Our last discussion was about attachment theory, and I had been considering writing a post about that, but I have found a different reason to take up my “pen” again. Recently there was a review in the NYT of several books that have been published on the subject of civility. Therefore, I was moved to write about that. (I’m sure some of the current public behavior we have been witnessing had something to do with this urge, but, the fact that laughter has sometimes been connected to civility also made me want to write about it.)
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had written about his theory of laughter. I think I remember it because of the example he used. Hobbes’ theory revolves around those who laugh because they feel superior to someone else as when we laugh at someone who slips on a banana peel. To Hobbes, a society built on laughter would be a society built on mockery, or people laughing at the misfortunes of others.
It surprised me to learn that Hobbes was one of the few philosophers who gave laughter much consideration. Aristotle, for example, wrote more about tragedy and how tragic characters were generally of average or better than average standing. In his view, in comedy individuals of lesser virtue are the norm and we look down on them. The bottom line seems to be that humor is often a consequence of denigrating someone.
I confess to being guilty of this, and suspect most of us are. Moreover, Doc Martin is rife with humor based on this model. Whenever ME walks into a door frame or low ceiling, slips in mud, or drives his car off the road; whenever Penhale attempts anything resembling actual police work; whenever Louisa dangles from a hospital bed or says something that is misinterpreted, we are in the arena of Hobbes’ Superiority Theory of laughter. We could add other characters, e.g. Mrs. Tishell, Bert, and Janice. Each one of these characters has been depicted in comedic settings that would be categorized as a pratfall. A pratfall is basically a stupid and humiliating action. It is something that has been a part of comedy for as long as we can remember. And the remarkable thing about it is that it often involves a perceived highly-competent individual who becomes more likable after committing a blunder, according to something called the pratfall effect. I would venture to say that all of the above characters benefit from the pratfall effect. Thus, we can summarize that we laugh because we recognize how inept these characters are while we also find them more appealing as a result.
Furthermore, I then came across a recent article by Emily Nussbaum, TV critic of The New Yorker Magazine, on jokes article It seemed perfect that the accompanying picture is of a golden banana peel with the potential that there could be a tangential connection to Hobbes’ Superiority Theory. Nussbaum lists Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles as practitioners of a type of humor that she calls insult comedy. (I would put Dame Edna in this category as well.) In the process of being rude, these comics also reveal some very incisive points about society and politics.
Indeed Nussbaum comments that the political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon… as “the finger trap.” “You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of élites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.”
Isn’t that exactly what happens to ME when Bert sets him up with his fake injury using ketchup? Nothing ME did at that point could have salvaged his dignity. Another time this trap appears is when Pauline takes a picture of ME sleeping with the dog on the floor and then shares the picture around town. ME gets comedically “punished” regularly, either with pratfalls or with irreconcilable humiliations. His most prevalent rejoinder is one of superiority towards those who are discourteous to him. There’s almost a “tit for tat” element played out.
I am not saying that laughing at such situations is malicious, even if Hobbes would make that argument; however, I am proposing that we should step back and think about what it is that makes us laugh.
The Superiority Theory leads us to a discussion of the subject of self-esteem, which is how one views oneself or one’s attitude towards oneself. Self-esteem has been the subject of much study with prominent psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, placing it in an important position in human development. I think we can leave it at the place where we recognize that there are people who have anything from high self-esteem to low self-esteem, and each of those markers is associated with particular personality characteristics. (We have already analyzed ME and LE on the MMPI, and we could get into where they fall on the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale, but that is not what I want to concentrate on in this post.) More important is whether our own self-esteem is implicated in why we laugh, or accept without much reservation, that it’s admissible to laugh when comedians are uncivil to others.
First we need to agree on what it means to be uncivil. Civility goes beyond mere toleration, but may inherently imply a mutual co-existence and respect for humankind. It may interest you to know that George Washington wrote Rules of Civility as a teenager. It is a list of 110 ways for how to behave civilly. Obviously he felt compelled to set down some guidelines during his youth, and we can only imagine he had a reason to think society needed to know them. More recently there have been articles in psychology journals that address this concern as well. In the mentioned article, civility is defined as “awareness, self-control, empathy and respect…It requires us to treat others with decency, regardless of our differences. It demands restraint and an ability to put the interests of the common good above self-interests.” Even though I have not tried to find the statistics on current uncivil behavior, I think we can agree that between the online bullying and the overt impolite conduct too many young people exhibit towards adults (not to mention the name calling and other forms of belittling practiced by adults), we can come to the conclusion that uncivil actions have only increased. Should we be troubled by the expression of uncivil comportment in our comedy?
The controversy about civility and how to deal with it has been long standing. In that same recent book review in the NYT mentioned above, Hobbes is noted as having “feared that strident expressions of disagreement would threaten the diversity of views in society (much as hate speech is now thought to do), so he advocated an ethic of ‘civil silence,’ or public discretion: People could differ privately in their opinions as much as they wanted but should not openly dispute one another. Locke, by contrast, wanted to preserve public debate, but worried that too much diversity of opinion might jeopardize productive disagreement (the sort of concern campus speech codes now reflect). So he urged an ethic of ‘mutual charity,’ which required people to cultivate at least a minimal appreciation for the views of their opponents, or else be disqualified from debate. Both thinkers, in other words, imagined bringing about a tolerant society via suppression or exclusion — the very forces you would think a tolerant society would want to avoid.”
The review goes on to note that Roger Williams, a 17th C religious radical, “asked not that everyone keep quiet or respect his or her enemies, but merely that everyone not do anything to stop the conversation from going. Williams’s ‘mere civility’ demands more of us than Locke’s or Hobbes’s civility, in that it requires we have thicker skins about other people’s rudeness or disrespect; but it also demands less of us, in that we no longer have to muster respect for, or mute our criticism of, views we abhor.” In other words, he contrasts forbearance with tolerance.
Who is acting uncivilly in Doc Martin? Topping the list is the group of girls who regularly walk past ME and call him a tosser amongst other things. They are particularly bad when they mock him after Louisa leaves him and suggest he might want to date one of their mothers. Actually I have trouble thinking of any teenager in this show who isn’t disrespectful. From the boys on the beach who tell off ME to the delinquent Eleanor engages to watch James Henry to Becky Trevean and her cohort, they are all extremely impolite and disturbingly combative. Then there’s Becky Wead who writes the critical article of him in the school newspaper and Kelly Sparrock who tells him off and treats him with disdain even while he’s trying to diagnose her seizure disorder.
Apart from these members of Port Isaac’s community, we can include many others who speak disparagingly about the doc, often reflecting an obvious contempt for him. This group would include Allison, Danny and his mother, Mark’s sister, and Caroline (the radio Portwenn personality).
Among the people who are uncivil we can’t leave out Martin Ellingham himself. Could there be a more derogatory and insolent person than him? He is pugnacious towards his patients, generally suspicious of many of the motives of the townspeople, including Louisa, and, of course, has no social skills at all. His character is deliberately constructed in this manner, but we shouldn’t overlook this aspect of his personality. He cannot even restrain himself from giving the people of Portwenn a lecture on diet when he is delivering a eulogy of his beloved aunt.
The fact that these are offset by quite a few people who admire his medical ability and who manage to appreciate him despite his own uncivil behavior redeems him and provides sufficient agreeableness to his character. And Martin Ellingham is himself recuperated by some of the kindnesses he is capable of displaying.
I have previously argued that we don’t want to “fix” ME, or probably any of the characters. I would still maintain that though comedy may stem from uncivil behavior, it is rather harmless in this show. Still, the more we tolerate uncivil treatment of others, the more we may be accepting creeping incivility in our world.
Originally posted 2017-01-22 12:45:51.