Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

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The Unsung Virtues of Restraint

[Among the most viewed of the nearly 400 short essays posted on The Perfect Response is this from 2014, suggesting that there are sometimes advantages to not replying to another’s rebuke. We assume every arrow aimed at us needs a quick counter-response. But the psychological rewards of angry replies can be overrated. As noted here, even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.]

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant. It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes. It’s a self-fulfilling process. If others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas, the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to formally describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged. He equated the ability to make counterarguments to the realm of sometimes necessary personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around; our arguments should strike back. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings this kind of escalating indignation to the fore. Many websites make the mistake of accepting comments that are protected by anonymity. Are we surprised that they are often rude? And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude. The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays would wilt in their absence. What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments? To add to the fray, some of us get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding and hurtful, and the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down. In addition, the psychological rewards of verbal counterpunches can be overrated. Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. But they are probably just as determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this. The former President had a hot temper. Even before he came to office in 1945, he had more than his share of critics.  But his approach to doubters made a lot of sense.  In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation. But he usually didn’t mail them. The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words has several advantages. One is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway. It is our nature to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  Another advantage is that rapid and heated responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. And fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening: a result when disgust or hate drains away our capacity for clear-headed thinking.

Time gives us a better perspective. It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged. Most importantly, it helps us break the spiral of wounding responses that pile on top of each other.


Humor from Role-Type Violations

[The recent success of Britain’s Mischief Theater Company in stage and video productions around the world is a reassuring reminder that the norms of comedy are alive and well.  As this essay suggests, comedy often flows from simple violations of what an audience might expect. It can be funny to see someone gleefully ransack the minor social conventions the rest of us are so careful to observe.]

There are many theories of comedy, and no shortage of academics and philosophers who have weighed in. As the cliché goes, it’s a serious subject. My favorite theory of humor in  dramatic settings proposes that our impulse to laugh flows from observing settings where individual actions violate normative expectations. We watch a play or film. The character that an actor is playing seems to be a recognizable type, perhaps a businessperson, a young suitor or a priest.  Comedy is often born in these surroundings when earnest characters fail to enact social scripts they have supposedly mastered.  That’s the premise of Mischief Theater’s The Play that Goes Wrong (2012), where crack actors portray members of an amateur troop that bungles a story that is supposed to be serious.

In traditional comedies the actions usually can’t be dire or cruel. But when a puffed up socialite gliding through a hotel lobby slips on a banana peel, that’s funny.  If the same thing happens to a child, not so much. The humor lies in the punctured dignity of the socialite’s pratfall.  It reminds us of the distance between who someone aspires to be and the mortal that they are, and it’s the essence of farce.

This is the set-up facing an earnest and tuxedoed Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1949).  He has dressed to be the perfect suitor for a shrewd young woman he wants to impress. The setting of a party is the right place to make the impression. But he just can’t quite pull it off.

Sometimes its words rather than behaviors that can be the source of violated expectations.  When Rowan Atkinson’s Father Gerald tries to perform his first nuptials in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) it becomes clear that the nervous priest has come up short in finding for the familiar language needed to help the equally jittery groom:

Another variation on the mismatch between a scene action  is to introduce into familiar surroundings a character who is physically or temperamentally out of place. Charlie Chaplin continually put his scruffy Tramp in reasonably affluent settings that emphasized the pathos of a kind little man facing a much tougher world. The contrast was greatest when he costars where beautiful women such as Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931) and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936). The effect of his efforts to romance them is both funny and sentimental.

Groucho Marx and Robin Williams created types defined more by their manic times. The often brilliant stream-of-consciousness riffs of Williams were at least echoes to the wisecracks and double-entendres that poured out of Groucho. In both cases there is comic power in characters who could leave the occupants in a well-ordered room looking like they just survived a tornado.

And, of course, that’s the point.  Comedy may seem to be only a source of passing amusement. But it is also a form of discourse that reminds us of how much social life relies on prescribed rules of conduct.