In a recent Zoom meeting I was reminded of something really important to conversation and interpretation: The Principle of Charity. This principle is often put forward as a way to help us when we encounter a person’s view that seems wildly bad. As a philosophy professor I tend to bring this up when students read Descartes’ Meditation I in my intro classes. Briefly, Descartes argues that he can’t trust his senses because they have deceived him. No person has ever read this and been convinced that since my senses have been off in the past, I shouldn’t trust them now. They will sarcastically, but correctly point out that they don’t then walk into on-coming traffic after reading the Meditation. But I often ask them to hold off on their incredulity and maybe ask why Descartes is doing what he is doing? What’s the point in making such an outrageous and gloriously false statement? He’s a bright guy, he knows what’s up. He’s got to have a point. Usually these rhetorical questions, oh and the fact that I am the professor doesn’t hurt, get them to stand back a bit and try and figure out what’s going on. This is pretty much the Principle of Charity in action. Instead of immediately disagreeing, or finding a place to critique the ideas or arguments presented, try to view the position as charitably as you can. View it and understand it in the best light possible. Not only will you have a better understanding of the approach, you may be able to argue against in a better way.
Maybe this whole approach relying on Principles and Charity isn’t for you. It does sound pretty academic or too philosophical. Another way to practice charity with people and ideas, is to play the “Yes and?” game. Often in my classes my students are quick to hear another’s view and then say “Yeah, but!” and then an objection follows. The idea is barely formed and people are attacking it. Criticism is good, but perhaps not always should it be our default. I encourage and sometimes force them to play “Yes and.” Take the idea or view and expand on it: add to it. You may be surprised. This game often has the practical benefit of slowing everyone down and making them engage in a more meaningful way. Instead of just going with the initial thoughts, which may be on point, this asks them to partner up with the person, work with them to more fully, more adequately, explore the idea. It may be that the idea just needed some further development. What was once seen as critically flawed may be more worthy than first thought.
How does all this apply to humor? Being charitable may help us avoid the rush to offense and anger that often happens when jokes or humor is misunderstood. What would it mean if it was true that the person was only joking? If I was simply trying to lighten the mood with a joke or a quip am I that bad? People have lost careers for a bad joke. Perhaps instead of being righteously angry, it’s a chance for us to have a conversation about why you believe that humor on the particular topic is never appropriate. Maybe if I am quick to offense at certain jokes and I stop before I express that anger to the joker, I might change my approach and address my worry about the use of humor about this topic. There are a number of ways we can misunderstand each other and the principle of charity won’t solve them all, but it’s a helpful tool we can use in our day to day communications. Further, as so much of our current communication is mediated via electronic media, such a charity might be doubly important. Instead of getting mad a failed joke because Zoom locked up as the punchline was delivered, I could ignore the confusion and ask for the joke to get told again. As a would-be humorist I may need to allow for the audience to catch up with me, or be even more explicit in my method of conveying that I am being funny. Emoji’s to the rescue.
Communication is difficult even in the best of times. Words that I have spent hours editing and working through for just the right meaning still fail. It happens. With so much else going on and with so many other issues that we face, having charity as one of our approaches is likely to make our communications all the better.