Being funny (and why it's important)

As is often the case with my blog, I try to teach other advocates.  I try to teach them not only how to be better advocates (which strikes me as kind of a smaller endeavour), but how to be better persons (which is often herculean).  But for all those vegans who have, hours afterward, think "I shoulda said!!!" a blog on how to be funny (and why it's important). 

But why should you be funny? As an advocate, you'll often be faced with situations when you are outnumbered by nonadvocates and nonvegans. This is less common in advocacy situations, more common in social ones. Your job is always the same: seek hegemony!! By which I mean, establish relationships, lead those who agree, and educate those who don't.  Humour is an important way to establish social relationships, and it's a fun thing to do, both for yourself and for others.

What does humour signal to others?  Some expressions of humour (e.g., more obvious sarcasms) tend to signal a weaker social position, and these (rightly or wrongly) influence other claims you may make.  Similarly, some expressions of humour signal a stronger social position that connotes authority, knowledge, and confidence in one's views (again, rightly or wrongly).  Between the two, which provides the stronger basis for engaging people about animal ethics? (It's the latter.)  In short, you can be a more engaging advocate by being a more engaging person.  That means having a sense of humour and knowing when to express it correctly in public.

You might ask, but what's wrong with being humourless?  As most people who know me know, I am a deeply humourless person left to myself. But eventually, I had to ask myself, how well did that help me as an advocate?  Most people really don't enjoy conversations in which they feel they are being proselytized to at their own expense.  It's important to remember, others are not the instruments of our ideology; they don't exist as ways to test our educational skills or to gratify a messianic complex. When you want to have a conversation with someone about something that's important to you, humour is one offering (among others that you might make) in exchange for their time.  Being humourless only means you have less to offer someone for their mindshare.

How to be funny (in a nutshell)
This isn't a comprehensive guide.  It's simply a handful of things to take into account.  Humour, like many things, is a habit that must be cultivated and requires practice. Practice with your friends!  Nevertheless, some guidance:

First, don't put down; lift up. If few people enjoy humourless interactions with others, even fewer people enjoy conversations in which they are solely the instrument of someone else's sense of humour.  This kind of humour draws us into using others as means to our ends.  We're against that, right?  That doesn't mean you should never insult anyone; it's often the case that insulting someone still treats them as ends in themselves (indeed, a rakish reductio is sometimes helpful when it comes to explaining why a view is misguided).  However, humour that brings everyone into the joke builds a community around easy to understand concepts in which everyone is treated as an end in him or herself. 

Second, be accessible, but in a way that enriches people. Marc Bekoff talks about the 'play bow' in dog behaviour in The Emotional Lives of Animals.  It is pretty much what it sounds like: dogs bow to indicate they want to play. I think this is a terrific example, both of how dogs are good persons and good philosophers. Humour and play are primarily social. Private jokes that ridicule people are what they are.  Public jokes, however, are of much greater use in advocacy, in large part because if the community doesn't understand your joke, it may amuse you, but it's not amusing anyone else. Save private jokes for occasions when they'll be understood by your audience, or at most, use them carefully and strategically.

Third, remember, in text, no one knows you're being funny.  Much is lost in nonverbal communication.  The tone, among other elements of speech, do not come across in writing.  Satire may be misunderstood. Hyperbole may be taken very, very, very, very seriously.  Sarcasm may be read as lighthearted, or it may be read as angry and bitter. And with love, many animal advocates say some pretty weird shit that we all hold our breath and hope turns out to be irony or sarcasm.  You can signal your joke to your audience in writing with phrases like "but seriously", emoticons, or other ways. 

Fourth, always keep in mind the most important thing to humour:





Timing!  It's the truth, a truism, it comes from a true place, and all that makes it no less true.  Timing is important to saying something funny.  So are the elements of surprise, of play, and of saying something that is useful and otherwise valuable to the audience.  Jokes that point out the obvious aren't really jokes.  Timing is important to saying something funny, in part because it builds up the anticipation of something positive.  Good timing is what makes a joke a reward for the audience.

Fifth, observe all the other rules of good humour: don't say boring, tasteless and rude things unless they are really, really funny.  As a corollary, racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, speciesist, classist expressions are expressions of violence and are not funny; being funny is an expression of knowledge; prejudice is an expression of ignorance.

There are other important things to keep in mind, but myself aside, most people know how to be funny.  What many advocates have less experience with is bringing humour into their activism or conversations.

Some examples
Let's imagine someone starts picking on you for being vegan.  Assuming that this is not a violent attempt to bully you, but rather more someone who is uncomfortable with his or her own choices overwhelmed by the overwhelming nature of your manifest awesomeness,  this is a good opportunity to show a sense of humour.

When people make jokes about bacon and other animals, I don't flip the table; I claim that everything tastes better with avocado.  Then I list off all of the things that taste better with avocado: burritos, sandwiches, salads, toast, ice cream, chocolate pie, table salt, champagne, my fingers, etc.  If I had put 'my fingers' in the middle of this sentence, would it have been as funny?  Timing (seriously).

Or, let's imagine that someone asks about giving sheep the vote.  HAR!  (and indeed, I slapped my knee after typing that).  S/he's trying to be funny at your expense (not very funny, right?).  When I encounter this in the wild, I handle it in a few different ways depending on the situation.

But perhaps a better way to address it would be to calmly and carefully explain that yes, we do want to give sheep the vote, but not just sheep...all of them.  And then explain in the same earnest deadpan that a right not to be used as property would not entitle sheep to a right to vote.  Besides, it's not clear that sheep could punch the ballots; although I have no doubt that they would make smart voting choices that reflected their own interests.

Finally, another common case where humor can be helpful is when people ask what you eat, where you get your protein, etc?  Sometimes this question is sincere, and sometimes it's meant to be a gotcha style question, in which the accuser expects your eyes to go wide as if you had never heard this question before.  DUNDUNDUNNN!!!!

In that situation, I might say bark and twigs, and that I'm also partial to dirt, and if I feel so inclined, I will throw in a few statistics about the percentage of protein in the average cup of topsoil and how it's the food of the future.  And then I'll transition to pointing out the American Dietetic Association and other national bodies agree that a well-planned vegan diet can be very healthy.  But seriously, dirt tastes bad and it's probably unhealthy.

Humour in the advocacy community can be difficult.  There are a lot of reasons for this: in part, social movements often draw anti-social people, people are frustrated,  people are often overly sensitive, many are already picked on enough, etc.  When you are dealing with another advocate who ridicules your view, I think the best approach is simply to ignore him or her.  Antics and provocateuring are a bane to the movement and, along with a poor sense of boundaries, suggest anti-social tendencies; any attention that goes toward this kind of activity is, I think, not well-spent.

On the other hand, it is sometimes helpful to point out to other advocates that what other animals really need is our sincerity and our seriousness, and encourage them to think more critically about their own views. On the third hand, some organizations deserve a little light-hearted but critical engagement.  

In all three examples, humour rebuts the claim of your antagonist, and then clears the space for you to explain the issues in a clear and engaging fashion, and in a way that doesn't turn what you're saying into an early morning visit from someone selling dictionaries (no offense to dictionaries).

If you just glower and make fists in your pockets, you won't have a chance to explain your views. If you start shouting incoherently and flip the table (as I often do), people will wonder whether you are okay.  If all you do is make cutting remarks that make people feel stupid, it just discourages someone from thinking critically about their choices.And really, it's the last that makes or breaks vegan education.

No matter how much torture porn an advocate shows, no matter how many donation buttons a website has, no matter how many people go naked and how much chest and back hair they may have, vegan education is a matter of helping others to cultivate a sense that harming nonhuman animals is wrong as a moral matter, and that they can, in fact, choose better for the rest of their lives.

If you're not yet vegan, then I encourage you to choose better; even a worldview tastes better with avocado and like the sticker says, veganism is clucking awesome. If you are already vegan, but want to learn more about veganism or the abolitionist approach, then you can do so at abolitionistapproach.com.
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