I’m back! And a disagreement with Hitchens

I know it has been months since I’ve posted. I had a work obligation that kept me away immediately following the Holiday break. So now I’m here and I have big plans to write more often. I will scale those back a bit to be realistic but look out for new posts soon.

I picked up Arguably, a collection of Christopher Hitchens essays. Many of them were published in either Vanity Fair or the Atlantic. I have enjoyed them. Although, I have to admit, not being much of a fiction reader, the book reviews were a little above me. I muddled through those few but still put the book down having learned something interesting. One of his essays is titled “Why women aren’t funny.” The title is immediately controversial in a culture that values equality and employs a substantial number of female comics and comic writers. Several funny women come to mind, both stand-up comics, actors, writers, or all three. I also personally know several women with a great sense of humor.

And so I disagreed with him. The first and only step to resolve a disagreement with an author is rip apart their argument. I record the premises and attack the assumptions on which they are built in order to discredit the conclusion. His first premise is that a man must be good at humor because his “chief task in life… is that of impressing the opposite sex” (390). His assumption then is that our purpose is a biological one, fraught with Darwinian reproductive stresses, and that men with a good sense of humor have a better chance of reproducing. There can certainly be purpose beyond reproduction, but as a utilitarian and philosophical materialist I can respect that assumption as long as we remain within that framework. A study of humor and financial bargaining concluded that “verbal humor leads to greater compliance. Subjects who received a demand accompanied by humor made a greater financial concession than no-humor subjects” (Aronoff and O’Quin, 354). This is common sense, the study also discussed how Henry Kissinger would use humor to help with negotiations with Russians. Interestingly, the study made special efforts to be sex-neutral to “minimize the possibility that joking might be more effective when used by males and received by females” (Aronoff and O’Quin, 350). They cited several past studies to support the need for making such efforts but all the articles were pre-1979 and unavailable online. Humor also reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline according to Sondra Kornblatt, the author of A Better Brain at Any Age (Breyer). Hitchens first premise is solid. Humor does relax people and help in convincing them to do what you want. Brain science is difficult to argue against. Suddenly I feel like a creep for making my girlfriend laugh, thanks science.

But does any of that point toward women being less funny than men? Attraction goes both ways, men aren’t doing all the work. That’s where I think Hitchens’ argument loses force. He claims that when it comes to humor “Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men” (390). This suggests that men do not value humor in a female, a point I strongly disagree with. Hitchens claims that “Wit, after all, is the unfailing symptom of intelligence” (391). He goes further to suggest that because intelligence was an historically undesirable characteristic for males on the prowl, females were somehow selected to be less humorous, (which implies less intelligent as well, although he doesn’t comment on that). There are a few problems with this assumption. The first being a myopic view of time. Intelligence was pulling our species down from the trees long before some medieval Catholic prototype of a silent women gained popularity. To think that a modern woman is less humorous today because the brief flash of the Christian era favored women who didn’t ask as many questions is a failure to recognize the eons of time when intelligence was favored in both sexes as a means of survival. The second problem is his one-sided view of attraction. While men are typically the pursuant, it is not always the case. Women, especially intelligent women, know how to attract and snare a guy while letting him think it was all his idea. Wouldn’t a technique that lowered cortisol and adrenaline be just as effective on him?

Hitchens cites a Stanford University study on humor that found:

men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use, to a similar degree the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition and the part involved in language processing. But they also found that some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language and executive processing in women. (Brandt, 2005)

One of the regions that activated more in the women’s brains was the left prefrontal cortex.  Hitchens read this same article and concluded that women were less funny than men, when it clearly suggests they are just more selective in what they will find funny. Women were also found to find things unfunny quicker and more often then men. Male humor is generally more self-deprecating, or what both Hitchens and myself would classify as “filth.” I can’t argue with that, poop jokes are funny. Women are not less funny than men, they just tend to value humor differently. Hitchens made too hasty a connection between the Stanford study and his own concepts of intelligence and humor.

Hitchens went on to attribute the more serious nature of women to their role as child-bearer, a status which gives women an “unchallengeable authority.” Men find solace in humor as a way of dealing with our admittedly less important role in the continuation of the species. These huge unsupported leaps don’t need to be addressed, they are all part of his earlier argument.

Men are quick to find something funny, and a good deal of humor is at someone else’s expense. Could a preference toward humor that causes less embarrassment or harm to an individual cause women to be viewed as less funny in a world dominated by male humor? I think so.

Feel free to comment.

Aronoff, Joel, and Karen O’Quin. “Humor as a Technique of Social Influence.” Social Psychology Quarterly 44.4 (1981): 349-357. Web. 2 Mar 2014.

Brandt, Michelle. “Gender differences are a laughing matter, Stanford brain study shows.” Stanford School of Medicine, 7 Nov 2005. Web. 2 Mar 2014.

Breyer, Melissa. “8 Health Benefits of Laughter.” care2, 23 Aug 2011. Web. 2 Mar 2014.

Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably. New York: Twelve, 2011. Print.

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