Is it still OK to laugh at our fear of laughing at scary stuff?

Paul Raven @ 29-03-2011

I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to do it anyway. Via SlashDot, CNN reports that some European TV networks are yanking some old Simpsons episodes from the rerun carousel in case the nuclear-disaster related plots upset anyone in light of the Fukushima crisis. (Bonus and presumably unintentional lulz: check the URL for the CNN piece! Nuclear jokes? Ew!)

Look, I’m no expert on humour (understatement of the century, yeah), but I don’t think it takes an expert or a particularly thorough survey to say that a great deal of the stuff we laugh at is funny because we’re afraid of it. This is the root emotion behind unacceptable ‘othering’ humour like racism or sexism (The Other must be mocked, so that we can feel larger and stronger than it!) and disablism (we make tasteless jokes about less able people because, deep down, we’re terrified to think how badly we’d cope with the same disability); such fears divide person from person, and should be erased rather than strengthened.

But fear of disasters, of the world itself? I think that’s a uniting emotion rather than a divisive one; our fragility in the face of chance events is one of the clearest indications that we’re all in the same lifeboat.

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between jokes about a specific event (a stand-up comic making light of Fukushima right now would be pretty tasteless, for instance, and making light of the human suffering caused by 9/11 fits in the same bracket) and making jokes about generalised existential risks. There have been nuclear crises before now; if there hadn’t been, jokes about them probably wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are. But does a fresh disaster merit this kneejerk cotton-woolling response? Is there a period after which nuke jokes will become acceptable again, and if so, how long is it? When will it become acceptable to run shows or movies that have images of the World Trade Centre in them, or should we go back and sanitise everything, airbrushing the WTC out of history like the cigarettes of the stars of the silver screen era?

Isn’t humour one of our best ways of coming to terms with the essentially hostile nature of the world we live in? Can we not rely on ourselves and the reactions of others to police the boundaries of taste, or should we leave that to the media companies, whose definitions of taste seem increasingly defined by their need to pander to dwindling audiences defined by political demographics, or to governments (whose political motivations are even clearer than those of the media)?

I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know the answers. I feel instinctively that there’s a difference between making jokes about the suffering of specific individuals and making jokes about the sorts of suffering that might possibly assail any of us at any time… but that’s easy for me to say from the privileged position of having never lost someone close to me through a natural disaster or act of terrorism. But to come at it from the other end, if we start deciding that some risks are too serious or topical to make light of, where does the line get drawn? How many people have to be offended for a joke to be considered tasteless? Just one? A certain percentage?

And what would we have left to laugh at?


Doom du jour: volcanic eschatology

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2010

Icelandic volcano with touristsNo points for knowing why it’s such a hot button topic*, but everybody’s talking about volcanoes these days. And it’s gloomy stuff, too; it’s been known for a while that the massive but (currently) dormant volcano under Yellowstone National park in the US could decide to pop off at any time (although apparently the meme about that eruption being “overdue” is unfounded), and now it transpires that Mount Fuji in Japan may well be shuffling its feet and clearing its throat in preparation to burst into song. [image by Hello, I am Bruce]

So, just in case the more immediate issues in the news aren’t depressing you enough, here’s Wired UK‘s survival expert Andy Hamilton explaining what would happen if Yellowstone was to go off:

Those within the vicinity will be incinerated as temperatures from the lava flow can reach up to 500 degrees, meaning all surrounding cities will be utterly destroyed. If you somehow managed to survive the fast flowing lava, the thick ash cloud that would rain down would choke you to death. All the states surrounding Wyoming would certainly perish very quickly. The UK and the rest of Earth would not escape. We would all be affected, wherever we were. Global temperatures would plummet by at least 21 degrees. This could last for many years, meaning that all plant life will slowly die off. We will have no vegetables; animals — our meat — will have no food, so humankind would likely starve.

Sheesh – how’s that for existential risk? I think I’m going to head to the local shop, max out my cards on tinned goods and strong alcohol (and maybe a crossbow), and then nail the door shut from inside before settling down to watch The Road on perpetual loop…

[ * I love the way that photoset is titled “Iceland’s Disruptive Volcano”, like it’s some recalcitrant child at the back of the classroom. Send it home with a stiff note to its parents, I say. ]


Salt

Sarah Ennals @ 03-05-2009

Salt - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


A dark day for the space industry

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2007

NASA hasn’t had a good year for PR so far. Following on from the embarrassing media circus over the exploits of an ex-astronaut earlier this year, now they’re having to go public with the news that not only were some astronauts drunk in charge of their launch vehicles, but that they also discovered an act of sabotage on a computer module destined for the ISS.

Even the private sector hasn’t escaped the black cloud; an explosion at the test facility of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the company that is to supply Virgin Galactic with its sub-orbital vehicles, has killed three and injured as many again.

Stories like the above make me think that, as much as good as they look on paper, we probably shouldn’t be building nuclear powered rockets just yet – the cost of mistakes and mismanagement could be far higher.