29 Adar, 5774
March 31st, 2014
I love banter. Love it. Once I start teasing you, you can be assured of my affection.
My faith in banter comes from a love for language combined with mistrust for the way language is used. I love words and believe in their power; I also know that people regularly use language to conceal their true feelings. More often than not, in our culture, ill-will comes with a smile and a carefully worded statement from the management.
So some times, in order to display the strength of a relationship, one flips language on its head. This is the intent behind what Rabbi Shira and I do on Purim, writing “sermons” for each other that the other doesn’t see until s/he reads it, embarrassing the hell out of one another. We flip everything over on Purim, to find the hidden truth underneath; if there wasn’t real affection between us, there’s no way that we could make fun of each other. The teasing is a testament to its opposite: the real connection between people.
Lately, I’ve been challenged to think about what it means to speak authentically. This, almost criminally long essay on smarm by Gawker features editor Tom Scocca and Malcom Gladwell’s response on sarcasm in the New Yorker duel as to the nature of what makes speech authentic.
In an unfairly small nutshell, Scocca points out to damage that smarm can do. Smarm he defines as niceness, politeness, and achieving the right tone without any relationship to the content of what’s being said: basically, someone smiling at you whether they promote you or fire you, telling you that s/he feels your pain whether they’re caring for your needs or denying you benefits, etc. Smarm makes kindness untrustworthy.
Gladwell argues for the opposite, that sarcasm and mockery are tools of conservatism and the status quo; they are a quick way to take down new, revolutionary, and important ideas, to stop upstarts in their tracks with a barrage of laughter.*
As for me, I search for authenticity in the golden mean between these two extremes. Of one of the teachers in the Talmud, Rabbah, it’s said that “before Rabbah would start teaching the rabbis, he’d say something funny, and the rabbis would laugh. After that he’d sit in reverence and begin teaching Torah.” (Talmud Shabbat 30b)
That is my test, for relationships, for ideas, and for speech. Can they hold reverence? Can they bear humor? Is there space for both? When the answer is yes, I have found the authenticity that I seek.
*For example: women should be given the right to vote? Ridiculous. One should as well give animals the same right. In fact here is a pamphlet mocking the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecrafts essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” It is by the philosopher Thomas Taylor, wholly a work of satire. Much to his posthumous surprise, I’m sure, his satirical essay has become the completely serious basis for the animal rights movement.