Nihilistic Tendencies in Psychology and the Phenomenology
of Off-Color Jokes
C. George Boeree
A bakery in Maine hires a new clerk. She's a very attractive
young woman who tends to wear her skirts rather short. The men of
the town hear about her and line up at the bakery the next morning.
Each one asks for raisin bread, knowing she'd have to climb a ladder to
reach it. After hours of climbing up and down the ladder, she finally
asks the last man, "Is yours a raisin, too?" He answers, "No, but
it's a twitterin'!"
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?
Three very-pregnant women are waiting to see their doctor. The
first says "I'm sure I'm having a boy this time, because my husband was
on top, and I always have boys when he's on top." The second one
says "That's interesting; I guess I'll have a girl, then, because I was
on top. The third woman begins to cry, and the other two ask her
why she's crying, and she says "I think I'm having puppies!"
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.
Queen Elizabeth and Princess Di were out driving in the family Bentley
when they were overtaken by highwaymen. The thieves demanded all
their jewels, but the ladies insisted that they weren't wearing any.
After searching them, the thieves decided to settle for the car, and left.
As the Queen and Princess were walking back to Buckingham palace, the Queen
asked Di, "Weren't you wearing a diamond ring when we left?" Di said
"Yes I was. But when I saw the thieves, I hid it up my... well, you
know. But weren't you wearing that sapphire necklace Prince Philip
gave you?" The queen answered "Yes, but when I saw the thieves, I
put it up my...well, you know." They walked a little further and
the queen added "It's a shame we didn't have Princess Margaret with us;
we could have saved the Bentley!"
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?
A young couple had a hard time talking about sex, so they went to a
marriage counselor for advice. He said they should think of some
silly, neutral word they could use when they wanted to have sex.
They picked washing machine. One night they were in bed and the husband
said "Washing machine!" She said "I'm sorry, dear, I'm just too tired
right now. Perhaps you could wake me up later" Two hours later,
he tries again, whispering "Washing machine!" She says "I'm still
tired. Could you give me another hour?" Later that night, she
wakes up, now refreshed and says to him, "Washing machine! Washing
machine, honey!" And he tells her "Never mind, dear. It was a small
load, so I did it by hand."
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!
An inventor comes to the president of General Foods with a peach.
The president says "What's this?" and the inventor says "Taste it!"
The president tastes it and says "It tastes like a peach. So what?"
The inventor says "Turn it around!" The president turns it around,
takes a bite, and says "Incredible! It tastes like a banana."
But the president, hoping to steal this idea, says to the inventor "That's
pretty good, but if you really want to impress me, make one that tastes
like a woman!" The inventor promises to try, and goes off the his
lab. A month later, he's back at the president's desk with another
peach. He says to the president "Taste it!" The president tastes
it...and then starts to gag and spits it out. "It tastes like shit!"
he screams at the inventor. And the inventor says "Turn it around!"
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
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....
Jacob needs to rebuild his outhouse and dig out his pit. Some
of his cronies tell him he can save a lot of time by using dynamite.
"That way, you destroy the outhouse and clean out the pit at the same time!"
they say. So Jacob sets up the dynamite under the outhouse and runs
a wire out to the barn. As he pushes the plunger, he sees his dear
wife running to the outhouse and going in. He runs after her, but
it is too late. Everything goes sky high. Miraculously, his
wife survives. He asks her "Are you all right, Rachel?" And
she says "Ya, but I'm sure glad I didn't let that one go in the house!"
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
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
Return to my homepage