A nifty little exercise on the power of culture

There is this scenario that often happens among friends, but could also be set up as a nifty little exercise. It goes this way:

A group, say, composed of A, B, C, and so on, gather in a place where they could listen to each other’s jokes. Maybe it’s in a party, or a drinking session, or more effectively at a comedy bar. They invite Z, who doesn’t know the script; everybody or most of them do, anyway.

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

Person C starts with standard, surefire jokes. Everyone laughs because they get the joke. Person B continues with more jokes, and the laughter gets even more boisterous. Everyone has heard these jokes before, but they laugh anyway because it’s so funny and enjoyable.

Then, finally, Person A delivers this non-joke: “So did you hear about the white horse? He walks into a bar. The bartender turns to the horse and says, ‘We have a drink that’s named after you. And the horse says, ‘No soap, radio!'” And everyone, who know their role in the script, laugh hysterically–even though the punchline isn’t funny and doesn’t make any sense, because it was meant to be that way.

But what about Person Z, who doesn’t know the script? (1) Does he say aloud, “Why is everyone laughing? That’s the silliest joke I ever heard.” (2) Or does he stay poker-faced, wondering quietly why he doesn’t get it while everyone else does? (3) Or maybe he smiles a bit, just to play sport? (4) Or does he go all out and laugh as loud as the others?

An article posted on io9.com, If you laugh at this joke, then you’re a nonconformist, has in fact triggered a good thread of comments about this scenario. And the brilliant part of the setup is that whatever Person Z’s response is, the conspirators will push the absurdity even further by laughing even more boisterously while looking at him–until, in most cases, he simply surrenders by laughing confusedly and sheepishly.

That, to me, is the power of culture in forcing all of us to conform, lest we suffer everyone else’s ridicule. It is the power of the naked emperor to make everyone be awed by his “new clothes.” And that, to me, is the challenge for all activists and revolutionaries: to boldly stand up to ridicule, to break the power of dominant culture with the opposite power of counter-culture, and to speak the simple child’s truth about the emperor. #

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