April is National Humor Month and we’re celebrating by inviting you to a special virtual event.
Join us as we welcome the authors of the best‑seller Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, for a conversation on how leaders can use humor to empower employees to bring a broader and more authentic range of their humanity to their work and to their team.
We’ll talk about:
--The behavioral science of humor, and why it is an underleveraged superpower to fuel creativity, foster resilience and strengthen bonds at work.
--How to flex a new leadership muscle that will foster greater boldness, authenticity, presence, joy and love—in yourself, your teams and at your business.
Yesterday I also read the essay “Campaign Literature” by Thomas Chatterton Williams, which is a response to Viet Thanh Nguyen's New York Times op-ed, “The Post-Trump Future of Literature.” Nguyen’s subheadline says it all: “What will writers do when the outrage is over? Will they go back to writing about flowers and moons?”
I believe that being funny is not a superpower. It does not necessarily foster resilience or authenticity or empowerment or empathy—as anyone who has been the target of a cruel but funny person knows, it often does exactly the opposite. (At least in the title of their book the Slack hosts admit it is a weapon.) I also believe that literature about flowers and moons is about the texture of daily life, and whatever outrage I have about politics is how it alienates people from appreciating flowers and moons. There is, in fact, often no better way to defy a totalitarian state or a coercive social movement than to write about the petals of a daffodil or the curve of a crescent moon.
Nguyen believes otherwise. "Everyone had to make a choice," during the Trump era, he claims, "Especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus. But in 2021, will writers, especially white writers, take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege?" He disdains apolitical writing in these racially charged terms thoughout the essay. As Williams puts it, “Nguyen would have every author become a strident advocate on and off the page.”
There is a commonality in the mindset that sees comedy as a leadership or profitability tool and the mindset of seeing art as political tool. When someone is being funny for profit, like in an ad, they want something more than your laughter—they want your money. And if they are being funny to better lead you, they may want your obedience. The Slack "conversation" I was invited to would render humor a business function like technology and time-management—yet under the guise of “empathy” and its synonyms and subfields. Likewise, when art is harnessed in service of a political goal, like propaganda, the texture of life is filtered through a point of view—very often a deceptive one. The flower and the moon and the other things that make life beautiful are reduced to a means to an end, if mentioned at all.
The 19th century art for arts sake movement was a kind of anti-movement, and that is what this essay aspires to be. It’s an argument against making an argument. It’s a call to be funny in the office just for the heck of it and for making art that is not a call to do anything. Today, from the workplace to literature, from the boardroom… to the bedroom, our forms of expression are expected to be useful in ways that would have greatly annoyed many of our finest humorists and artists—for example, Oscar Wilde. He punctuated his aphoristic manifesto "The Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'" with an adage I would spray paint on statues and courthouses across the country if I were the spray-painting type: “All art is quite useless.”
If I was having this conversation with Ms. Aaker, Ms. Bagdonas, and Mr. Nguyen, I would admit that I don’t see the world as all or nothing. A boss who uses humor to lighten the day or motivate her staff is not necessarily trying to trick me into subservience. There is certainly plenty of great art that is overtly political. But, I would ask Bagdonas and Aaker to drop all the crap about leadership and empathy and present office humor as what it really is: a fun break from work. I would ask Nguyen to consider that the distance between the flower in the yard and the moon in the sky is vast, with plenty of room in between for pamphlets and light verse.
But how to raise awareness for my cause? How can we foster a broader and more authentic range of humor and literature?
The answer is obvious: make May Art for Art Sake Month.