Is Partisan Rancor a Laughing Matter?

The election was exhausting. Toxic. Acrimonious. Soul-crushing. So laughing with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and laughing at Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin playing absurd versions of Clinton and Trump on Saturday Night Live may have seemed like the best medicine. But might it actually have contributed to the toxicity, dividing the country still further?

Political satire goes as far back as Aristophanes in the fifth century BC, and it’s unlikely he invented it. Making fun of politicians doesn’t seem to have brought political life to a halt, in ancient Greece or in the modern era. But in the last decade, political satire has increasingly taken on two particularly dangerous characteristics. First, it has become increasingly partisan—a matter of attacking whole groups (Republicans, Democrats, liberals, Tea Partiers, and so on) rather than individuals (Tricky Dick, “I didn’t inhale”). Even worse—thanks to the 24-hour news cycle—it never, ever lets up.

Of course, the best political humor has a lot of truth to it. But a steady—or, unbalanced—diet of satire and caricature can foster illusion and distortion rather than insight and understanding. A caricature only imparts truth in comparison to the real thing. If we absorb nothing but the caricature, it no longer adds to our understanding of reality—it replaces it. Stereotypes in comedy can be used to undermine the validity of stereotypes in real life. But if we see nothing but ugly stereotypes battling each other on the screen, they can gain validity rather than losing it. If we only ever see the other side’s leaders as stupid and self-serving, we can only see their supporters as stupid and self-serving. Given that most modern American elections are pretty close, that’s a lot of people to write off.

We need to beware, too, of a culture of nonstop and unbounded insult. It may be our right as Americans to pile on the president and not give a damn if we hurt his—or in the future, her—feelings. But when we pile on all the people who voted for that president, that’s hurting tens of millions of people’s feelings. And they aren’t thick-skinned politicians, they’re regular people who don’t like being made fun of. When you keep hitting them, eventually they want to hit back. In an atmosphere like that, it will become increasingly impossible to get two sides even to agree what color a stop sign should be.

And in the long run, constantly laughing—or sneering—at the other side distracts us from the real task at hand. In a country with so many differences—and this will always be a country with many differences—we need to find ways to better understand and work with fellow citizens who have profoundly different views.

One reason we are at a stalemate in our political othering is that we have few tools for positively engaging others. We focus on offense, prejudice, and hate—but we don’t even have an ordinary word in our language for the feeling that some other group is indeed “other” but also that, at the same time, you’re glad they’re here sharing your town, your school, your company, or your country (the scholarly word is “allophilia”). Look at the university life around you. Look at the calls for funding from foundations and national research agencies. Look at your textbooks in psychology, sociology, and political science. You’ll see plenty of text about hate and anti-hate, but hardly a penny or a paragraph devoted to the study of joyful coexistence or affection in othering. Studies by myself and others typically find that over 30 percent of people have positive attitudes—not just tolerance—with curiosity, interest and respect for others. Yet it’s the haters and the hated who receive almost all the attention from social science and from policymakers.

Try an imaginative exercise. Overnight, everyone who voted for Trump disappears. No “Duck Dynasty.” No Sarah Palin. No Confederate flags. But it doesn’t stop there. I’m thinking of an acquaintance who’s been eager for years to be rid of Obama and, although he was bothered by Trump’s creepier qualities, couldn’t bear the thought of Hillary Clinton’s liberal presidency. Would this be a better country without him? Not when he and his wife are delivering Meals on Wheels. Not when he’s teaching neighborhood children aikido, a martial art that can only be used to defend yourself, never to attack anyone. And certainly not when he’s taking his wife three times a week to stroke rehab and befriending and supporting everyone in the very diverse group there. I don’t believe we’d all be better off without him and I don’t think we’d be better off when someone mocks him in public.

By definition, successful politicians are people who can work out a deal even with those who have mocked and opposed them publicly. And I’m not being sarcastic; that’s a real talent that most of us don’t have. The rest of us may need to laugh a bit less and treat each other a little more tenderly.


Todd L. Pittinsky is a Professor of Technology & Society at Stony Brook University and Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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