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The case for laughing at yourself

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Students at Swarthmore generally range from ages 18 to 22, yet many students here take themselves as seriously as a lawyer in front of the Supreme Court. We constantly stress about getting the best grades, the best internships, and presenting ourselves as poised, intelligent people who never make mistakes. Although it is important to get good grades and work to better yourself, it is also important to realize that you are in college and it is okay to make mistakes.

This is not the generic “you should go have fun and party more” argument that people often make around campus. Instead this is an argument for laughing at yourself. Whether you answered a question wrong in a big lecture, accidentally forgot to attach your paper to that email to your professor, or just dropped your cup in Sharples, it is okay to laugh at yourself. In fact, laughing at yourself can sometimes be the only way to get through this school.

Expectations on this campus are high, and they should be: for academics, for accountability, for how we treat each other. We should work to be the best students and people we can, be but it is also okay if we screw up sometimes. It is also okay if we screw up a lot.

The things that we do here are not life or death. Getting a B in a class or embarrassing yourself in front of your friends or being wrong in a facebook argument is not going to alter the path of your life forever. As generic as it sounds, it can never be said enough: you often learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.

It is important to take a step back and realize that we are in a unique environment. Where else would you see posters advertising events about the the female orgasm and anti-capitalist clubs? Where else can almost every student know about every controversy on campus, and where else does everybody have an opinion on the matter?

Taking a step back might allow us to realize that our time here is not like anywhere else; this place is not only idiosyncratic, it’s also really intense. And sometimes, it can be funny. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break, and focus on the funny.

Along with ourselves, we need to give the people around us a break. We need to recognize that people around us will make mistakes and forgive them for it. For example, if you find yourself in an argument with a fellow swattie, and that swattie subsequently makes an outrageous and possibly offensive statement, it’s always good to first give the benefit of the doubt. Often, one thing that someone says can be misinterpreted and cause a lot of pain. However, take a step back and ask for clarification. Maybe what they said was outrageous and offensive and then a conversation can pursue. But a lot of the time students just misspeak, and assuming good intent goes a long way.

Laughter won’t solve everything; honestly, it probably won’t solve much. But it’s a good way to deal with uncomfortable things, it’s a good defense mechanism, and it sure makes you feel a lot better.

Strictly Good Advice

in Campus Journal by

Strictly Good Advice,

How do I handle setbacks?

Clarissa.

Hello Clarissa, and thanks for the question. Before I get on with the advice, I will paraphrase the usual disclaimer. I have no credentials or qualifications – really, none – and so I am neither credentialed nor qualified to help you with your problem. Talk to an opinionated expert if you find yourself contemplating a decision that might benefit from a little expert opinion. I will also say that Strictly Good Advice has been with you since the beginning. Think about that when an electronic flyer tells you that someone else is now taking anonymous questions for a new advice column. Think about who really has your best interests at heart.

It might help for the sake of the advice if I had some context – the kinds of setbacks you are experiencing, your usual strategies for managing similar issues, some information about your personality or your circumstances, etc. A little information would have gone a long way toward providing an adequate response. In the future you should also try and form your question more carefully. I don’t know what you consider a “setback,” and I won’t make any assumptions about what qualifies as “handled.” I hope you can believe that I say this not to be a snob, Clarissa; I mention the limitations on my ability to provide helpful advice so that you will be more understanding if I fail to address your concern adequately. I did it for my sake, too: it will be easier to proceed if I have some way to silence the natural urge toward unproductive self-discouragement that comes about whenever a reasonable goal becomes farther out of reach, i.e., whenever I have been “set back.”

If we consider the problems with the question (its omission of critical details, its weak grip on vocabulary) to be a setback, then we might say consider the setback successfully handled when the question is answered, despite the apparent obstacles. The first step towards handling my setback has already been taken: sharing the constraints under which the job is done will help me do it. Taking this communicative step gives me the peace of mind I need to work effectively and gives you the information you need to make good use of whatever work I present. This is important because you came to me for advice, and my options are to either give it to you at any cost or to let you take your questions elsewhere. So I will do whatever it takes to get you your advice. While it appears that my approach to this setback depends on an unhealthy trivialization of the challenge or the psychiatrically incredulous assumption that one can flip a cognitive switch and magically activate their productive capacity, doing “whatever it takes” is actually more reasonable than you might expect. In fact, we have already established the first thing that it takes: if it’s relevant to them, let other people know that there are specific reasons why it’s hard to accomplish the task you’ve obligated yourself to accomplish. The rest of this column will roughly characterize the remaining components of “whatever it takes.”

We have established that communicating your difficulties is essential, but it unfortunately does not make them go away. I must now choose to either (1) attempt to resolve these problems or (2) excuse them as beyond my control and plod along with my best effort. In my case this decision is easy to make: because this is an advice column and not psychological counseling, I will not be able to ask you to clarify or elaborate on anything you’ve already said. All questions are to be addressed as-is; a Socratic back-and-forth is out of the question. I’ve agreed to give anonymous advice, not to be an anonymous confidant/therapist. I don’t even have any information about you except for a name that I made up. So I must proceed knowingly within the restraints of the medium or else let my readers lose their faith and start getting their advice from potential undesirables on the Internet. I value and respect my readers. Thus, to address the dilemma presented at the beginning of this paragraph and carry on with the advice, I will go with option (2): I will excuse myself of conditions beyond my control and trudge forward.

This is easier said than done. Because I can’t guarantee that the environment in which my advice comes about will be perfectly conducive to good advice, I can’t guarantee that my advice will be good. This troubling fact has me racked with harmful reservations; how can I, in good conscience, continue to advertise my Strictly Good Advice if it might be Strictly Middling Advice? How can I, lacking basic self-confidence, carry on sneak attacking the Daily Gazette when I don’t even believe that my own work is any good? I will dismiss these questions by recourse to the previous paragraph, in which I resigned myself to plodding. If I accept that I am mechanically satisfying the bare minimum of necessary tasks with only whatever creativity is most readily available, I can skip the agonizing reflection that naturally follows when I assume full responsibility for my actions. Be careful that you only plod to the degree that it helps you overcome your obstacle. Otherwise, you risk regression into toddlerhood or robotic indifference – neither of which is a good look on the readership, whom I hold in high esteem.

After you have done enough plodding, the hope is that your initially confounding circumstances – or your perspective on them – will change. I have observed that as time goes on, memories lose their sensatory content, remaking themselves into words and concepts in my aging mind. This is a descriptive rather than normative claim, and I am unprepared to argue in its defense. My point is that, viewed in retrospect, how you feel often becomes less important than what you feel. Tactile discomforts become vague while socially informed abstractions take center stage. And the less descript your recollection of physical phenomena gets, the easier it becomes to deal with the fact that you were stuck in the mud. Eventually you regain your confidence. The setback has been successfully handled. You may now package your misfortune into a thoughtful, if kind of nebulous question, and send it to your favorite advice columnist.

In need of some strictly good advice? Send a question by electronic mail to strictlygoodadvice(at)gmail(dot)com (your name will not be included in the column unless by request), or by snail mail to the author at 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, 19081.

Mueller Monday: A new national pastime?

in Opinions/Words of Wagner by

This Monday, Paul Manafort was indicted on twelved counts, including conspiracy against the United States. This, of course, is part of the investigation led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into potential collusion between Donald Trump and the Russian government to influence the election in favor of the Republican candidate. The indictment along with George Papadopoulos pleading guilty to lying to the FBI signal that Robert Mueller’s investigation is gaining steam, a good sign for those, including myself, who think that it is likely that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to take down former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

My own reaction to speculation from news sources that an indictment was coming on Monday morning made me feel like the question of “who is getting indicted” better fit on the title of a game show. It felt fun, despite the fact that the very sovereignty of the United States is at stake in the investigation. After making a few great jokes on Twitter, including one encouraging Special Prosecutor Mueller to release indictments on days that were more fit for popping bottles of champagne, I wonder if my reaction to the news is problematic for the democratic institutions and norms that I hold dear, especially since it can be argued that making light of Donald Trump contributed to his election. I remember laughing incredibly hard at Trump while watching one of the presidential debates in LPAC, and I shudder at how naive we all were. In laughing off then-candidate Trump, we underestimated Trump’s insidious potential. Could we be laughing away the very freedom to vote a president out of office by joking about the investigation that we hope will take him down?

Or, is laughing at Trump and company flounder in the face of the serious allegations they face a kind of retribution for the stupidity of this presidency? Or is it useful as a coping method in these troubled and uncertain times? Or is Sarah Huckabee Sanders just too roastable for us to not make fun of her blatant lies and even worse metaphors for tax reform?

To answer these questions, I want to start with the fact that there is no good metaphor for tax reform. I almost feel bad for making fun of Huckabee Sanders until I remember that she chooses to peddle the daily lies coming out of the Trump administration despite being qualified for several other jobs, like director of communications for Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated or as a press director for Satan. Laughing at the fools running our country makes it hurt less, and helps the anger not overcome my rational senses. Sending pointed tweets at the press secretary makes me feel better when I want to scream into an abyss.

The Trump circus deserves to be ridiculed, because honestly, they suck. They’re bad people with bad political views who are actively trying to make this country worse for poor people and marginalized group in order to appeal to a mythical silent majority and improve profits for CEOs and pharma bros. I realized that my initial fear regarding using humor to attack the Trump administration was too cautious, now that Trump holds the most powerful position in the world, the only way out is down. While America certainly has a lot left to lose, Trump can be taken down from the tallest tower. Laughing at him makes him angry, and an angry Trump is even easier to take down. As the investigation ramps up, the Trump family will likely keep their inner circle tighter as their world crumbles around them. In the meantime, laughing at them will be the best medicine.

Using humor in the face of the monstrosity that is the Republican president will show the Grand Old Party that the American people do not take their president seriously, which will  make it even harder for them to get their agenda through Congress. As long as moderate Republicans think that the President is to laughable to be associated with, their agenda will continue screeching to a halt in one of the world’s most revered legislative bodies. Making jokes about the president will distract him from advancing his poisonous agenda, and can bring us the joy we deserve after surviving every painful day of a Trump presidency.

I’m looking forward to the next Mueller Monday. I have several drafts of Tweets for each potential indictee, because all eight of my active Twitter followers and I deserve a good laugh.

Laughter is the best medicine during this election

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign scares me, and it has since it began in June of 2015. Trump’s beliefs are the opposite of mine in many ways, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has found that his populist rhetoric has resulted in an upsurge in violence, xenophobia, and even bullying in schools. Why, then, during the screening of the first presidential debate in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema, did I find myself bursting out in laughter nearly every time the GOP nominee opened his mouth?

I can assure you that my laughter wasn’t caused by Trump’s incredible comedic timing or quick wit. No, he employed just about the same level of word salad we’ve become accustomed to over the course of his campaign. He talked in bold, brash terms about “the cyber,” heaped criticism on the Iran deal and what he called “the nuclear,” and urged the media to call up Sean Hannity—because Hannity is definitely both an unbiased news source and the only person who knows what Trump’s true position on Iraq was before the 2003 invasion.

No, I was laughing at the absurdity of it all—the preposterousness of a man with no experience in government defeating 16 other, arguably better qualified, primary candidates; the improbability of a twice-divorced adulterer gaining the nomination of the party synonymous with family values; the outrageousness of a candidate known for mocking and insulting combat veterans being so close to becoming our next Commander-in-Chief. I simply took a step back and realized just how bizarre this election has become.

Comedy that stems from important issues might initially appear to be in poor taste. After all, something as impactful as a presidential election shouldn’t be treated as a joke. However, there is a huge—yuge, even—difference between making a joke out of an entire issue and using comedy to enlighten. Laughter at serious topics does not necessarily indicate apathy, but rather analysis. When comedians like John Oliver feature segments about Trump on their late-night television programs, they don’t just play a clip of a Trump rally, cut back to the studio, and announce to their audience, “Look how funny that is.” No, these commentators use that footage as a starting point. They build on it, providing viewers with relevant historical details, thereby allowing us to understand an issue in a more nuanced way. If we happen to laugh along the way, it is because we are able to understand the absurdity of the given situation. No wonder Jon Stewart of Comedy Central was voted America’s most trusted newscaster in 2009 by TIME Magazine readers.

This style of humor is nothing new, either. Throughout history, comedy has been a source of both entertainment and perspective. Take, for instance, Charles A. Ridley’s World War II-era short film “Lambeth Walk – Nazi Style.” In this piece, the British Ministry of Information edited together a popular song from a British musical with footage of Hitler and his soldiers from the propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” to give the appearance that the fearsome Germans were dancing to a hit tune. In spite of the threat facing the Allies at the time, this two minute long film gave Britons a chance to laugh at the absurdity of the Fuhrer and his goose-stepping cronies. Yes, even though 40,000 civilians died in the Nazi-orchestrated Blitz, British citizens managed to laugh at Nazi leaders. Thomas Nast’s cartoons give an even earlier example of the dual nature of comedy. His drawings in “Harper’s Weekly” caricatured Boss Tweed and other Tammany Hall politicians. His use of universal symbols like money bags simultaneously made readers aware of the corruption and taxpayer-funded embezzlement of the infamous political machine.

Political satire doesn’t just end with laughs. Oftentimes, what we perceive as topical comedy actually has a lasting impact on society. Thomas Nast’s popular caricatures of Boss Tweed made people laugh, but they were also accurate enough that when Tweed fled to Europe after escaping from prison, Spanish authorities used Nast’s drawings to identify the fugitive. While Charles A. Ridley’s short film may not have won World War II, there is no doubt in my mind that his efforts helped keep up British morale during one of the greatest armed conflicts in global history. Even our more contemporary friend Jon Stewart has done his part: after the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010—a bill that would provide healthcare to sick 9/11 first responders—stalled in Congress, Stewart took up the issue, ridiculing Republican lawmakers responsible for the holdup, while making his studio audience laugh. Later that year, the bill was passed and signed into law, and many credit Stewart (a comedian) for getting it done. No one stopped to criticize his use of humor, because through its use, he accomplished something incredible.

A common critique of using humor to discuss serious topics is that it’s a sign of privilege—if you can laugh about it, then you aren’t really affected by it. I disagree. I believe the most socially relevant comedy comes from understanding the importance and impact of an issue first-hand. Jon Stewart’s 9/11-related segments were so effective because that tragedy was personal to him. A native New Yorker, Stewart knew what his people went through that day. His show, while jocular and wry, kept the best interests of his community in mind. It’s easy to see that his comedy was born out of reverence and love, not detached privilege.

In the end, my point is this: we are witnessing one of the most absurd moments in the history of American elections. No one should criticize you for allowing yourself a little perspective. If you need to take a break from all this sober talk of impending doom to recognize just how crazy our world is, then do so. Laugh at it. Make fun of it. You might even be doing the world a little good.

Hari Kondabulo’s Race-Conscious Comedy

in Around Campus/Arts by

When comedy writer and stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu took the stage at the LPAC Cinema on Saturday, November 16, he opened with a joke about the relatively recent Intercultural Center controversy. He said that his act was filled with a lot of commentary on race relations and he hoped that we would like it because, he had heard, if Swarthmore students didn’t like something, they peed on it.

This risky joke set up the tone of the rest of his act, a hilarious set of jokes touching on sensitive topics from race relations and homophobia to capitalism and politics.

Kondabolu is a well-known Indian-American stand-up comic from Queens, New York City. He’s made appearances on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan, and has had his own half-hour special on Comedy Central. He most recently worked as a writer for the show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell; however, the show was canceled a week prior to his performance at Swarthmore, a fact which, he repeatedly joked, left him unemployed and likely to tour the country doing stand-up.

The Swarthmore Deshi Club brought Kondabolu to campus with the help of Brianna Serrano, program administrator of the Intercultural Center. Deshi club co-president, Samiul Haque, said he found out about Kondabolu over the summer through an interview he read. “The point Hari conveyed really resonated with me and my own experience growing up as a South Asian-American,” Haque said.

He thought that Kondabolu would have a large, receptive audience at Swarthmore and saw the opportunity to bring issues for discussion in a humourous setting. “As students here, we are already saturated with academia with all the classes, lectures, and assignments we take part in…” he said, “One of the audience members said it quite eloquently during the Q&A session — when you can’t reach someone by lecturing and debating, comedy becomes the ideal medium. We wanted to provide this oft-ignored medium, and saw Hari Kondabolu as one of the best candidates to do so.”

Kondabolu delivered wonderfully on these intentions. His stand-up routine was peppered with criticisms and commentary on a range of sensitive issues. There is the obvious risk with this approach, however. While some jokes struck a positive note with the audience, others caused the audience to groan.

He referred to one of his jokes as a successful “feminist dick joke.” He then engaged in a fictional conversation with a critic on stage in which he acknowledged that despite his best efforts, he may have been neglectful in his acknowledgment of the trans community. In the question and answer portion after his set, Kondabolu acknowledged that, as a comedian, it is difficult and perhaps impossible to create the perfect joke. “When I make a joke,” he said, “I’m always trying to alter [it] and do something different. If something happens and I just say something awful I feel bad but then I try to adjust and rewrite to say something that represents more of who I actually am.”

Kondabolu’s humor is simultaneously fearless and cautious. While he handled controversial issues through his comedic lens, he balanced his commentary with a certain sensitivity.  While he could easily fall into dangerous territory, he managed to find a balance by acknowledging and commenting on race, class, and political issues without being horribly offensive.

As a Bowdoin College graduate, he is familiar with the culture of a small liberal arts college. He goodnaturedly poked fun at the liberal arts bubble and at himself — he said he was the only student of color at his time in the snowy white Bowdoin population. In the question and answer portion he admitted that he often tests the audience with certain jokes and that when he received an extremely positive response to his joke that the theme of his set would be colonialism, he said, “I knew it was going to be a good show.” Kondabolu was startlingly honest and interactive with the audience.

Kondabolu will be releasing his first CD recording in the spring of 2014.

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