On Laughter, Awkwardness, and Accountability

Annina Hanlon

On November 8, 2017, I attended Alice Walker’s keynote address for Stanford University’s Contemplation by Design week. Contemplation by Design is a “campus-wide, multidisciplinary program designed to encourage all members of the Stanford community to enjoy the power of the pause for the purposes of re-establishing balance, tranquility, compassion and energy to support our creative excellence” (“Home”). I have enjoyed attending the keynote speeches for this event every year since I started at Stanford. This year, I walked away primarily reflecting on the tension among respect, contradiction, and accountability.

A short way into her speech, Walker told a story about Native American activist Dennis Banks who worked exhaustively throughout his life for the rights of his people. She illustrated the level of desperation he felt by describing how he tried to repopulate his tribe by having many children, joking that she didn’t think “all of the women were very happy” about that. This statement is overtly sexist with undertones of racially-based rape language, implying the women didn’t consent to being impregnated, as well as implying Dennis Banks was a predator.

Yet, the audience laughed.

I remained silent, struck by how casually Walker had made this comment and how easily and uniformly the audience had responded. I find it hard to believe people didn’t recognize the joke as problematic. If asked individually, I’m fairly confident the majority of audience members would say they are not sexist people and would identify Walker’s joke as clearly derogatory. I feel that people attending a “contemplation by design” speech tend to be ones who’ve reflected upon sexism in other contexts. Why, then, did everyone laugh?

My first thought is people laughed out of respect and admiration for Walker. People laughed not because they thought the joke was funny or wanted to endorse its ideas, but because they respect Alice Walker. They felt the pressure to be a good audience member, which required them to perform the expected response of laughter in a moment intended to be humorous. My second interpretation of the audience’s laughter builds off of the incongruity theory of humor. The incongruity theory suggests that people laugh when they perceive something incongruous, “something that violates [their] mental patterns and expectations” (Morreall par. 48). People laughed because deep down they realized the joke was sexist and this clashed with their expectation of what a feminist like Walker would say.

Regardless of why people laughed, they did laugh. How, then, should we approach Walker’s statement from her speech that “we have a responsibility to keep entertainers honest” by encouraging reflection? It is difficult to hold people accountable when our immediate response is to laugh at their incongruences (whether because we admire them or we see their blunders as unexpected). Our immediate response is not to challenge their statements or ideas, even if they are harmful to perpetuate. Where does that leave us as a society? Walker says (and I agree) that we all have a responsibility to highlight problems. However, we seem to feel we have a stronger responsibility to show loyalty to people who we otherwise see as upstanding, or we simply find ourselves laughing at the awkwardness of the moment. I suggest the solution lies in the embrace and expectation of contradiction.

As is theorized by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics, a way to approach feminism is by acknowledging and examining “awkwardness.” Awkwardness can be defined as the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in many modern political acts as a result of technology and the transnational reach of ideas (Smith-Prei and Stehle 15). I would like to extrapolate this method to include how we approach people as well. People are “awkward” all of the time. Walker’s joke is a perfect example of awkward; she is a feminist making a joke about rape. The person and the presentation clash. Due to technology and transnationalism, we are more aware than ever of these clashes, both people’s successes as well as their flaws. If we were to acknowledge the contradictions of good and bad remarks, of healthy and harmful ideas in everyone, we would free ourselves to critique the different issues we have with people’s actions and words, without dismissing the people themselves.

This frame of thought is exemplified in Brittney Cooper’s essay titled “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” Cooper critiques bell hooks for calling Beyoncé a terrorist. She also critiques Rev. Sekou for defending bell hooks, conflating Beyoncé and Obama and calling them both embodiments of neoliberalism (Cooper par. 4). As she explains why these assertions are problematic, Cooper clarifies that her critique “ain’t about disrespecting elders, but rather about saying that elders, especially elders as astute and insightful as bell hooks, don’t get a pass for making whack-ass arguments” (Cooper par. 6). This is crucial; being famous and well-respected does not excuse a person’s statements. In fact, the wider a person’s audience, the more accountable we need to hold them because their words have such a broad reach. That being said, Cooper’s reminder that “Beyonce is a human being, not just an image or an icon,” can also apply to bell hooks and Alice Walker. Their problematic statements can also be seen as “evidence of both struggle and process” (Cooper par. 36). Recognizing this awkwardness allows us to critique individuals (even those we admire) without disregarding them as people or invalidating their other ideas. This is why we must embrace and acknowledge contradiction in everyone.

Works Cited

Cooper, Brittney C. “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” The crunk feminist collective, 20 May 2014, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2014/05/20/on-bell-beyonce-and-bullshit/

“Home.” Home, contemplation.stanford.edu/.

Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Nov. 2012, plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/#IncThe.

Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward politics: technologies of popfeminist activism. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016.

Annina Hanlon is an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is majoring in Psychology, with a specialization in Mind, Culture and Society. She is especially interested in issues regarding race and gender, and how work done in academia can intersect with and impact these issues in the “real” world.