Wednesday, February 07, 2024

'To Be in Some Respect Unique'

“[L]et us not forget that ‘public’ denotes a collection not of identical units, but of units separable and (under close scrutiny) distinguishable one from another.” 

I work with professors of statistics, among others, for whom data are the primal substance of the human world. You and I represent categories, vast overlapping demographics, and don’t amount to much ourselves. Such thinking, of course, is prized by pollsters, politicians and anyone who’s trying to sell you something. The implication is that we are predictable and, by extension, malleable.


Another product of this reductive view is so-called “identity politics” – seeing not individuals but the arbitrary classifications of age, race, sex, ethnicity and avoirdupois. Humans are complicated and this approach simplifies things, and makes decision-making easy. Other names for it are snobbery and prejudice. Granted, everybody’s a snob or bigot about something but some of us try not to impose it on others. The caution quoted at the top comes from a wise man, Max Beerbohm, in his essay “The Humour of the Public” (Yet Again, 1909).


“The word ‘public’ must,” he writes, “like all collective words, be used with caution. When we speak of our hair, we should remember not only that the hairs on our heads are all numbered, but also that there is a catalogue raisonné in which every one of those hairs is shown to be in some respect unique.”


Beerbohm’s bigger point is that a sense of humor is as individual as our genes, though I think there’s only one way to have no sense of humor at all.  


“I might have said truly,” he continues, “that no two men have the same sense of humour, for that no two men have the same brain and heart and experience, by which things the sense of humour is formed and directed. One joke may go round the world, tickling myriads, but not two persons will be tickled in precisely the same way, to precisely the same degree. If the vibrations of inward or outward laughter could be (as some day, perhaps, they will be) scientifically registered, differences between them all would be made apparent to us.”


Thus, the essential subversiveness of a well-exercised sense of humor, which can’t be plotted on a graph.

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

"There are secret aspects, beyond divining, in all we do – in the makeup of humans above all; aspects mute and invisible, unknown to their own possessors, brought forth only under the incitement of circumstance."

Michael Montaigne