Humour is civilised, especially when it’s pointed. When we (or most of us anyway) stopped the monkey business of using physical power to step on the heads of others to get to the top, or alternatively grooming them to gain favour, we started using language, creativity, and intellect instead. While the President of the United States has not yet achieved the developmental milestone of post-primate behaviour (he just stopped short of eating the dandruff he wiped from Macron’s shoulder), Michelle Wolf’s rather more sophisticated methods of dressing down those at the top, as recently demonstrated at the White House press correspondent’s dinner, are curiously attracting a kind of ire usually reserved for flagrant aggression and bullying.
Humour, unlike physical aggression, is a marker of civilisation. Freud states that the whole point of civilisation is that it sublimates our baser instincts into a social good. I’m the first to admit that Freud was not right about everything, but he was on to something here. Instead of directly venting our aggressive and sexual drives, we build tall buildings, create great works of art, we work, and we make people laugh. What attracts our partners to us is not how loud we can beat our chests, but what we can do in the world. Humour is no different, it is a terrifically effective way of communicating hostile or erotic content through the clever use of language. It transforms base instinct into a benign release of pent up energy. It’s an alchemy that turns base emotional material into prosocial gold.
Freud makes a distinction between smut, the base element, and jokes, the more elevated form. Smut is only tolerated, he says, when it has the character of a joke. Donald Trump’s jocular “grab ’em by the pussy” clearly lies in the domain of smut – pure, unadulterated, disrespectful and misogynistic vitriol - making women into objects. Wolf, on the other hand, make jokes, not smut. For Freud jokes are a developmental advance towards civilisation. In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious he states: “Only when we rise to a society of a more refined education do the formal conditions for jokes play a part.”
He goes on to describe how what he calls “tendentious jokes” can make hostile impulses possible by circumventing direct assault towards one that draws pleasure for the audience. He goes on to describe how you need three people (at least) for this kind of joke. The person making the joke, the person who is the object of the joke and “a third in whom the joke’s aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled.” Those of us shocked that this administration and its supporters continue to get away with it, become the third, while the object of the joke finds no humour in being dressed down.
The objects of Wolf’s jokes were myriad, the administration for one, but even more importantly were the administration’s enablers, like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – the mouthpiece for an administration that lies. Whereas the president himself resorts to direct insults of those he doesn’t like with the vocabulary of a seven-year-old (e.g. crazy, loser, cheatin’, dopey), Wolf waxes poetic with a turn of phrase like this:
“I think she’s [Huckabee Sanders] very resourceful... she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye.”
It is fascinating to see how this refinement cuts so effectively close to the bone. While Trump gets away with smut, why can’t Michelle Wolf get away with her sophisticated cutting humour? It’s because Trump is almost universally seen as a buffoon, by opponents and supporters alike. When an idiot on the playground screams “I know you are but what am I?” you can hardly take them seriously. When Wolf speaks like an adult, and uses her verbal eloquence to dress down those well-dressed hypocrites with words like an array of verbal scalpels, effectively cutting away that veneer of respectability, she renders them nude for everyone to see. Just look at Sarah Huckabee Sander’s face.
Telling truth to power was never going to be easy. That’s why the indirect approach through humour cuts so much sharper than the blunt tool of the dumb insult or tweet. Trump’s supporters are livid because he was taken down with a tool of highly sophisticated civilty: language. Language being something Trump does not know how to wield. The object of the attack was lies and hypocrisy, and Michelle Wolf was courageous to call a spade a spade in the only way in which people will really listen - through cutting, bracing, acerbic, and beautifully uncomfortable humour.