. If people want to joke, that is a signal of relative safety, if you keep your wits about you.

Skimmer alert: And this brings us to one of the survival aspects of humor. Men use it to discern aggression. A male who is a potential competitor or adversary in any sense signals by humor that he is less likely to resort to violence or underhandedness. Certain types of male humor, in fact, reveal in their clumsiness that the speaker will in fact resort to violence or dishonesty. That male attempts humor as a mark of cooperation, but the falseness of it leaks out. Misogynistic humor, for example, is common among men. But there are enormous variations, and men who are not violent or exploitative can pick up quickly the humor of a male who clearly is a threat to be violent or exploitative to women. The attempt at humor reveals simple cruelty or complete misreading of social cues. Such men are dangerous. We might smile at the humor in politeness, but we file that information away: this male is not a competitor for females in my group - he's too stupid - but he may be dangerous to females in my group. Be alert. It's really irritating, BTW, when females in your group fall for such dangerous clowns, even if you have no particular stake in that particular female as wife, sister, friend, daughter, etc. Perhaps that is quite primal and tribal - a warning sign that we have among us a woman who doesn't pick up the cues.

I imagine that women have similar complaints about the men of their tribes, with similar justice. We, in some inchoate sense, are endangered by such things.

Men's laughter with each other is an experience of solidarity beyond mere pleasantness. If Camille Paglia is right about Dr. Lionel Tiger's theory of Men in Groups, most what propels a group forward is the collective behavior of its males - hunting, building bridges, exploring. Women's behavior, in this theory, is preservative and maintenance behavior of the day-to-day. In this model, behaviors which promote cooperative among males are beneficial for the tribe long-term, and humor is one of those behaviors.

Women's laughter with each other seems to these outside male ears to be of a different character: the solidarity sought is not the same thing. Thus, laughter and humor mean different things to men and women, and are rewarded differently - in the family, in the gender-group, in the age cohort, in courtship.

8 comments:

jw said...

Hmmm, interesting. I think though that you should look carefuly at the misogyny/misandry part of the concept.

It's been quite a while since I've seen misogynist based humor: Misandry based humor on the other hand is a daily occurance and is getting more common and nastier.

This suggests something ... What, in your opinion?

bs king said...

jw, since I don't see a comment back, I'll take a swing at it. The problem with misogyny/misandry in humor is that of any stereotypical opressor/opressee setup in society. If you look at racial humor, you see a similar phenomena. I touch on it briefly in the post I did for blog against sexism day, which the AVI links to. A man currently making a misogynistic crack will be looked down on more by the general population than vice versa because men have been the "ruling class" historically. A women making a crack against men is very subtley percieved as rebelling against something. So men making jokes against women = cruel abuse of power, women against men = valiant fighting of the system. Now, where this all gets a bit hairy is when it's well, simply not true. What I said in my post is pretty true with humor as well, women often use misandric humor when/where it will be least effective in producing any real change and where it is related the least to reality. Women today have record opportunities for advancement, but I would conjecture that we, as a broad social group, are still getting used to that idea and it scares us a bit. I think this can lead to a very stereotypical backlash where it becomes easier to rag on the other gender rather than really helping to redefine your own. Personally, my favorite quote is "I'm not anti-men, I'm anti-stupidity, and stupidity, I find, is gender neutral". That's why I don't like cheap shots at men. Most of them aren't terribly clever.

As for the post, AVI, I'd notice something interesting with the guy I recently started dating and I and how humor works in our respective circles of friends. While he and I probably make eachother laugh fairly equally baseline (he interestingly enough, has mentioned that he was looking for a girl who could make him laugh frequently, and that he found that much harder to find than looks, intelligence, or any other quality he had on the list) but we relate to humor quite differently when it comes to our friends. If we are out somewhere and he hears a good joke, he will actually call some of his friends and leave it for them in their voicemails, and they do the same thing to him. Over the next couple days I will hear him use the line repeatedly, while he makes sure all his friends hear it. I...well, I don't think I've ever done that.

Wyman said...

AVI, you should know that you're a very gratifying person to make laugh, which is why people enjoy trying so much.

Most people have a pattern to their laughter: some laugh politely even though they're not really listening to you, some people laugh insultingly, as if it is you that is funny and not the joke, some people laugh at everything regardless of whether they really find it funny or not, as an automatic social reaction. You laugh when someone does or says something that makes you laugh. It's not just a knee-jerk rejoinder like it is in most people, but a genuine response.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thanks, ben. Beth, my Dad was the best joke-teller I ever knew, and he maintained the key to remembering a joke was to tell it again immediately. He related it to that Dale Carnegie trick of using someone's name when you are introduced to help you remember it.

jw, bsking touched on some of what I would have said. I still hear misogynistic humor, especially at work from a few guys who seem to think that women-driver jokes are still all the rage. Puzzling to be that socially behind, eh?

There is a type of light gender humor that all people can laugh at if it's done well. Most heavy gender humor just isn't funny, because you can hear the real anger underneath it. Where I work, male-bashing will not receive much social or official consequence - it is considered acceptable speech, seemingly, unless it is profane or really outre. It's not very funny and even most of the women don't laugh much. The basher gets marked down a few points by many in the room without anyone saying a thing about it.

Female bashing will be challenged openly and immediately. There's a difference, then. Sometimes it will be challenged even if it's quite light and not particularly insulting.

Most people can tell whether there is a genuine affection for the stereotypical foibles of the other gender underneath the humor. And of course, there are times of our lives when we are overly sensitive to certain jokes for very legitimate reasons. There are lots of jokes about death that would be horrifying to hear when you've just lost someone, but can be funny again a few years later. On gender questions, people who have been badly and unfairly hurt are going to find some things unfunny, but have a higher tolerance for cruel humor.

Jonathan Wyman said...

... he found that much harder to find than looks, intelligence, or any other quality he had on the list.
Wow, I hope that's the way he said it. Because there are so many bad ways to phrase that sentiment. All of them are meant to be complimentary, but don't quite work out. Trust me.
I think my favorite putdown related to that is the mother who upon being introduced to her son's new fiance says, "Well, I'm just happy he's stopped chasing after another pretty face." Ouch.

jw said...

bsking & avi: I know the dynamics of the thing. It's the why behind sexist humor that fascinates and bothers me.

People will send severe misandry jokes to men badly hurt by sexism against men: Which is a nasty thing to do. The really interesting thing about it is that these senders cannot understand why he would be upset. There's zero empathy ... none.

That lack of empathy is important as any lack of basic empathy is important. So the questions come down to:
why are men seen as less human than women?
what is the effect on society?
what will happen as a result of this?
what is the effect on sensitive men?
what is the effect on boys?

These and the other related questions have real importance to understanding our society.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I would guess that one thing behind the acceptance of misandry is the message "Despite the rhetoric, we don't want you to be sensitive. We want you to be John Wayne." Which is why some women find misandry acceptable and some don't I guess.

bs king said...

JW- part of why misandry is taken less seriously, is, I think, a basic hierachy of needs type thing. Misogyny robbed women of jobs, land ownership, voting rights, legal protection (ie it was not illegal for a man to rape his wife in all states until the 80s) and many other basic human rights. My knee jerk reaction is that (particularly in this country) misandry has caused primarily psychological damage for men. Now, psychological damage is no small thing, but it's much harder to quantify and fight than, oh say, wage inequality. It also historically is taken much less seriously. Everyone can agree you shouldn't be excluded from a job because of race or gender, but the psychological reaction can vary greatly from person to person, and therefore can be harder to empathize with. I think some women find misandry acceptable because they feel history owes them one. I think some women find it acceptable because they put psychological damage now below psychological damage in their past. I see more misandry coming from men towards other men in some ways, and I think that comes from a lot of deep seated insecurites about what it means to be a man. From what I've seen of misandry, it tends to be targeted at select groups of men, rather than all of them, or at least it impacts select groups rather than all of them...but that's just my experience. Care to give any examples of what you've seen?