Chesterton, Shaw, and the Effect of Laughter on Insult

If your homepage is r/atheism, you know.

The Internet hath done wondrous deeds, but raising the intellectual bar cannot counted among them. This became clear when I realized the question man alone has the dignity to ask — Am I a creature or an accident? — is being answered by taking screenshots of our oppositions’ Facebook statuses, rebutting them in Impact font, and posting them in a forum appropriated for the caress of our preconceived notions and the heavy petting of our unexamined faith. In this climate of awful, between the “God Hates Gays” meme and the “Atheism Causes War” rebuttal, I sympathize with the man who dismisses current atheistic/theistic dialogue as a joke.

But the problem with all this is that it’s not a joke. If there were jokes, there would be understanding, and an untwisting of sneers besides. The power of humor is not that it makes the serious frivolous, but that it unites opposites, and binds contraries in communion. By opening the lungs to laugh, humor opens the heart to hear, rendering a man absurdly vulnerable to anything his opposition wishes to say.

Take, for instance, the fact that it is acceptable to insult a man’s mother to his face if — and only if — you can make him laugh while doing it. ‘Yo Momma’ jokes bear testimony to this bizarre truth, that there a moments when we will enjoy precisely that which has been deemed utterly distasteful. In fact, it is entirely acceptable to call a man any manner of names, to insult his upbringing, his occupation, the faithfulness of his wife, his education, his love life — if and only if he laughs. Laughter negates insult.

By what witchcraft? I’m not sure. But its seems that all jokes are inside jokes in that they bring two men into the same sphere to dwell in communion with each other. It’s impossible not to like the man who makes you laugh, for in that moment of laughter you share with him the joke. You are his brother.

Now if a joke allows a man to bear an insult to his person, and bear it willingly, then surely a joke would allow a man to bear an insult to his worldview and his philosophy, and bear it willingly? Debate is, when all is said and done, the constructive insult of another man’s philosophy. This does not necessitate that it be bitter, in fact, it demands that it be good-natured. It demands that the insulting, divisive nature of debate be elevated by the communicative, brotherly nature of humor, if one desires to convince his opponent.

I look to the debates of G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw as my example, the former a Catholic and a distributist, the latter an atheist and a socialist. Their ability to joke — and to stay friends — in the midst of such heated debate is no accident. It is precisely because they could joke that the debates were so heated — there was a real danger of some one being converted. Shaw, in defending his desire to abolish private property, said:

If I own a large part of Scotland I can turn the people off the land practically into the sea, or across the sea. I can take women in child-bearing and throw them into the snow and leave them there. That has been done. I can do it for no better reason than I think it is better to shoot deer on the land than allow people to live on it. They might frighten the deer.

But now compare that with the ownership of my umbrella. As a matter of fact the umbrella I have to-night belongs to my wife; but I think she will permit me to call it mine for the purpose of the debate. Now I have a very limited legal right to the use of that umbrella. I cannot do as I like with it. For instance, certain passages in Mr. Chesterton’s speech tempted me to get up and smite him over the head with my umbrella. I may presently feel inclined to smite Mr. Belloc. But should I abuse my right to do what I like with my property–with my umbrella–in this way I should soon be made aware– possibly by Mr. Belloc’s fist–that I cannot treat my umbrella as my own property in the way in which a landlord can treat his land. I want to destroy ownership in order that possession and enjoyment may be raised to the highest point in every section of the community. That, I think, is perfectly simple…

To which G.K. Chesterton responds:

Among the bewildering welter of fallacies which Mr. Shaw has just given us, I prefer to deal first with the simplest. When Mr. Shaw refrains from hitting me over the head with his umbrella, the real reason–apart from his real kindness of heart, which makes him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God–is not because he does not own his umbrella, but because he does not own my head. As I am still in possession of that imperfect organ, I will proceed to use it to the confutation of some of his other fallacies…

I fully agree with Mr. Shaw, and speak as strongly as he would speak, of the abomination and detestable foulness and sin of landlords who drove poor people from their land in Scotland and elsewhere. It is quite true that men in possession of land have committed these crimes; but I do not see why wicked officials under a socialistic state could not commit these crimes. But that has nothing to do with the principle of ownership in land. In fact these very Highland crofters, these very people thus abominably outraged and oppressed, if you asked them what they want would probably say, “I want to own my own croft; I want to own my own land.”

Perhaps I’m the only one who enjoyed all that umbrella talk, but I hope I am not the only who recognizes that the exchange of these two men is miles beyond — in quality, clarity, and convictions — the right/left, atheist/theist debates we witness today.

The current God Debate does not seek to make its opponent laugh, but to make an already sympathizing audience sneer. One wonders whether debates aim to convince at all — an object which demands the respect and love of the other — or whether they exist entirely to publicly dismiss others, a thrill unique to those — myself included — who forsake the pursuit of truth for that of popularity. Sarcasm, wit and humor — which all have their place — are wasted. Humor is one of the most powerful weapons human communication can wield, for it makes a friend out of an enemy, but we are too intent using it for the sake of our already-nodding audience to bother using it for the sake of conveying the truth.

Chesterton said “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it”, and this seems to me true, for to joke about your philosophy is to invite others into it — everyone can laugh at a joke. Let us not be so smug as to disdain joining in.

In Case You're Feeling Down and Depressed...
4 Ways The Gay Marriage Debate Has Been Rigged
Hiding The Poor
5 Ways Opening the Door for Women Can Go Terribly Wrong
  • Michael Poston

    The one thing to which the devil has no defense is mockery and humor. A profound key to the devout spiritual life is a certain humor at all the ironies and paradoxes of existence.

    • Montague

      I begin to feel sorry for old Milton, who had the devils laugh at the angels… on the other hand, it’s not like Satan got the last laugh in that one.

      I hope this the post on which there are no… comments… of the sort under discussion (derision? Scorn?). This may be the most controversial topic that is troll-resistant.

  • Cal-J

    The ‘interent’? I believe an edit is in order.

    • Marc Barnes


      • Mary

        And I believe you’re missing a “be” in that first sentence, correct? ;)

  • Mrs. Milburn

    Agreed, thank you for writing this. To be humous as Chesterton & Shaw were, one has to have Charity, a thorough knowledge of the subject at hand and a conviction of one’s position based on having reasoned it through. All these qualities seem to be lacking in so many who argue so loudly these days.

    • Mrs. Milburn

      ooops, “humorous”, sorry

      • Joltin Joe

        I believe they are both humus now.

  • pprenosil

    Always start a talk with a good joke. We always start youth ministry with something fun or funny that get’s them laughing. It puts them in the frame of mind to be open to what we say next. Great article.

  • Biltrix

    This is interesting, Marc. You know, as an experiment, I did the type of thing you mentioned at the top of your post. I decided I would share a screenshot from an atheist/theist friendly chatroom on a certain blog and then share that back with the discussion forum, just to see what would happen. Well! I was shocked — just shocked! — at the reactin it provoked.

    One thing I did learn, though was that you can actually open up some dialogue sometimes by being a little provocative, if you do it right. It is a bit risk, though. But then again so is a ‘ yo mamma joke. Right?

    Great post. Thanks for the humor, as always.

    • Biltrix

      Sorry for the typos. Typing on the phone because the storm killed the power here. Cheers!

  • Chris

    Thank you for helping me realize where I have gone wrong. If we project an image that’s all about winning, and not creating communion through debate, we are likely to never convince another. Now just have to figure out how to be witty.

  • Reluctant Liberal

    When did ‘Yo Mamma’ jokes start to qualify as humor?

    • Sophias_Favorite

      When I found out your mom likes men who can make her laugh.

  • Matthew_Roth

    I trolled the National Catholic Reporter’s Facebook, and someone I know commented, “You’re the embodiment of what I dislike.’ I said, “Actually, I believe Jesus Christ is the embodiment of what you don’t like,” playing on the Incarnation, and the fact that what he really dislikes is Truth. He got all huffy, saying, “Who do you think you are? I know what I said and I know what I meant. Never insult me or my beliefs like that again.” OK then, insults go only one way (I still thought it was funny, and my trolling Catholic friend got it) but I told him that he missed the tongue-in-cheek part. He said I was crazy; I said far from it. “That’s what all crazy people say,” he declared. My last point to him was, “GK Chesterton has quite a bit to say on the insane, and being a Roman Catholic devoted to his faith is not one of his criteria for insanity.”
    I also am amused that it started out as a post on liturgy (someone whined about the requirement to actually sing the Agnus Dei correctly) and apparently it’s presenting Truth is always insulting.

    • Sophias_Favorite

      Humans being what they are, saying true things about them tends to be identical with saying bad things about them. Hence the trouble.

  • Elena

    Thanks for putting some very nice words to what I’ve been thinking about lately. A Facebook friend recently posted defending her right to “discourse” on Facebook. But I thought, “You aren’t discoursing. You’re posting photos with snarky captions that’ll make people who agree with you snicker and people who disagree with you hide your posts.”
    That sort of thing isn’t discussion – it’s patting oneself on the back, and it just makes everything nastier.

  • mary

    This is so timely and so good I can hardly stand it.

  • Howard

    I still maintain that we should leave off theist, which lumps together all non-atheists as though such a collection is in some way coherent.

    Regarding the main point, though, perhaps someone could write a science fiction story in which a man travels into the future a few thousand years and finds that, by virtue of the Internet and its successors, mankind has become like a large, vertebrate anthill. Yes, I know that there are plenty of stories about the emergence of a “hive mind”, but I mean also the degradation of the intellect, so that any given individual is a complete imbecile.

  • Leanne

    So…tagging your posts about atheists, women, gays, et al. with the label “destupidification” is perfectly fine, but those who respond in kind are in the wrong?


    • Marc Barnes

      True, true. Pray for me, I hope to do better.

  • Mark Ferris

    Marc my dear man,
    I feel it only right to warn you, before you get hit with an umbrella yourself, that ‘ribbing’ in the male fashion is not acceptable to the majority of the ladies.

  • Randy Gritter

    I do think charitable dialogue without humor is productive as well. You need to find someone who will engage you. That means policing a forum and removing uncharitable things on both sides but on your own side more aggressively. That is the opponents should be give more latitude.

    I think Called To Communion ( )has done this well with protestants. They are some difficult protestants and some reasonable ones. They make the rules so the reasonable ones are never deleted and the difficult ones can engage if they seriously try and be nice. It works. People do convert.

    I am not aware of any similar dialogue with atheists. You need some very graceful moderators who are just too smart to be ignored. Guys like that are hard to find.

  • Obliged_Cornball

    You’ve pretty much nailed the reason that I keep reading this blog, despite the fact that my views are probably very different than yours. I can’t help but feel like an enemy in the combox of other (well-meaning) internet contrarians. Here, I don’t get that impression (at least not from you x_x) at all. The mind-bending task that philosophers set out on gets pretty depressing with a strictly “srs business” approach. Yours makes it easier, and for that I should thank you.

  • tz1

    I don’t think the internet has changed anything in substance from Chesterton’s days. There were snarky groups of people who wanted to be self-satisfied with their intellect so would assert those outside were in darkness. There was Feeny and the Feenyites.

    What the internet has done is to provide many much smaller groups over a much wider geographic area the ability to be prideful and share snarky things deriding others as fools.

    I don’t want to rain on your parade but of course Shaw would not own Chesterton’s head, as Shaw is a socialist. He would merely be the commissar using a bit of property in the commons to bash another bit of common property. And Shaw might have purchased an umbrella liability policy. Solzhenitsyn said the line between good and evil went through the middle of a man’s heart but it was not a property boundary, unless you consider good and evil properties. But that is a different organ so the law would need to grow organically.

    • Sophias_Favorite

      There were also trolls back then—namely, Hilaire Belloc, who moderated the debate Marc quotes. He would not only go into pubs and say insane things in the hopes someone would argue with him, but would wait till debates in magazine letters-sections were dying down, and then write in and say inflammatory things to make the argument start up again.

  • Fr. Tom S.

    This reminds me of an observation I read probably over 20 years ago (boy, I am beginning to sound old). The essense was that comedians (look at the late-night talk shows) use to evoke laughter, and now they evoke appause.

  • Joseph R.

    You should watch the debates between Craig Gross of XXX Church and Ron Jeremy on the debate about the dangers of porn. They may be on total opposite ends, but they seem to get along with one another very well. Ron Jeremy’s even commented on how Craig was so kind to him, and how Christianity is so beautiful, that he said something along the lines of, “Man, he’s debating against my entire career, yet he’s so kind enough to buy me a sandwich. Kinda makes me wanna just go, ‘You know what, maybe porn is bad.’”