I am part of a group, the members of which consider themselves to be individuals who do not constitute a group. This is, in fact, an essential truth about any group, that groups are not ‘real’ in anything but name and the material consequences resulting from the act of categorization. The majority of these consequences, for the majority of these groups, are negative. However, the inverse is the case for college educated straight white male living in Europe and North America.
The reason this group has caught my attention again is due to the demographic breakdown of the recent U.S. presidential election. Hillary Clinton lost white college-educated males to Donald Trump by around 15 percentage points. This is not to say that the most progressive action possible would have been a vote for Clinton. What this action would be is a fraught issue with no clear resolution. However, this question seems somewhat beside the point when swapped for a Trump vote, in which case not voting would have been the preferable choice by far. This is despite the fact that not voting (or voting for a third party in a swing state) could well be seen as an exercise of some unchecked privilege; an exercise in ideological purity at the potential expense of the well-being of disadvantaged or vulnerable groups. A dick move, to be sure, but one made more out of ignorance than malice. However, for the college-educated white male voter, a Trump vote was, and still is, an affirmation of where power should reside.
Here I’m going to explore some jokes by college educated straight white men as a way to illustrate how they can work well and then compare these to the kind of statements that are claimed to “just” be “jokes”, none of which I’ll reprint here.
Trump won white men, in general, by a wide margin and the non-college educated by a wider margin still. The notion that the non-college educated are economically disadvantaged and have been ‘left behind’ does muddy the issue somewhat (although as this was also the case for the population of Weimar-era Germany, perhaps we ought not to give this muddying too much pause). However, this is not the case for college-educated white men, which makes them a fascinating test subject. Here I’m going to explore some jokes by college educated straight white men as a way to illustrate how they can work well and then compare these to the kind of statements that are claimed to “just” be “jokes”, none of which I’ll reprint here. This may help us understand why so much college education is going to waste? and what does it reveal when we laugh at things we disavow as “jokes” as if jokes were not even speech acts?
At the beginning of this year I hosted an event at Ark Books as a part of the KBH Læser festival (the theme of which was Men) that attempted to make this group (college educated white straight men) an object of research through a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. You can listen to most of the audio from the evening online on the Ark Audio Soundcloud page. One of the readings performed that evening, which seemed to provoke the most reaction and subsequent discussion was B.I. #28 (Brief Interview number twenty-eight). Rather than an interview, this reads more like the transcription of a candid recording, featuring two heterosexual male characters of uncertain, but presumably caucasian, ethnicity, E and K, conversing together as if for the benefit for a third, presumably female, interlocutor in such a way as to show off their status as having participated in higher education.
E and K engage in a quasi-Socratic dialogue on “[w]hat does today’s woman want”, citing the apparent contradictions between biological imperatives, socially conditioned behaviour and the politics of post-feminist society. Throughout the reading the audience seethed with the laughter of pained recognition as K, the Socrates of this dialogue, to rebuke E’s claim that feminist arguments are disingenuous, made remarks such as this:
K—: What I disagree with is the so-called. I don’t believe that today’s feminists are being consciously insincere in all their talk about autonomy. Just as I don’t believe they are strictly to blame for the terrible bind they’ve find themselves in. Though deep down I suppose I do have to agree that women are historically ill-equipped for taking genuine responsibility for themselves.’
This is a classic comic device. The first two sentences, however dubious one may find their premises, serve as a call for greater nuance: an understanding that intent and action cannot be entirely unified and that we should not be so quick to label any incongruity as hypocrisy. K then undermines this by making an absurd universal/historical claim about a particular genders behavioural capacity in contingent, moralising terms. The laugh here comes as the expectation of reasonable discussion is dashed. The laugh is a response to the way in which the new information changes how we understand what preceded it, producing both frustration and a cathartic expression of disappointment. This is a joke that K, the speaker, does not know he is making.
Here we see the character of the college educated straight white male in the inability to resist the impulse to universalise their understanding of experiences that fall outside their own. To be clear this is not some essential characteristic but a tendency of learned behaviour, which is not itself universal but merely an easy groove to fall into. So what has this to do with Trump? Well, Trump is, in essence, a material manifestation of this impulse. His is the position that can comment on the nature and behaviour of all other positions. Y’know, without any of the actual work of finding out anything about it. It is, after all, the best most fabulous position of all time. This is the reason he won with college educated straight white male voters; he gives credence to their inherited view of reality and the contemporary tools with which to dismisses those that challenge it. One such tool is to frame all that is offensive as a joke.
You give the audience a set of expectations and then confound those expectations. However, while this is how the majority of jokes work, this is not the only way to get a laugh. Another way is to fill people with the rush of proximity to power within a culture that makes them desire it.
The outline above describes essentially how jokes work. In a vein similar to Kafka’s frustration that literature seemed only to work in metaphor, this comedic formula was satirised by the British comedy duo Lee and Herring in the mid-nineties, with the lines “…and then I got off the bus”, and “…28 years old I was”. These two pieces of information change almost any crass set up into a joke by reframing the information. You give the audience a set of expectations and then confound those expectations. However, while this is how the majority of jokes work, this is not the only way to get a laugh. Another way is to fill people with the rush of proximity to power within a culture that makes them desire it.
Often when a politician or commentator on the right says something offensive they claim it was only a joke but when you look closely at the comment you realise that really this is just openly stating a commonly held prejudice. Expectations are established and are then confirmed. The fact that this may cause some people to laugh is confused with the statement being a joke when the laugh indicates little more than the receptive party feeling powerful in their position. The laugh is simply a socially acceptable way to communicate being turned on. The description “locker-room-talk” may be a far more accurate description for such remarks than claiming them to be akin to anything as formally complex as a joke.
There is, of course, the possibility of using the above formula to confound expectations to advance a right-wing idea but the problem with this is that the laughter produced is still of escalation rather than release. Right-wing conceptions of reality tend to rely on an idea of nature as something unassailable. Social hierarchies = nature, fixed gender roles = nature, racial antipathy = nature, humanity’s destruction of the nature = nature. This means that when one attempts to place a right-wing spin on a joke, even if you considered it as in some way speaking truth to power, it is still in deference to a superior power. A power that has been struggled with for millennia in order to produce the totality of the beauty of human achievement. So for this joke to land and produce a laugh requires an audience of either self-loathing masochists or self-deluded individuals for whom enough progress has been made for them to feel safe against these apparently natural laws. There is, however, a flip side to this terrifying cackle of strength, in that its very need to assert itself reveals a particular fragility.
In Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, the titular vegetarian, Yeong-hey comes into conflict with the patriarchy surrounding her in contemporary Seoul (whiteness’ largest advantages are geographically specific) merely by deciding not to eat meat. Both her husband, a man self-described as the height of mediocrity, and her father are incensed by this. After an incident where Yeong-hey’s father tries to force feed her meat, her husband, who had previously raped Yeong-hey as he took this to be his natural right, decides he is tired of these frustrations and leaves her.
Even if it were to be suggested that the indignities suffered by Yeong-hey are a result of nature, this would not offer the perpetrators any defence. Instead, it should be asserted submit that the introduction of ethical/discursive concepts like choice and consent into our societies are signs of progress, in a similar way, to say not dying in your mid-20s from an infected tooth is a sign of progress, regardless of the challenges it may pose to patriarchal hegemony. The quickness to rage and the need to assert dominance, experienced by the men around Yeong-hey, is actually a kind of brittleness stemming from a rigidity of a form of thought that requires constant conformity from a world indifferent to such cravings. Apparently, natural orders are often nothing but the familiar experience of contingency. A contingency that, if you are the one on top, only require a slight adjustment to start tumbling. Like the brittleness of glass this fragile relation to others in the world can be lethally dangerous, however, also like broken glass, with care it can be put aside.
The thing about the straight white college educated male, in a western context, is that they are the most powerful of any group. However, it is a power that comes at an enormous cost of alienating paranoia. Being relatively powerful can create a delusional perspective, wherein one can believe that their agency has far greater reach than it actually does. It has greater reach than the agency of others but less than one might think. So then any infraction against this is very deeply felt, and as an unfamiliar sensation, it is also frightening. This is something to bear in mind about this group as we go forward, not necessarily for the purpose of sympathy, rather so we know what to laugh at. That being, educated men that never learned to share.