Against Self-Deprecation

Self-deprecation is the new ethnic humor.

There are many things we could say, and many that we choose not to. There are things we could say about other people, many of them hurtful things, things that good people do not say about each other. Not even to make a joke, although that is always the excuse. It is mutually understood, mutally accepted, that such jokes are not innocent. The assumptions such jokes posit for the sake of their punchline are claims we would not countenance if they were taken seriously, and for this reason the jokes too are forbidden verbal terrain. These are the things that are not said.

But society leaves open certain loopholes, it allows certain exceptions. Disparaging claims made about oneself and the groups to which one belongs, when made in jest, are exempted from this censure. Assume, for the sake of a joke, that I am a resident of a city of idiots. In the punchline, I do something idiotic, and the assumption dies down with the laughter. We are believed not to think of ourselves as idiots, those of us from this city, so the joke arrives, free of any baggage of dangerous implications, and discharges its assumptions and goes about its business.

So it goes with jokes about races and countries, and so also it goes with jokes about groups of one. If I call myself a pathetic specimen of a human being, if I point out my laziness and stupidity, if I tell you about my desparate insecurities, you will laugh until your sides split and then you will give me a stand-up spot, a book deal, an online journal. If I said these same things to you, you would punch me on the spot, unless perhaps you know me well enough to know that I don't mean it. This is the blanket license society grants the self-deprecator: the automatic assumption of insincerity. I can get away with what I say about myself beacuse you know that I don't mean it.

Self-mockery is licensed, and therefore it is also easy. It takes no special courage, it takes no special creativity. It doesn't even require any self-knowledge at all. We are so suffused with the phrases and the posturings of this affected self-loathing that it is no difficult matter to join the crowd. The phrases come readily to the lips, the formulas are easy to master and easy to modulate. Pathos, dysfunction, sloth. Neurosis, idiocy, hapless self-hatred. You can accuse yourself of any of them and joke about it without ever saying anything at all.

So? So we make jokes that don't say anything, so? Jokes are for fun, where is the harm in some gentle self-deprecation?

Here is the harm: every insincere joke at one's own expense devalues the currency of self-criticism that much more. In a crowd of a hundred neuroses laid bare, can you spot the six genuine sufferers, the seven trying to face up to their demons? Whose words express something deeper, and whose are just for show? There is no traction in this landscape of slick sarcasm, there are no handholds left for those who truly need them. When everything is just a joke and nothing more, there is no laughing through tears, there is no laughing so hard that it hurts. One cannot achieve catharsis with store-bought fake rubber vomit. This disingenuous self-mockery makes easy what some people need to be hard.

Here also is the harm: the rhetoric of self-loathing is a trap, an endless stationary spiral staircase. And what you think when you are starting out, and fresh, may not be what you think when you have been climbing past the same scenery for hours. Repetition is reinforcement, and what I tell you three times is true. True, I may start out mocking myself in order to appear humble, I may be looking for an inoffensive way to say something funny, I may adopt your self-mocking style in order to fit in with your culture of perverse one-downmanship -- but perhaps I, and you, will end up by taking seriously all these things we have been assuring ourselves we are not taking seriously. How many times can you tell yourself that you hate your life before you start to believe it? Destroying your sense of self for a joke seems a high price to pay, and yet with this self-mockery, it is the easiest thing in the world.

And here, most of all, is the harm: the rhetoric of jesting self-hatred seems to say something, but it does not. It is risky in the same way that throwing rocks into the polar bear den at the zoo is risky, which is to say, not risky at all. It does nothing to advance one's sense of oneself, but neither does it do anything to advance humanity's understanding of itself. Art produced in this fashion is empty, it says nothing, means nothing, adds nothing. Self-loathing laughter alone is hollow, it has no power of its own anymore, and to pretend that it does is to give the illusion of progress, to distract attention from the places where gains might still be made. Making fun of yourself is easy, and therefore, from an esthetic or an ethical point of view, it is not worth doing.

I am not opposed to self-mockery. I have great empathy with those who struggle with themselves, with their conceptions of themselves, who wonder how they can ever possibly become someone worth being and still remain themselves. Their struggle is hard enough without having to deal with sarcastic hecklers who carry out elaborate parodies of their sufferings.

Neither do I think that jokes at one's own expense are unfunny. I laugh at them, and sometimes I make them. But I have no illusions that they are anything more than cheap laughs, jokes of the sort one can crank out endlessly because the patterns are so reliable, so unchanging. It's the game of knock-knock jokes with more complicated rules.

And neither do I believe that self-examination and penetrating laughter have no place in human and artistic development. They are tools, techniques, materials, and they can be profitably employed together. But they do not suffice by themselves, they are not enough, we're exhausted the possibilities here. They must be harnessed to new ideas, to to other possibilities, they must be broken down and recombined and launched out upon the world in forms not seen before. A joke about myself, that's old hat. But a joke about myself with a twist in it, with a sudden jumping-off into a rabbit-hole uncovered during the first laugh, this is worth paying attention to, this is worth doing. The poetics of personal failure have failed. We msut make them work again.

One must go further than simply making fun of oneself, one must go further.

Originally published 17 October 2000 at