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What fuels the perpetual outrage machine?
Virtuous humor requires the ability to laugh at life itself. To be a just person, you can't take yourself so seriously that you don't know how to laugh at yourself.
In his 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Richard Hofstadter wrote that "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point." While he directed his attention towards the right wing of American politics, Hofstadter noted in his very first paragraph that the "paranoid style" was "a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing".
■ Hofstadter's argument is still hotly debated today. But there is another style that also invades contemporary American cultural and political commentary, and it truly is neither exclusively left-wing nor right-wing: It's a mindset. The mindset is one of studied humorlessness.
■ One doesn't have to search far to find it. The right-winger who pines for pre-Revolutionary days. The left-winger who takes pride in hating whatever makes others happy. The Congressman who sides with the Taliban. The writer whose entire brand is pandemonium and civilizational collapse.
■ From time to time, the quasi-professionally humorless may attempt to go for a laugh. But it's usually a laugh of direct or indirect insult at others, often as a sign of solidarity with a cause. In addition to it being cruel, laughing at the expense of others is a hollow approximation at humor.
■ Virtuous humor requires the ability to laugh at life itself. To be a just person, you can't take yourself so seriously that you don't know how to laugh at yourself. To laugh at oneself is a confession of fallibility. The world is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. We are limited beings, not omnipotent demigods. We trip up, we fail, we make fools of ourselves. We misunderstand, misjudge, and miscommunicate. To laugh at those human limitations -- especially within ourselves -- is an act of modesty. It takes humility to know that one's best is never perfect.
■ The humorless style in American politics reflects a peculiar aspiration to be a martyr behind the keyboard or the microphone -- to use words as an all-purpose weapon against the human condition. And it's unfortunate, because it gets in the way of grappling with the complicated and messy aspects of life that are often what make us the most alike, even when we appear to have the least in common. Jonathan Sacks, the prolific author and rabbi, wrote that "Those who can laugh at fate, redeem it from tragedy. One who rejects his enemy's interpretation of events cannot be made a victim. Psychologically, he or she remains free. Humour is first cousin to hope."
■ No one person holds the keys to shut off the outrage machine. But it is within the hands of anyone who engages in the public square, even as a passive consumer, to discourage it. Anymore, it's the clicks that count. Pageviews and other forms of "engagement" are interpreted as the closest substitute for votes. We don't have to reward the kind of hubris it takes to be humorless.