Nihilistic Tendencies in Psychology and the Phenomenology of Off-Color Jokes
C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University

I have noticed more and more examples of nihilism in psychology lately, ever since the constructionist view has replaced the old behaviorist view.  Erving Goffman wrote a book in which he suggested that, as you peel away the social constructions we surround ourselves with, you eventually find that, like an onion, there is nothing inside.  This bothered him a great deal.  Likewise, terror management theory, a quasi-existentialist minitheory in social psychology, suggests that society essentially exists to protect us from awareness of our own nothingness.

Let me explain:  When I pay for my groceries, I write my name on a piece of paper and give it to the clerk.  Amazingly, the clerk accepts this paper cheerfully in exchange for wonderful edible stuff!  The store sends the paper to a bank, where someone who believes they have the right tells me that now I am worth less than I was before!  Checks, money, stores, banks, jobs, purchasing, and financial worth, not to mention psychology and college, are all social constructs.  You don't have to believe in them!  That's what happened to confederate money.  That's what happened to all those savings and loans a while back.  That's what happened to several of my jobs.

But then, perhaps everything else is also a social construct.  Male and female for example:  What is it to be male or female?  Chromosomes?  "Plumbing?"  Dress?  Psychological convictions?  In which society?

How about the self?  Is it just a mentalistic construct, as Skinner said?  Or a bundle of perceptions, as Hume said?

Or what is it to be human?

These kinds of questions give some people (e.g. David Hume) vertigo.  Others (e.g. Jean-Paul Sartre) get nauseous.  Kierkegaard felt dread.  Many feel angst or terror.  To counter these unpleasant feelings, we hold on -- some for dear life -- to our social constructs.  Reality (hell or not) is other people.  And anything that attacks that social reality must be denied or destroyed.  Criminals, saints, the mentally ill, heretics, foreigners, geniuses, the rude and obnoxious, the truly assertive... all of these are threatening.

Historically, this nihilism is based on the philosophies psychology is rooted in.  Hume said that there is no reality beyond sensations.  Kant said there is one but we can never know it.  Either way, all you can do is construct a reality, and the only thing that provides any solidity to that reality is if others are construing it like you are.  I, of course, believe that Hume and Kant and the last few hundred years of philosophy were wrong.

One quality of humor in general, and especially off-color humor, is its leveling quality.  Even the queen has private parts.  Even the president has to pee.  We all eat, excrete, have sexual desires, die.

There is, supposedly, a South American tribe where they believe that men do not defecate.  Obviously, the men can't really believe this.  And I can't believe the women would fall for it, either.  But they teach their kids this:  When a boy becomes a man, his anus grows shut.  This seems ridiculous to us.  But didn't many Victorians believe they were above sexuality?  Don't many people in our culture believe in eternal youth?  And why do we hide public rest rooms in America?  Do our architects believe we are exempt from the need to urinate?

Off-color humor destroys your social expectations, so you are "falling into nothingness" -- but only for a moment:  Then you are caught by the soft mattress of sensuous reality!  It's very primitive, really.  Little babies like to be thrown into the air and caught again.  We like to scare ourselves on roller coasters or with scary movies -- because we are supported by a realer reality.  And we laugh! Why are so many people turned off by off-colored jokes?  Why do so many hate them?  I find it bizarre, for example, that the TV Guide, which actively promotes a highly sexual and aggressive media, repeatedly notes its offense at any occurrence of mooning on TV.  What's so bad about mooning?

One answer is that a culture that survives is one that successfully convinces everyone that, without it, you are nothing.  So the culture needs to condemn, first, all other social or cultural realities (e.g. "other religions are wrong!"), and second, any reality that is stronger than itself -- i.e. sensuous reality.  So our cultures often forbid us from talking about sex or digestion or other pleasant things....

Another answer is that some people are simply more scared than others.  Perfectionists (i.e. anal retentives!) seem to build personal structures that they need to defend in the same way that authoritarians need to defend social structures.

We joke about what scares us.  But it isn't just whistling in the dark.  I'm suggesting that jokes directly, explicitly tell us that there's nothing to be scared of!  Behind the relativity of social reality is the solidity of a sensuous reality.  As Fritz Perls once pointed out, sometimes we should lose our minds and come to our senses!

Copyright 1998, C. George Boeree

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