In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke


As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

Davies wrote an important work on the changing moral psychology of Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, The Strange Death of Moral Britain. He described a change in intellectual framework, felt especially amongst the elite establishment, from a belief in moralism to ‘causalism’, the notion that all personal actions are determined by wider social conditions. Thus, all bad consequences stemming from individual actions were blameless, any good consequences arbitrary.

There were benefits to this shift. Personal moral responsibility, drawn from Christian theology, contained all kinds of prejudices, against homosexuality and women’s emancipation. Under a causalist framework, these prejudices rapidly diminished in law and society. However, the shift had critical costs too – allowing people to renege on their legitimate familial and social obligations at much less personal cost than when the moralist framework prevailed.

His central area of research was the role and meaning of humour in society, summed up in his book The Mirth of Nations (and summarized in his punchy pamphlet The Right to Joke). His counter-intuitive argument, based on decades of comparative research, was that humour had little systematic impact on social outcomes. This meant that jokes based on ethnic and gender stereotypes, now commonly labelled ‘hate speech’ and subject to censorship on mainstream media and college campuses, were neither a cause nor a sign of marginalization. In fact, including a new group identity as a subject of jokes that are widely shared can easily be a sign of growing public acceptance and integration. Reason’s Remy seems to agree. I found Davies’ cheerful defence of ‘politically incorrect’ expression an inspiration for formulating my own defence of extreme pornography – media that is similarly subject to reflexive demonization.

On the other hand, Davies argued that the power of humour to enact positive social change was similarly small. He found that jokes at the expense of Communist leaders were widely shared by people throughout the Soviet Union. This was not, however, a sign of powerful dissident movements. Sharing politically incorrect jokes was a way of generating trust and confirming friendships in an otherwise cold authoritarian society but not a way of challenging the politics of that society.

This represents an important lesson for us facing the current levels of political polarization in the U.S. (and to some extent the U.K over Brexit). Unwilling to engage with the views of one’s opponents, all political sides have taken to making mockery and satire a key part of their public discourse. Democrat supporters, still dominant in mainstream U.S. media, boast a formidable array of late-night TV hosts that freely mix news with supposed satire – as recently meta-skewered by The Onion. What Davies’ work suggests is that humour can entertain and take some of the pain away from political loss. It is not, however, a part of practical political action and could be a distraction for potential reformers. In addition, if Davies is right, then Trump’s popular support probably does not arise from alt-right memes but from his more straightforward, indeed traditional, populist message that is taken seriously by the majority of his supporters.

Besides being a great scholar and liberal, Christie Davies was an impressive comedian himself. But his life’s work showed the enduring value of sincerity in politics and social reform.

Please keep it civil

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