On belief

The issue of belief in the supernatural is obviously a polarizing one. Americans tend to fall fairly squarely into one of two camps: the “that’s a ton of crap” camp, or the “these are clearly orbs, not dust motes or raindrops and they ARE DEFINITIVE PROOF THAT MY AUNT IS HAUNTING MY BATHROOM!” camp.

I’m a folklorist, and as such I have a somewhat unusual attitude toward the supernatural. As you may have guessed from my abortive ghost-hunt, I fall somewhere in between abject belief and stubborn skepticism. I am, in this as in most things, thoroughly agnostic. But one thing I’m completely certain of is the need to not only tolerate and respect the beliefs of others, but in fact to acknowledge them as viable.

In folklore, as in all of the social sciences, we’re guided by the concept of cultural relativism. In a nutshell, this means that any element or expression of culture, any system of thought or code of behavior or other product of human action, can only be judged in its own terms. It’s a superficial example, but one cannot, in this way of thinking, judge West African  cuisine, say, by French culinary standards. It simply doesn’t make sense. Doing so would negate the opinions and judgments of the people operating within a given culture. “Apples and oranges” is a terrible cliche, but it’s one that applies here.

The same is true of belief (and belief is a big word that includes scientific knowledge, “superstition,” religion, and all the other areas of human knowledge that relate to knowledge of the world). This is not to say that these categories are equivalent or coterminous. On the contrary, the whole point is that they’re too different to even compare; but despite this, they must be allowed to exist. You don’t have to buy Mormonism or Buddhism or Creationism or any other -ism, but you have to allow it to exist. You also have to acknowledge that, regardless of your personal opinions, any given belief system works in some vital way for the people who participate in it.

In other words, don’t be an asshole and insult people for believing in something you don’t. Forcing your atheism/positivism/whateverism on someone who happens to hold different beliefs is absolutely identical, ideologically, to attempting to replace one religious system with another. And generally when that happens, we call the people responsible horrible names like, I don’t know… Nazis?

That’s too dramatic, of course, but the point is, insulting people’s beliefs and insisting on the validity of your own is, by definition, a form of oppression, and it is in fact the same kind of thinking that has characterized every oppressive political regime in the history of human life. This isn’t just a question of political correctness. It’s a matter of acknowledging that no one person, or group of people, has all the answers.

Enter Cracked. As I’ve said previously, I’m a big fan of the comedy website (generally), but it annoys me when some of their writers attempt to generate humor by capitalizing on the same kind of ignorance that, in other situations, they seem more than happy to attack. A list that went up today is a case in point (and the motivation for this post): “6 Insane Superstitions That Are Still Shockingly Influential.”

I don’t know where to begin. Most of Cracked’s authors have an obvious liberal slant (which I appreciate), and they generally treat this kind of the thing in exactly the way it deserves: by tearing up its shit. For example, this, and this, and this. In each case, the authors are poking fun at/holes in things they view as inherently racist or sexist or otherwise oppressive. So it’s startling when, in the context of a website that makes fun of that kind of ignorance, the authors of this list of “insane” beliefs proclaim,

As a society, we’re pretty good at spotting the difference between actual science and superstitious nonsense. But everybody’s got their weak points: Maybe you’re a totally rational human being who also happens to believe in alien abductions, ghost kidnappings or yeti carjackings. That’s OK. You’re not alone. Why, sometimes even courts and governments blur the line between reality and bullshit …

This is perhaps the most intolerant thing I’ve read in quite awhile, and because it’s couched in humor and ensconced in a website that typically calls out racists and sexists and other -ists, the authors seem to think it’s valid.

Of course, what gets me the most is that these authors are encroaching on my research. #1 on their list is actually the topic of my dissertation, and I don’t appreciate their disdainful dismissal of this (or any) belief tradition. The folklorist they mention was kind enough to give me an interview last time I was in Ireland, and he is a serious, intelligent, and highly rational man.

I know it’s pointless to get mad at a comedy website. If something is lampoonable, everything is. But the grounds on which they’re mocking supernatural belief aren’t valid, and that’s what really burns me.

I’m not reacting to the jokes. Jokes are great, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Even the most sensitive of issues need to be spoofed. But the underlying premise here does bother me, and that is, effectively, “Other people are so primitive! Look at their stupid beliefs! Let’s laugh at them! We have iPhones!”

Humor has to be funny in order to support the challenging ideas it puts forward. This article isn’t funny. Not because it’s offensive, mind; offensive stuff is hilarious. No, the article is just not clever enough to be funny.

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