I had an interesting experience during my days at university. I witnessed a debate over the issue of capital punishment. One fellow supported it and brought with him data on deterrence impacts and ethical arguments on justice. His interlocutor made a disappointing joke he heard on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show – no data, no analysis, no philosophy, just a witless quip.
Surprisingly, the others listening in started smirking, nodding to the quip, and agreed. The joke was the argument, and the peers validating the position was the justification. The mob had set in, and rigorous analysis was impossible.
Today we’re left with the spawns of Stewart. As they were rising to prominence I began hosting philosophy symposiums and I noticed a rise in odd behaviour among some. When someone articulated a proposition they disagreed with, their response was, to begin with, laughter. It became an expected phenomenon, and I began to label the individuals who do it ‘the laugh track’ – they pretend to laugh at things they don’t believe are humourous.
I don’t know how to neatly state my case, but after hosting 300 symposiums I can modestly claim that I have never once seen the laugh track go onto say something intelligent about the topic at hand.
It’s akin to the practice of correcting someone’s grammar if they disagree. The same can be said of eye rolls accompanied by scoffs. These are a non-rational means of saying, “I’m more intelligent than you”, without having any substance. People don’t resort to these tactics if they don’t need to, and only if they wish to engage in social power plays rather than learn truth.
If people have something intelligent to say they simply say it, otherwise if they’re passionate about telling others they disagree then they use other tactics. Again, I don’t have an argument to substantiate this, I can merely point out that after 300 debates I’ve never seen substance follow someone who laughs at an idea they disagree with.
This laugh track has become an internet phenomenon. It’s replaced with the laugh react. Our thoughts are propagated with irony rather than analysis, with pun rather than pen. The phenomenon existed prior to social media, it existed prior to late-night comedians, but each step has amplified the phenomenon.
The echo-chambering has been amplified as well. Social media made it possible to have a mob mentality from a distance. The dangers in this are countless. Validation from a peer is the cause of a great many atrocities and now it happens virtually.
I recently had a discussion with some libertarians on the issue of wearing masks. I arrived at the discussion armed with a literature review on epidemiology, which I’ve written academically about in the past. I was met with laugh reacts and poorly constructed memes.
An interlocutor gave a counter-argument which was not the first I’ve heard of it, “Your side is so weak you can’t even meme”.
This is the final stage, the endgame of Stewart’s truth by comedy approach. It’s truth by non-methodical thought. The laughing at a disagreeing thought caught on and it spread. It’s a group of people who arrive at truth by popular opinion.
It’s the individual who says in seriousness, “I am the wisest, for I have laughed at the most other ideas, and you are the most foolish, for you have been laughed at the most”.
It’s superficiality put on steroids. An inability to engage seriously with thoughts contrary to one’s own is actually an intellectual deficit, not a strength. This is our point of arrival, where people who can’t contemplate alternative perspectives begin laughing at other points of view, they find validation through peers and wonder why their points lack reason or rationality.
This is a call to increased reason – to increased investigation. We ought to search deeper than that which our friends have affirmed. It’s a call to rejection of laugh reacts to substantiate truth. We can do better.
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