In defence of inappropriate humour, people often jump to one response: “It’s just a joke!”
Most students of social science would roll their eyes at this response, but in it lies a shred of truth. Jokes are not people; they are ideas. They are something to be communicated, shared over lunch, broadcast on cable TV, but not a thing you experience the same way one would a security guard or a red light. On that note, Trump is now president-elect.
I’m still having trouble grappling with this fact because, for the past year and a half, Trump has been precisely this: a joke. And one of the things that make jokes amusing is that we don’t identify them as being grounded in reality. From this springs the cognitive dissonance that Trump’s nomination has generated, because none of us were ready to accept that an image as farcical as Trump’s could become the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth.
Because Trump is a farce, a farce of the tragedies brought about by every fascist in our history books. Yet we cling to narratives like “history is progress” to justify our outrage in the wake of events like this one. It doesn’t feel “real” because for so many of us, it isn’t real, it is the work of fiction. The actuality of Trump in the Oval Office is separated from us by the plexiglas of our TVs, laptops and smart devices. But the America that Trump embodies is a reality for so many people already.
I’m still not fully convinced that I’m not just having a bad dream. And frankly, my ability to remain in that denial is a privilege. Because the oligarchy that Trump plans to install is just a rubber-stamp extension of what we already have. The only difference is a signature on a government document. Our daily life is saturated with distractions, many of them media-related, from self-righteous Facebook statuses to videos of war footage from countries we’ll never visit.
We live as if in a cupola, separated from reality by the convenience of our geography. We live in an age when being compared to Hitler or being called a misogynist doesn’t stir people up enough anymore. Headlines like that will make your notification banner pop up the same way it does when your friend sends you some stupid meme. Most of us are distant enough from real danger that we can talk about it with a smile on our face as if it could still reveal itself as a daydream, a joke, something you saw on TV last night.
In saying this, I’m not very concerned with the origins of people like Trump. I am instead interested in the forces that keep us complacent within the institutions from which people like him benefit.
It would be easy to pin the blame on capital, colonialism and other bugaboos of the Left. What’s important, rather, is that the conviction of society’s collapse, whatever its cause, is the precise ethos by which despots become enabled. Our society thrives on misanthropy.
And let me be clear that I don’t speak for the black, Hispanic, Muslim and queer Americans who were thrown under the bus on Nov. 8 because right now, they have every right in the world to feel cynical. The cynicism I speak of is systemic, deep-seated. It’s a cynicism that lets people arrogantly look at society as gone to the dogs, as so corrupted by power that they submissively refuse to partake in civic life.
These include non-voters, but they also include a lot of us as well. David Foster Wallace wrote pithily on this topic: “Irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy…the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” And progress grinds to a screeching halt in a society that loves to despise itself.
That is the danger of cynicism. It is self-indulgent, ostensibly enlightened while solving nothing. And we cannot afford to be cynical. As much as we would love to see ourselves as on another plane, as nobler than the sheeple surrounding us, this is a point in history that demands we resist that urge. The world has a chance when we remember, perhaps begrudgingly, that we are part of it whether we like it or not. There is no escape. The quicker we come to terms with this, the quicker we learn to optimize our reality as it presents itself.