The Problem with Laughter

Last night I attended a baptism that was accompanied by much laughter and merry-making, which was at times shushed by many of those in attendance. The LDS practice of “reverence” as a means of producing the conditions for spiritual experience sets boundaries around certain kinds of laughter. In other contexts, “loud” laughter is prohibited. When we fast, we are supposed to abstain from laughter as well as food (D&C 59:15). These particular ways of regulating laughter are not unique to Mormonism.

Some Christians have attempted to eliminate laughter altogether, basing themselves on the Bible (e.g., James 4:9; Luke 6:25). Basil of Caesarea frankly taught: “the Christian…ought not to laugh or even suffer laugh makers.” (Ep. 22). The regulation of laughter has been a staple in Christian history, considered to be a problem in the seriousness that is the Gospel.

Laughter has often been one of those subjects of ethical formation and regulation, both within Christianity and in Western culture more generally. The pleasures and vices of laughter must be managed, and the strictures around this can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Too much laughter was a sign of a lack of self-control and could bring shame upon whoever was overcome by it. Like all good pleasures, laughter has to be experienced in moderation. Like sex, anger, desire, and other passions, laughter became a point for ethical evaluation.

In my experience, the regulation on laughter is probably not taken all that seriously by most contemporary LDS (and other Christians). I concede that LDSs have an embodied knowledge of when it is inappropriate to laugh in worship settings, but I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon on controlling laughter. The bishop does not hold an annual combined priesthood/relief society giving his “laughter” lesson. The interesting question is why not? Why have other forms of ethical regulation such as sexuality, anger, pride and financial discipline been emphasized and moralized in LDS discourse, but not laughter? Is Mormonism’s stance on laughter simply a reflection of modern values which view laughter positively, with an inheritance of puritanical hesitation around laughter in word alone?

  • http://adventures-in-mormonism.com bfwebster

    If I recall correctly, Pres. Harold B. Lee made some remarks in general conference about light mindedness, etc., after a particularly amusing talk by another General Authority. (I’m pretty sure it was Pres. Lee, though it may have been Pres. Smith.) But I haven’t heard anything over the pulpit since then against laughter and light mindedness; in fact, both Pres. Hinckley and Pres. Monson are noted for their quips and humorous asides, and I think the all-time modern classic is from Pres. Holland’s talk last April (“The Tongue of Angels”):

    I have often thought that Nephi’s being bound with cords and beaten by rods must have been more tolerable to him than listening to Laman and Lemuel’s constant murmuring. Surely he must have said at least once, “Hit me one more time. I can still hear you.”

    Likewise, I’ve written elsewhere of a joke that Pres. Hinckley told at the monthly multi-stake BYU fireside a few decades ago:

    Another true story, for I was there. Either 20 or 30 years ago, while I was at BYU — I honestly don’t remember if it was when I was an undergraduate or when I was teaching there — Pres. Hinckley came down from Salt Lake City to speak at the BYU multi-stake fireside held ever Fast Sunday evening in the Marriott Center on the BYU campus. When he got up to speak, he noted that he had encountered some reckless and inconsiderate drivers on the freeway on the way down to Provo. He said that it reminded him of a story he had once heard:

    A Quaker farmer went out one morning to milk his cow. After he had been milking for a few minutes, the cow pulled up its hind leg and kicked the farmer, sending him sprawling. The Quaker quietly got up, brushed the straw off, and continued to milk. A few minutes later, the cow again jerked its hind leg and knocked the farmer off his stool. Again, the Quaker got up, brushed off straw and dirt, sat down, and continued to milk. A few minutes later, the cow let loose with both feet, knocking over not just the farmer but the almost-full bucket of milk, which emptied out all over the floor. The Quaker slowly got up, brushed himself off, and walked around to the front of the cow. He looked the cow in the face and said, “I cannot curse thee, and I cannot strike thee — but I can sell thee to the Methodist down the road who will beat hell out of thee.”

    There was a collective gasp as 23,000 BYU students and faculty members took in the fact that an Apostle of the Lord had just said that in a Church fireside on a Sunday evening — and then a roar of laughter that lasted for quite some time.

    In short, I think it’s a moot issue…unless, of course, Pres. Monson goes early and Pres. Packer becomes the Prophet. :-) ..bruce..

  • Floyd the Wonderdog

    I think we Saints are a naturally happy people and that gives rise to a spontaneous expression of laughter.

    I am a High Councilor and a naturally funny person (just look at my face). I used to use humor regularly in my talks, until. . .

    I was speaking in a ward that has a number of deaf members. They sit at the front of the chapel and the interpreter sits facing them. I told a joke that was directly relavent to my topic. The interpreter laughed so hard that the literally fell out of his chair.

    I no longer use jokes in my talks, but I still look funny

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Thanks for these humorous anecdotes! I wholeheartedly agree that humor has become a prominent feature of LDS life, but what do you think led to the moral deproblematization of laughter? Why have certain moral issues remained central, while laughter has enjoyed reprieve from ethical scrutiny? Will transitions similar to this take place for things like sexuality?

  • http://adventures-in-mormonism.com bfwebster

    but what do you think led to the moral deproblematization of laughter? Why have certain moral issues remained central, while laughter has enjoyed reprieve from ethical scrutiny?

    Well, for starters (and the temple notwithstanding) I’m not sure good humor and genuine laughter were ever seen within the Church as being (a) a moral issue and (b) equivalent to ‘lightmindedness’, which seems to be tied more to treating the things of God frivolously. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were known for their humor, and there’s a reason why Mormons still love J. Golden Kimball stories. I know of no cases at any point in Church history where someone has receive Church discipline for being too funny or laughing too much.

    As such, I think it’s a stretch to try to draw moral equivalences between laughter and sexuality or expect correlation between how the two are dealt with. But it’s an interesting question. :-) ..bruce..

  • TrevorM

    I think laughter still is a problem but only on a moral level. “Loud laughter” as undesirable activity to me indicates bawdiness and amusement at unworthy things. Much of the vulgar comedy that is so popular today represents (in my opinion) loud laughter. Though I understand that laughter has been in the past looked down upon more widely, I think the distinction ought to lie, and does lie between being lightminded and lighthearted. Thus President Hinckley was even know to make jokes during temple dedications, but he would never have found humor in the worldly things that are often put forth as funny in entertainment. I think these principles are taught, but perhaps not sufficiently emphasized in our culture. Many of the sermons we receive on entertainment speak in part to what we choose to laugh at.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    bfw:
    “I think it’s a stretch to try to draw moral equivalences between laughter and sexuality or expect correlation between how the two are dealt with.”

    I am more thinking in terms of the history of morality in general. How and why do certain things come to occupy moral attention at certain times? The fact is that for some in the history of Christianity, laughter and sex were moral analogues, if not equivalents.

    Trevor:

    I think that the examples you give are relevent here because they demonstrate that there still is moralizing about laughter. You argue that there are certain kinds of laughter that are appropriate. Navigating it is tricky, however, and humor is mostly funny because it transgresses boundaries. For instance, bfw’s story about Pres. Hinckley is funny because it uses a mild curse word and talks about violence to animals. Of course, neither of these things are inherently funny, but they get laugh because they cross lines that we aren’t supposed to cross.

  • http://mormonmd@wordpress.com Doc

    I also think it there is a certain cynical, mocking type of laughter that is borne of pride and pain, that in my mind would constitute loud laughter. I have had much occasion to reflect on it because of the temple.

    You are right, though. We simply do not emphasize this as part of self control. There are certain folkloric stories that go around about groups camping, having an irreverent sacrament and being struck dead. I can’t say I’ve heard that one over the pulpit though.

  • TrevorM

    TT: It is in this that I make my argument about entertainment. I think that there is a measure of moralization of laughter when we discuss what things are appropriate to watch and what things aren’t. So it does happen, but not enough. I agree that some times transgressions of boundaries create humor, but to large extent humor is about defying expectations.

    Well scratch that, I think you make a good point, Perhaps our real humor boundaries lie somewhere beyond the line of acceptable conventional discourse, but there is still a boundary? This makes for a quasi-neurotic stance though. It is ok to say some things that are usually unacceptable, but only in the context of humor?

    New Idea

    Maybe the law of laughter is akin to the law of the sabbath day. Everyone has a boundary on what things they do on the Sabbath, and some things are forbidden, but in general it is a law of personal interpretation. What i am trying to say is Humor is a (albeit under-emphasized) moral issue, but not in terms of quantity (except for during solemn times when laughter is held as less appropriate as you mentioned above). It is defined in terms of quality and therefore we are given many guidelines on what sort of humor to avoid and then are left to govern ourselves in the matter.

    One last thing to note, the joke about Pres. Hinckley saying hell is an aberration when compared to his general sense of humor, which was lively and squeaky-clean. Not all humor is about boundary transgressing, as I started to say above: it is about defying expectations.

  • mondo cool

    “Why have other forms of ethical regulation such as sexuality, anger, pride and financial discipline been emphasized and moralized in LDS discourse, but not laughter?”

    My take is that the ethical regulation on these have continued because of the effects of the violation of the social standards related to each are much worse than the effects of “inappropriate” laughing. “Inappropriate” laughing may be a sign (as mentioned above) of a lack of decorum or mental discipline, which is why it was frowned upon in puritanical thought. But, society , and Mormon society, has said, “We can more easily deal with too much laughter than with too much concubining, etc.”

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    MC,
    Good point, but doesn’t it beg the question of how the severity of certain social standards are evaluated? How exactly are the negative social effects of sex measured which isn’t tied up with the rule itself? Isn’t the harm of violation of any particular moral norm conditioned on there being a norm in the first place?

    I also want to question the separateness of moral regulations from one another. Laughing was considered problematic not independently, but because it signaled larger problems of self-control. Perhaps we have “too much concubining” precisely because we have failed to control laughter?

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Is Mormonism’s stance on laughter simply a reflection of modern values which view laughter positively, with an inheritance of puritanical hesitation around laughter in word alone?

    Probably.

    But even if loud laughter were out, I see no scriptures precluding things like vigorous chuckling, unrestrained giggling, or generally yuk’n’ it up so I guess they are still in right?…

  • http://sundaypage.wordpress.com jondh

    Given that humor, laughter, and making merry have all been time-honored values of the church since its early days, any deproblematization of laughter within the church is wrongly perceived. Therefore it cannot indicate the deproblematization of anything else, arguably least of all sex. So given that laughter has never been a problem in LDS morality (which is more than we can say for some doctrine!), the injunction in D&C 59:15 must refer to something else than laughter in general. Scripturally laughter is closely connected with first mockery and second idleness, so I believe the text should be read with those connotations.

    I lack, however, TT’s authority on the history of Christianity, so this process may very well have gone on at another time in another denomination. After all, dancing was certainly a major problem at one time, and now much of the Christian world has become lax in its discipline.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com TT

    Jondh,
    “Given that humor, laughter, and making merry have all been time-honored values of the church since its early days, any deproblematization of laughter within the church is wrongly perceived.”

    I suspect that you might be right here, and I am willing to concede the point, but you have to explain two things: 1) the presence of injunctions against laughter, or at least certain kinds of laughter in Mormon texts and rituals, including the emphasis on “reverence” as a spiritual practice [cf. D&C 88:69: "cast away your idle thoughts and your excess of laughter far from you"] and 2) TrevorM’s assertions that Mormon culture does continue to have strictures against certain kinds of laughter.

    I don’t think that it is enough to say that JS or BY had a sense of humor, since this isn’t in question. Rather, the question revolves around the limitations on laughter, or certain kinds of laughter. If TrevorM is right, then laughter remains problematized in Mormon culture. However, as others have noted, the parenetic injuctions against laughter are few and far between in modern Mormonism, despite the textual emphasis against it dating to early Mormonism.

  • lxxluthor

    I’ve often wondered about this myself. Funny thing though, this past summer I worked construction building houses at a large plant and I finally got to see something that I would equate with “loud laughter” of the sort that is forbidden. A large number of guys who always worked together came in each day and started their day off by telling a large number of off color jokes. Often they didn’t get to work for an hour. Then, throughout the day the jokes would continue. They literally lived to laugh and invariably it was always spurred by inappropriate humor. Most of the time the jokes weren’t even funny and the laughing was forced; they were laughing just for the sake of laughing. I don’t know that there is enough acceptable humor in the world to sustain this kind of culture (short of having Alzheimer’s). I remember those guys and feel like I’ve seen at least some of the reasoning behind that sort of commission.

  • hawkgrrrl

    There are a lot of scriptural references to laughter in the Bible, mostly unfavorable:

    Eccl 7: 3. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
    Eccl 2: 2. I said of laughter, it is mad: and of mirth, what doeth it?

    These two from Ecclesiastes (written by Solomon who did plenty of concubining) seem to stem from a cultural bias against laughter and in favor of solemnity. So either this was conventional wisdom of Solomon’s day or was later emphasized in this manner by a cleric.

    Prov 14:13. Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness.

    This one actually strikes me as a true observation of life. When laughter is shared, there is a subsequent lull.

    The current humor infusion feels cultural to me – contemporary American culture, specifically. And what we find funny is shocking or inappropriate to other contemporary cultures (and vice-versa). So, it can be a mine field.

    The question about whether this relaxation will apply to chastity seems like wishful thinking to me, but I guess if you gotta dream, dream big!

  • http://sundaypage.wordpress.com/ jondh

    TT: “Rather, the question revolves around the limitations on laughter, or certain kinds of laughter.”

    That’s precisely my point. The fact that laughter is problematized only in text and not in practice from the very beginning indicates to me that the text refers to something other than simply laughter in general, which of course, raises your questions as to what they do mean. To that, I’m afraid, I’m not prepared to answer.

  • BJH

    “Most of the time the jokes weren’t even funny and the laughing was forced; they were laughing just for the sake of laughing.”

    I understand that completely. I’m always amazed at that kind of laughter at things that, honestly, have no humor whatsoever.

    Personally I’m a fan of not taking myself seriously, but taking the Gospel very seriously.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    TT,

    I thought this would be a fairly good example of a situation where our moral perception has changed over time–laughter was something condemned in earlier parts of our history, and we now find it morally acceptable unless it’s somehow tied to other intimations (such as mockery). Leftover vestiges of this appear in injunctions against “loud laughter”, which we really pay lip service to, or redefine “laughter” so it means something quite different. I’m surprised that so many have asserted a trans-historical injunction going on behind the process. Can you prove that what we take as morally acceptable laughter in our day was not morally acceptable in another day? If so, it would go a long way in advancing the discussion to the next stage.

    I tend to believe that our perceptions about laughter has changed. I’m not sure why other areas haven’t been similarly de-moralized, but it does raise an interesting question as to whether anything is universal. Even “pride” for instance can be viewed positively (as in “I take pride in my country”).

  • mondo cool

    TT#10:
    I would say “Yes, the harm of violation of any particular moral norm is conditioned on there being a norm in the first place.” Seems like I read somewhere if there is no law, there is no sin. I think the severity of the violation of certain social standards can be determined by experience; i.e., society observes what actions with their attendant consequences are disruptive to the norms of that society. Those consequences, in very large part, are why there is a norm in the first place. Maybe you remember the story of 25-y.o. rapper, Ricky Lackey, from March of last year:

    “When Hamilton County (Ohio) Common Pleas Judge Melba Marsh asked Lackey during sentencing Friday on a charge of attempted theft how many children he had, the 25-year-old said, ‘None, but I have six on the way.’

    “A stunned Marsh tried to clarify. ‘Are you marrying a woman with six children?’ she asked.

    “‘No, I be concubining,’ he said.

    “Prosecutors said Lackey is the expectant father of six children with six different women. The women all are expected to deliver in August, September and October.

    “Lackey’s lawyer, Stephen Wenke, stopped his client from saying more.” (Gee, I wonder why?)

    Somehow, I think most of the sane in our society would rather deal with Ricky laughing too much than with him concubining too much.

    I will easily allow that not all societal norms should be accepted prima facie, but, I believe – generally – that there is a greater likelihood of “wisdom” in norms that have withstood the test of time. Therefore, the abandonment of those norms without careful and rigorous scrutiny would meet the definition of folly. I agree that our puritanical forebearers were wary of “excess laughter” because they saw a link between that and “too much concubining.” Their norm was a concern about connectedness – what leads to what and what is evidence of what – where more of the norm in today’s U.S. society is to consider things independently. Both approaches, I believe, can have merit and both are two-edged swords.

  • Stepheny

    An occasional joke or humorous statement can be part of a sunny temperament. It can lighten up a tense moment. And who can be angry and laugh at the same time. Who can have sex and laugh at the same time. It is a good antidote for taking one’s self too seriously. It can help make friends and break the ice socially. But, too much of a good thing gets really annoying. And, in conversation it tends to trivialize whatever serious matters might be up for discussion.

    It is a question of good manners to know when and how much to engage in humorous banter. Unfortunately our society doesn’t talk much about manners anymore. Maybe that is what has caused the deproblematization of laughter.


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