What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

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Broken habits

The last couple of days there has been a lot of discussion about a minor incident on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. A Dominican priest named Jude McPeak, wearing the elaborate white habit his order dons on major occasions, visited campus and was mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman. Here’s a picture of the gentleman in question:

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The Rev’d Mr Jude McPeak at a salad bar

And here is a picture of a group of Spanish Dominican priests wearing the full habit during a solemn procession in Seville during Holy Week:

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Dominican priests in Seville during Holy Week

 

Perhaps you can see why Indiana University students, not all of whom have spent Holy Week in Seville, mistook the Rev’d Mr McPeak for a member of the terrorist gangs that for several years dominated politics in the state of Indiana and that still have a considerable presence in towns near the I. U. campus.

I offered a comment about this matter in response to a blog post by Rod Dreher today; Mr Dreher hasn’t got round to approving comments yet, so I don’t know if mine will make the cut. Be that as it may, I’ll make the same points here.

Visual symbols, like spoken words, mean what people use them to mean. It is certainly a sad thing that the founders of the Ku Klux Klan copied the Dominican habit for the costume of their group, and that, to Americans, the Klan and its crimes are what that attire brings to mind. At what point does a group of people, entrusted with a symbol that is important to them, admit that abuse of that symbol by others has robbed it of the important, even holy, meaning that it once had for them? I don’t mean to disrespect the Dominicans; I realize that their order has a holy significance in their eyes, and that the connection to its history which the habit represents is precious to them. At a certain point, however, the only responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the old meaning is lost and to move on.

It’s like an April Fool’s Day story I read in the news some years ago about a Swiss whose family name was Hitler. This man refused to change his name, saying that he had made it his life’s goal to rehabilitate the honor of the name by demonstrating in his own life that not all Hitlers were like the late Chancellor. Trying to salvage the good name of the Hitlers seemed like rather an overly ambitious undertaking.

That story was a joke. But other people are quite earnestly trying to detach from its association with the Nazis a symbol that calls to mind quite as effectively as does the name Hitler the horrors of his regime. The other day I was reading about some Hindu nationalists who have been working to rehabilitate the swastika. After all, people in India had been using it as a symbol of peace and prosperity for centuries before there was any such thing as a Nazi, and today, 71 years after the annihilation of the Nazi regime, India is home to over a billion people and one of the world’s principal civilizations. Nor is it just India; swastikas, also known as fylfots, can be found inscribed in the stonework of churches all over Europe from the millennium and a half when the bent cross was a significant Christian symbol. There’s even a town in Ontario named Swastika.

saint mary's great canfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Northumbria

In India and neighboring countries, the swastika can still be used without evoking the Third Reich in the minds of most of those who see it. So this young lady, for example, is probably not a Nazi:

fylfot girl

Ready for Diwali

Nor is this one:

sleepy swastika

Ready for Diwali to be over

I don’t believe this gentleman has any desire to recreate the Hitler regime, either:

dalai fylfot

The Dalai Lama

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all churches everywhere adorned with fylfots should mill them off the walls. But. Outside India, the swastika does bring the Hitler regime to mind. It may not be fair that it does, but it does. So Indian groups abroad do, as a matter of fact, have to be mindful of that association when they use it, and parishes with old church buildings do, as a matter of fact, have to at least put out flyers explaining what’s going on if they decide to keep their fylfots.

Now, if it’s Holy Week in Seville and you see a bunch of guys marching along in white robes with peaked white hoods covering their faces, it is reasonable that you should be expected to know that they are Dominicans. But if it’s southern Indiana, that outfit is a Ku Klux Klan costume and nothing else. It is a terrible shame that those morons were able to rob Dominicans in the USA of that form of their habit, but that is in fact what they have done. At this point, it is simply childish to pretend that it hasn’t happened and to walk around as if people are going to take you for anything else.

Maps and Territories

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One of my favorite maps, available for purchase here

It’s odd how the mind works.  If you’d asked me last night if I’d ever heard the phrase “stackable probabilities,” I would have said that I had not. Yet this morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon while a voice in the background explained that “a map is not an image depicting a territory, it is a graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities.”

I woke up before the voice could explain what that meant. Since I have never studied statistics, and did not know until I googled it that there really is such a phrase as “stackable probabilities,” probably the only way a voice in a dream of mine could explain it would be if I were sleeping in a room where someone was giving such an explanation.  Making it even stranger that such a phrase would pop into my head, most of the results for “stackable probability” that came up in that Google search were from gaming forums, and I haven’t spent any time playing or discussing electronic games since about 1983.

Anyway, it is in fact plausible that someone might describe a map as graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities. As I understand it, a set of probabilities is stackable if it is made up of a series of variables, each of which is dependent on the item preceding it in the series but independent of the item following it.  So there can be river systems only where the parts of a landmass vary in elevation, but parts of a landmass can vary in elevation where there are no river systems.

It becomes plausible to think of maps as summaries of probability structures rather than as images of territory when we consider that maps of large areas of the Earth’s surface do not feature cloud formations, and that maps of coastlines do not show the tide either coming in or going out. It’s virtually certain that a satellite photo of a continent or an ocean would show at least a few clouds, and utterly certain that the seas continuously show tidal motion, but there is no relationship between the probability that any particular cloud formation or state of the tides will prevail at a given moment and the probability that a user will consult the map at that moment.

Standard features of large-scale maps of populated areas, features such as mountains, rivers, roads, cities, centers of extractive industry, coasts, political boundaries, etc, are likely to be there and to be of interest to a user of the map. Moreover, these standard features are also the features most plainly related to each other. Roads connect cities to each other and to centers of extractive industry, unless mountains, coastlines, or political boundaries block them; rivers flow from mountains to coasts and cities grow along them; etc.

In my dream, I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon. There are no rivers, roads, cities, industries, coasts, or political boundaries there. So, what is the difference between a photograph of the Moon’s surface and a map of the Moon’s surface? Add labels naming the mountains, craters, maria, etc, add notations of the elevation of those features, and isn’t the result a map?

I’m inclined to think not. Several times Apollo astronauts lost their way on the Moon; the best-known such episode came during the Apollo 14 extra-vehicular activity, when Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell lost so much time trying to orient themselves that they did not manage to reach the rim of Cone Crater, a key mission objective. Many have accused  Admiral Shepard of showing a cavalier attitude to the geological aspects of the mission; most notable of these is perhaps David Reynolds, author of a well-regarded book called Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, 1963-1972 (Zenith Press, 2013.) Be that as it may, Captain Mitchell is a famously conscientious man (as witness his willingness to sound rather odd at times,) and it is difficult to believe that he did not use every available resource to prepare himself for such an important assignment.

I suspect the problem was that the resources available to Captain Mitchell and his superior officer included too many photographs and too few real maps.  On a surface where the horizon is so much closer than it is on the Earth, people do not have conventional reference points and cannot rely on reflexive mental habits to determine their location. The essential visual aid for such travelers is therefore one which illustrates, not the surface features which their experience on Earth has not prepared them to interpret, but such statistical relationships among those surface features as are likely to shape their journey.

Texas Crazy

Contrary to the poster for this 2008 film, none of the witnesses from the 19th century said the Wild Man hurt them

A few days ago, it turned up in the news that in Norway, “Texas” is slang for “crazy.”  According to Anne Ekern, an official of the Norwegian consulate in Houston whom National Public Radio talked with, the use of “Texas” as an expression meaning something wild, exciting, or out of control “goes back to Norwegians watching cowboy movies” and was familiar to her in as a phrase adults used when she was a child in Norway in the 1970’s.

US left-wingers, among them most of the people I see on social media, love this story, and have been gleefully sharing as fact the theory that it stems from the Lone Star State’s often ultra-conservative politics.  I started wondering about this when I noticed that Norwegian friends of mine were mentioning that they’ve only heard “Texas” used to mean crazy in the sense of wild or unpredictable, not mentally unwell.

That, combined with the explanation Ms Ekern offered, reminded me of a memory I had as a child in the 1970s, not in Norway, but in the USA.  My older brother showed up at a family function with a long, unkempt beard.  Our grandmother, who’d last seen him clean-shaved, laughed and said that he looked like the Texas Wild Man.  I’d often heard people of her generation (she was born in 1905) use the phrase “Texas Wild Man” to refer to eccentric people, and I was curious where it came from.  So I asked her.  She said she didn’t know where it came from, but that it was a familiar expression when she was growing up.  The younger adults assured her that it was still in common use, and I told her that I had heard it before.  We all speculated for a few minutes as to what its origin might be.  I don’t remember what our hypotheses were; I’m sure the longtime popularity of cowboy movies must have figured in some of them, as it does in Ms Ekern’s theory about the Norwegian use of “Texas.”

Another kind of Texas Wild Man

However, when I finally got round to googling “Texas Wild Man” yesterday, I found out that cowboy movies had nothing to do with it.  “The Texas Wild Man,” also known as “The Texas Wild Woman” and “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” was a half-human, half-ape creature of whom various people in and around Lavaca County, Texas reported catching glimpses from 1834 until 1851.  A number of anomalous footprints and other bits of evidence lent credence to the testimonies of a large and diverse array of witnesses.  The people held in slavery in that area called the creature whom they saw by moonlight “The Thing That Comes.”  In the 1830s not many people were in a position to know what or who might be living in the wilds of southeast Texas; the mystery of the half-man, half-ape “Thing That Comes” made its way around the world, keeping the phrase “Texas Wild Man” alive in US slang well into the 1970s, and perhaps keeping an echo of it ringing even in Norway.

On 21 February 1986, a column appeared in the Victoria, Texas Advocate (also available here) putting forward an explanation as to what exactly was behind the sightings of the Wild Man of the Navidad.  Columnist Henry Wolff, Jr read an article from the Texas Historical Quarterly of October 1900.  In that article, Mr Wolff found the recollections of “Mrs Dilue Harris, who was the wife of Ira S. Harris, an early Colorado County sheriff.”  Mrs Harris explained that the Wild Man was one of a group of Africans held in slavery on a plantation near the town of Columbus, a plantation belonging to a man named Ben Fort Smith.  The Wild Man had escaped from Smith’s plantation, fled to the Navidad river, and remained at liberty for quite some time.  Mrs Harris, relying on her memory to recount events of more than half a century before, apparently said that the Wild Man was captured in 1846; however, Mr Wolff cites a scholar named Brownson Malsch who found a newspaper article published on 7 August 1851 reporting that the Wild Man had been captured a few days before, that on 1 August he had been sold back into slavery at an auction where a man named Payton Bickford paid $207 for him, and that within hours of that sale the Wild Man had escaped from Payton Bickford and was now in jail along with three other men.  Evidently the Wild Man’s name was revealed in this article to be Jimbo.

Mr Wolff quotes a source telling us that when Jimbo was sent back to Payton Bickford after this escape, Bickford “turned him into the cornfield to fatten previous to closing his contract with Barnum for the sale of Jimbo.”  That Bickford was in negotiations with P. T. Barnum, already a world-famous impresario in 1851, for custody of Jimbo shows just how much publicity the Texas Wild Man must have attracted.  Something must have convinced Barnum that Jimbo would not bring him a triumph to match those he had enjoyed exhibiting various disabled and enslaved people as freaks, however, as Payton Bickford ultimately sold Jimbo, not as a public attraction, but as a field hand.  A Victoria County planter named Zebriam Lewis paid Bickford for Jimbo, and Jimbo was still in service to Lewis when slavery was abolished in 1865.  In 1865, Jimbo left the Lewis ranch for another ranch, belonging to someone called Carlos, and there he stayed until he died in 1884.  Mr Wolff quotes someone who knew Jimbo as saying “He was perfectly harmless, and never learned to speak English, talking in broken Spanish which could hardly be understood.”

So, the man who put the crazy in Texas, at least in “Texas” as a slang term, may not have been a far-right politician, but an African who refused to be enslaved.  Der ist helt Texas, indeed!

“Woman” vs “Female”

Here’s something I saw on twitter this morning:

That prompted a question from me:

I suspect that “Woman Trouble” (meaning, difficulties someone is having with a female romantic partner) and “Female Trouble” (meaning, ailments for which one might seek aid from a gynecologist) are both fairly problematic phrases, and I never use either.  In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know who uses them, except ironically and in the company of people who get the joke.  (And I know some people whose speech habits are pretty thoroughly untouched by feminism.)  That one has “woman” and the other has “female” doesn’t seem to matter much.

Anyway, poster Kait the Great then put up this clarification, perhaps not in response to me specifically:

Though I do still wonder about my original question.  Phrases like “Female Trouble” vs “Woman Trouble,” whatever else may be wrong with them, don’t suggest that “woman” and “female” are interchangeable.  If the problem with, say, “woman driver” as opposed to “female driver” comes from such a suggestion, then that might explain why “Female Trouble” and “Woman Trouble” are equally awkward.

Data and “Data”

Language Log posted two comic strips today, and I mentioned one of them in a comment about the other.

Here’s today’s xkcd (Language Log post):

There's no

And here’s a recent PhD Comics (Language Log post):

And my comment:

Reading the strip panel by panel, I wondered what the “deep philosophical question” would be. My guess was that the question would be about the role of etymological information in the process of deciding which of various constructions in current use would fit best in a particular context. How exactly you get from that stylistic process to a “deep philosophical question” about the nature of language in four panels and still have room for a punchline isn’t clear to me, but hey, PhD Comics is a big enough deal that I assume Jorge Cham can pull it off.

Instead we get this claim that “It depends on whether you consider data to be facts (plural) or information (which is singular.)” To which the only appropriate response is: No, it doesn’t! English speakers treat the words “scissors” and “trousers” as grammatical plurals, from which it does not at all follow that we “consider” the things they name to be in any sense multiple. It is all too similar to today’s xkcd, which you reproduce in today’s other post, except that relatively few of the people who like to say “There is no ‘I’ in team” seriously believe that they are raising a “deep philosophical question.”

I recommend all the other comments on the Language Log thread, it’s a mix of interesting observations, erudite humor, and speculation about the love life of the robot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“The author’s intent” and the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/

Recently there’s been a flareup of interest in that great question of our age, the correct pronunciation of the acronym “gif.”

An abbreviation for “graphics interface format,” some people pronounce this acronym /dʒɪf/ (as if it were spelled “jiff,”) while others say /ɡɪf/ (as if it were spelled, um, “gif.”)

Here’s a remark from Rachel Larimore, prompted by RuPaul’s declaration in favor of the pronunciation /dʒɪf/ (“jiff”):

One of the flashpoints in this weighty debate is the fact that the inventor of the gif format, Steve Wilhite, prefers to pronounce it as /dʒɪf/, while most other people pronounce it /ɡɪf/.   For my part, whatever authority Mr Wilhite might want to claim in this matter because of his role in creating the format is seriously undercut by the fact that he at least consented to, and possibly suggested, the acronym “gif.”  If he’d wanted us to say /dʒɪf/, the time to take that stand was when the acronym was being chosen.  The abbreviation “G.P.” on American military vehicles in the late 1930’s combined with the name of a character in Popeye comics gave rise to the pronunciation /dʒiːp/ and eventually to the word “jeep”; abbreviating “graphics interface format” as “gf” would likely have started people saying either /dʒɪf/ or /dʒiːf/ (“jeef,” as if it were the singular of “Jeeves.”) Once Mr Wilhite agreed to the abbreviation “gif,” it would be as silly for him to get upset with people for saying /ɡɪf/ as it would for the inventors of Play-Doh to be upset that their product is now used as something other than wallpaper cleaner.

I think that a lot of the emotional heat in this argument comes from a sense of unease about something basic to communication that is strangely difficult to put into words.  It is generally taken for granted that there is a relationship between the interpretation we ought to put on a message and the interpretation that the author of that message would have wanted us to put on it.  But when we set out to explain exactly what that relationship is, and how it applies to different kinds of messages, and how far it restricts the proper use of material objects created for the purpose of sending messages, and how exactly we came to have this moral obligation to recreate the author’s intended message inside our heads, and what the proper penalty is for failing to do so, and who counts as the author of what, and which of the various ideas that might have been in a particular person’s mind at various points in time count as authorial intent, the whole thing gets very slippery very fast. It’s one of those things like “time” or “truth” or “love” which we are all quite sure exists and makes demands on us, but which no one can satisfactorily explain. If authorial intent can’t settle a question as basic as the pronunciation of a three letter word, then it begins to seem as if we won’t be able to hold onto the concept of authorial intent at all. Without such a concept, it is by no means obvious how any form of communication would be possible.

On the other hand, it is also obvious that a work of art always says more than its creator intended it to say.  D. H. Lawrence (almost) said* “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and that is wise advice.  If that were not so, not only would it be impossible for any work of art to outlive the cultural moment in which it was produced; it would also be necessary for artists to go around continually explaining the meaning of each of their works to each person encountering that work.  If you’ve ever written a work of fiction, you know how this goes; you set to work thinking you’re going to tell one story, then find another story telling itself. After the writing is done, your readers start asking you questions about what you had intended by various things you put in the story, and half your challenge is coming up with non-embarrassing ways to admit that you hadn’t realized you put those things in until the reader pointed them out to you.

Even people who start discussions of the dispute between /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/ by joking about the insignificance of the issue, and who never, in their conscious minds, accept the proposition that it matters very much which pronunciation becomes and remains most widespread, do often become quite passionate about their preferred pronunciation.  I think they do that because they have an uneasy feeling that, while the author’s intent matters, it is not the only thing that matters as we interpret a text.  The feeling is uneasy because it isn’t attached to a clear explanation of why and in what sense it is so.

That in turn gives us another example of the difficulty of using “authorial intent” as a standard of interpretation.  On the one hand, very few people would agree with the proposition that much is at stake in a debate about the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/.  Even fewer are moved by such debates to write essays about the role of authorial intent in interpretation of text.  On the other hand, a great many people raise their voices, spend time contributing vitriolic posts to online forums, and take other actions that strongly suggest that they do believe that something important is hanging in the balance.  This raises the question of levels of intentionality.  At the level of willingness to assent to particular propositions, the authors of these passionate messages have no intention to send the message that it matters which pronunciation catches on.  At the level of behavior and affect, that is precisely the message they are sending.

*Lawrence actually said “Never trust the artist, trust the tale,” which is not only less memorable than the common misquotation, but is also confusing.  Is he saying that we should look for narrative content even in artworks that don’t seem to have it, and cast a leery eye on artists who don’t seem to be telling stories?  I’m sure it wasn’t his chief conscious intent to do so, but something like that may have been in the back of his mind somewhere.  Whether or not some such idea was rumbling around in Lawrence’s mind when he crafted the aphorism, it distracts from the point which “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” makes so pungently.

Our old page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics

Time to say goodbye to our page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics.  Here’s the last revision, made 1 November 2012: (more…)

WEIRD laughter

Recently, several websites I follow have posted remarks about theories that are meant to explain why some things strike people as funny.

Zach Weinersmith, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, wrote an essay called “An artificial One-Liner Generator” in which he advanced a tentative theory of humor as problem-solving.

Slate is running a series of articles on theoretical questions regarding things that make people laugh.  The first piece, called “What Makes Something Funny,” gives a lot of credit to a researcher named Peter McGraw, who is among the pioneers of “Benign Violation Theory.”  This is perhaps unsurprising, since Professor McGraw and his collaborator Joel Warner are credited as the authors of the piece.  Professor McGraw and Mr Warner summarize earlier theories of humor thus:

Plato and Aristotle introduced the superiority theory, the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. Their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes. Sigmund Freud argued for his relief theory, the concept that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal their suppressed fears and desires. His theory works well for dirty jokes, less well for (most) puns.

The majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens.

Professor McGraw and Mr Warner claim that incongruity theory does not stand up well to empirical testing:

Incongruity has a lot going for it—jokes with punch lines, for example, fit well. But scientists have found that in comedy, unexpectedness is overrated. In 1974, two University of Tennessee professors had undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what was coming next, as a measure of the jokes’ predictability. Then another group of students was asked to rate the funniness of each of the comedians’ jokes. The predictable punch lines turned out to be rated considerably funnier than those that were unexpected—the opposite of what you’d expect to happen according to incongruity theory.

To which one might reply that when Mr Cosby and Ms Diller actually performed their routines, they didn’t stop after the setup and ask the audience to predict the punchline.  Nor would any audience member who wanted to enjoy the show be likely to try to predict the punchline.  Doing so would make for an entirely different experience than the one the audience had paid for.

Be that as it may, Professor McGraw and Mr Warner go on to claim that their theory of “benign violation” is supported by empirical evidence:

Working with his collaborator Caleb Warren and building from a 1998 HUMOR article published by a linguist named Thomas Veatch, he hit upon the benign violation theory, the idea that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening, but is simultaneously OK or safe.

After extolling some of the theory’s strengths, the authors go on:

Naturally, almost as soon as McGraw unveiled the benign violation theory, people began to challenge it, trying to come up with some zinger, gag, or “yo momma” joke that doesn’t fit the theory. But McGraw believes humor theorists have engaged in such thought experiments and rhetorical debates for too long. Instead, he’s turned to science, running his theory through the rigors of lab experimentation.

The results have been encouraging. In one [Humor Research Laboratory] experiment, a researcher approached subjects on campus and asked them to read a scenario based on a rumor about legendarily depraved Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In the story—which might or might not be true—Keith’s father tells his son to do whatever he wishes with his cremated remains—so when his father dies, Keith decides to snort them. Meanwhile the researcher (who didn’t know what the participants were reading) gauged their facial expressions as they perused the story. The subjects were then asked about their reactions to the stories. Did they find the story wrong, not wrong at all, a bit of both, or neither? As it turned out, those who found the tale simultaneously “wrong” (a violation) and “not wrong” (benign) were three times more likely to smile or laugh than either those who deemed the story either completely OK or utterly unacceptable.

In a related experiment, participants read a story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation, and were then asked if they found it funny. Participants who were regular churchgoers found the idea of mixing the sanctity of Christianity with a four-wheeled symbol of secular excess significantly less humorous than people who rarely go to church. Those less committed to Christianity, in other words, were more likely to find a holy Hummer benign and therefore funnier.

Lately, social scientists in general have been more mindful than usual of the ways in which North American undergraduates are something other than a perfectly representative sample of the human race.  Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Noranzayan have gone so far as to ask in the title of a widely cited paper whether the populations most readily available for study by psychologists and other social scientists are in fact  “The weirdest people in the world?”  In that paper, Professors Henrich, Heine, and Noranzayan use the acronym “WEIRD,” meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.  Their abstract:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

It would be particularly easy to see why a theory like Benign Violation would have a special appeal to undergraduates.  Undergraduate students are rewarded for learning to follow sets of rules, both the rules of academic disciplines which their teachers expect them to internalize and the rules of social behavior appropriate to people who,like most undergraduates, are living independent adult lives for the first time.  So, I suppose if one wanted to defend Superiority Theory (as for example mentioned by Aristotle in his Poetics, 1449a, p. 34-35,) one would be able to use the same results, saying that students simultaneously saw themselves as superior both to the characters in the jokes who did not follow the usual rules and to those who would enforce those rules in too narrowly literalistic a fashion to fit with the overall approach of higher education, where innovation and flexibility are highly valued.  Here the WEIRD phenomenon comes into play as well, since cultures vary in their ideas of what rules are and what relationship they have to qualities like innovation and flexibility.  Moreover, one could also say that the judgment that a particular violation is or is not benign itself implies superiority over those involved in the violation, and that this implication of superiority is what generates laughter.

Also, because undergraduates are continually under pressure to internalize one set of rules after another, they often show anxiety related to sets of rules.  This may not be the sort of thing Sigmund Freud had in mind when he talked about Oedipal anxiety, but it certainly does drive undergraduates to seek relief.  Example of action that is at once quite all right and by no means in accordance with the rules may well provide that relief.

Incongruity theorists may find comfort in Professor McGraw’s results, as well.  The very name “Benign Violation” as well as experimental rubrics such as “wrong” and “not wrong” are incongruous combinations by any definition.  So a defender of Incongruity Theory may claim Benign Violation as a subcategory of Incongruity Theory, and cite these results in support of that classification.

Professor McGraw is evidently aware of these limitations.  He and Mr Warner explain what they did to rise above them:

[T]hree years ago, he set off on an international exploration of the wide world of humor—with me, a Denver-based journalist, along for the ride to chronicle exactly what transpired. Our journey took us from Japan to the West Bank to the heart of the Amazon, in search of various zingers, wisecracks and punch lines that would help explain humor once and for all. The result is The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, to be published next week—on April Fool’s Day, naturally. As is often the case with good experiments—not to mention many of the funniest gags—not everything went exactly as planned, but we learned a lot about what makes the world laugh.

It isn’t April First yet, so I don’t know how well they have done in their efforts to expand their scope.

One sentence that struck me wrong in Professor McGraw and Mr Warner’s piece was this one, about Superiority Theory, that it “seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes.”  I’m not at all sure about that one.  In a knock-knock joke, there are two hypothetical characters who take turns delivering five lines of dialogue.  The first character to speak is the Knocker (whose first line is always “Knock-knock!”)  The second character to speak is the Interlocutor (whose first line is always “Who’s there?”)  The Knocker’s second line is an unsatisfactory answer to this question.  The Interlocutor’s second line begins by repeating this incomplete answer, then adds the question word “who?”  The Knocker’s third line then delivers the punchline in the form of a repetition of the unsatisfactory answer followed by one or more additional syllables that change the apparent meaning of the initial unsatisfactory answer.

Knock-knock jokes became popular in the USA in the 1950s, as part of a national craze.  The first joke recorded in this mid-twentieth century craze, I have read, is the following:

K: Knock-knock!

I: Who’s there?

K: Sam and Janet.

I: Sam and Janet who?

K: Sam and Janet evening! (sung to the tune of this song)

Apparently all of the jokes that brought the form into such prominence in the 1950s that they are still beloved today by seven-year-olds of all ages took this form, in which the punchline involved the Knocker bursting into song with a popular Broadway tune of the period.

I think the jokes from this original craze almost have to be examples of superiority.  The Knocker is confident that the Interlocutor will be surprised when the punchline is presented under the usual conditions of the joke.  This is not to deny that if the joke were interrupted and the Interlocutor were asked to predict the punchline, after the manner of Professor McGraw’s students the Interlocutor might be able to do so.  When it is presented the Interlocutor will join in his or her satisfaction at being part of the relatively elite portion of the population who recognize current Broadway hits when they hear them.

As knock-knock jokes have become more familiar over the decades, meta-knock-knock jokes have gained a following.  For example, a person named Alice might play the Knocker in this joke:

K: Knock knock!

I: Who’s there?

K: Alice.

I: Alice who?

K: Alice (in a tone suggesting that she is wounded that the Interlocutor doesn’t recognize her)

The met-knock-knock joke suggests superiority to the genre of knock-knock jokes.  If first-order knock-knock jokes are popular among seven-year-olds of all ages, meta-knock-knock jokes are popular among eight-year-olds of all ages, suggesting superiority to those who still persist in telling first-order knock-knock jokes.

The world’s most hated knock-knock joke is this meta-knock-knock:

K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Banana.
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Banana.
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
K: Orange.
I: Orange who?
K: ORANGE YOU GLAD I DIDN’T SAY BANANA!

This joke attacks the several parts of the shared understanding between Knocker and Interlocutor.  The joke is more than five lines long, the fifth line does not take the form original unsatisfactory response + additional syllable or syllables, the Knocker expects the Interlocutor to repeat his or her two lines multiple times, and the punchline does not include a repetition of the original unsatisfactory response.  For the experienced Interlocutor, these attacks are an undue imposition on the Knocker-Interlocutor relationship.  For anyone else, the whole thing would be utterly pointless.

Hated as the joke is, Knockers of a particular sort, mostly eight-year-old boys, seem unable to resist it.  Willing Interlocutors can rely on these boys to laugh uproariously every time they drag them through the ritual responses.  Here too, Superiority Theory seems to be the only explanation for the boys’ laughter and the strain tolerating the joke puts on the Interlocutors.  The Knockers who enjoy the joke laugh at their own power to inflict it on their Interlocutors.

Each time a potential Interlocutor is confronted with “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana,” the joke gets a bit more annoying.  Perhaps this is because of an aspect of politeness recently referenced on yet another of my favorite sites, Language Log.  There it was mentioned that Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, founders of “Politeness Theory,” have provided conceptual tools to enable us to distinguish between situations in which statements offering information the hearer should already have suggest that the hearer does not already know that information and thereby offend the hearer and those which do not carry that suggestion and which therefore do not offend the hearer.  A joke with a painfully obvious punchline may fall in the first category, as do the reiterated responses in “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana.”  Casual remarks about the weather and other forms of small talk usually fall in the second category, as do formalized utterances generally.

“I’m not a/an X, but…”

Here’s a post that almost no one saw when I put it up in 2010, stumbling across it this evening I decided it was good enough to be posted again. And probably ignored again…

Panther Red

For a while, I’ve been thinking about sentences of the form “I’m not a [label,] but [statement.]”  After some quick searches on LexisNexis and Google, I think I can assign these sentences to two major categories: those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement,” and those which are a way of saying “Please don’t dismiss me before you hear this statement.”

1. “Please don’t dismiss me after you hear this statement” sentences seem to break into two major sub-categories.  First, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who is hostile to group X,] but [idea that might be unhelpful to members of group X.]”  Second, those where the form is “I’m not a [person who stands to benefit from policy Y,] but [endorses policy Y.]”

Examples of the…

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