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.