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The Laughter of Fools

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Many years ago, I saw a Peanuts comic strip which, as I recall, began with other children laughing at Charlie Brown, not in true amusement but in derision. Nothing is funny. The children are being cruel, finding delight in making Charlie feel as much shame and rejection as they can force upon him. They are dismissing him from acceptance as a person. Upon reaching his home, Charlie hears someone on the radio extolling the joy of hearing children’s laughter. In the final frame, Charlie Brown kicks the radio.

This morning on Facebook, I saw a short series of comic strips from “Tom the Dancing Bug” grouped under the question, “What comes after Peanuts?” Following the alphabet, the strip answers, “Q-nuts” with obvious reference to QAnon. One of the strips in the series has Charlie Brown saying to two little girls that we would do well to follow science and take the precautions needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. The girls make no reasonable argument or, indeed, argument of any kind but just laugh and laugh as though something genuinely funny has happened. But no, their laughter is without humor. Nothing funny has occurred. Theirs is the mocking laughter of fools.

It has become fashionable on Facebook and, I suspect, on other so-called “social media” platforms to react with derisive laughter emojis to any serious comment that does not fit into the MAGA world-view. A report on a young black woman’s lawsuit against a local Bible college she alleges discriminated against her to an extent that damaged her student years there has drawn dozens (at least) of those dismissive little laughy faces. Those little laughy faces serve as a cowardly way of refusing to consider any opinion, insight, or experience that, if regarded thoughtfully, might threaten the comfort of unthinking certitude in which other people’s pains, experiences, and aspirations are rejected out of hand.

Let me be clear about something: my use of the term “fools.” Have I ever myself spoken or acted foolishly? Yes, I have, as we say, “played the fool” and lived to regret it. Is there anyone among us who has not played the fool, ever? I doubt there is such a person, and likely people imagining themselves to be such always reasonable and wise persons would, in that imagining, be playing the fool big time. Besides, someone important to me has warned against demeaning another person by declaring with an assumed sense of superiority, “You fool!”

It seems always easier to play the fool in a group of like-minded people doing so together in unified and mutually reinforced folly. The group has the advantage of providing cover for the individual and, also, of being able to gang up on the person who expresses a concern that challenges the group’s shared ignorance, prejudice, or cowardice.

So, we have the trending practice on social media of seeing a serious concern raised and immediately responding with a laughy emoji which becomes the face of refusal. Refusal to think. Refusal to care or even consider. Refusal to respect. Refusal to respond as an adult human being.

Such easy refusal damages us as a society. It shuts down public conversation and tempts us to regard the “other side” in our polarized nation as not worth even talking with. It insulates us against sympathy or empathy with other people. It separates us into our comfortable echo chambers where we hear only reinforcement for what we already think and believe. Certainly, it threatens our democracy and all our social institutions. Now, with yet another surge of the COVID-19 virus in its Delta variant, it threatens our very lives, but even without the virus (though we are not without the virus and have dimming hopes for being without it any time soon), it drives down and tramples the very idea of a United States of America and the concept of public good.

And what would be the response of refusers to this blog post? The laughter of fools, I suppose.

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A Discouraging Word

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Yesterday, I posted a comment on one of our Lititz, Pennsylvania, Facebook group pages. A woman had asked why the town was holding a super-spreader event this weekend. Predictably, her question ignited angry retorts from the “freedom!” (without public responsibility) crowd.

The craft show is a big event drawing tens of thousands of people in good years. The two main streets are closed as they and the Lititz Springs Park are lined with tents and booths. The event is also important for the town as it raises money for the community’s benefit. From the event Facebook page: “The money raised through renting out spaces to the crafters, subtracting expenses, is given right back to the community. The Rotary Club of Lititz donates to nonprofits such as Lititz Springs Park, Lititz Library, Warwick Community Ambulance Association and local fire companies.”

The retorts to the woman’s question included the usual laughter emojis, which I suppose are a way to “own the libs” for people who have no reasonable reply to offer. They were not the responses I found most discouraging.

I suggested that the fear that this year the craft fair could become a super-spreader event was not bogus and that, according to our current numbers, Lancaster County could be in for a very rough time with the virus. For so doing, I drew the usual disparaging retorts: a so-clever abuse of my nickname, a recommendation that I stop watching CNN, and more laughter emojis, plus a small chorus of, “Stay home if you’re afraid,” “It’s a personal choice,” and “I’ll be there with no mask!” Discouraging? Yes, but not unexpected. I should note that my rather understated comment drew more than a few positive emojis as well. So, “America’s coolest small town” does have people taking seriously the resurgence of the virus with its Delta variant that is attacking children in new and troubling numbers.

Two further retorts, however, stood out as discouraging. One woman posted, “I just want to be free and have fun!” As someone noted recently, “Freedom without responsibility is mere adolescence.” I felt my own dark thoughts troubling me as I imagined the headstone for a child’s grave inscribed (as it surely would never be) with, “My mother just wanted to be free and have fun. Well, Mom, now you’re free of me. Have fun!” What a terrible thought! But we are in the midst of a resurgent pandemic, and a pandemic kills without regard for its victim’s age or the depth of grief it causes among parents left not only with horrific loss but also with the self-blame of, “If only I had . . . .” I wish it would not happen to any parent or any person, but I fear there will be parents left blaming themselves in their grief.

The second discouraging retort came from another woman parroting a vacuous argument I had heard before: that because she could still smell odors through a mask, the mask obviously did not protect her from the virus. Upside down and backwards. Of course I can detect odors through my mask. I need to be able to breathe, and I’m wearing a cloth mask not a gas mask. I wished I could talk rationally with the woman, but Facebook is not the forum for rational conversation on a subject that has aroused anger and resentment. What might I say?

You’ve been outside on a cold day when you could see your breath.  What you’ve seen is the small cloud of respiratory moisture droplets you are exhaling, and they can carry the virus.  Your mask keeps most of your moisture from escaping to infect other people, and their masks likewise protect you from their exhaled moisture.

What discourages me in these Facebook exchanges? First, I find discouraging the adolescent (and prevalent) misunderstanding of freedom as personal liberty without public responsibility. Second, I am discouraged by the deliberate dissemination of empty, silly arguments designed to deceive the gullible who are only too happy to repeat them in foolish and dangerous defenses against unwanted personal inconveniences such as getting the shot and wearing a mask.

I find myself wondering how we will escape the ravages of this pandemic without widespread tragedy to prove the lies false and the bravado foolish. I hope that as a county, state, nation, and world we can come to our senses without first having to bury more and more of our children and other loved ones.