Friday, May 12, 2006

Polish jokes

This weekend's Comedist meditation will be the first of a three part series on Polish jokes. Next week we will set out a surmise about the history of Polish jokes. Why did Poles end up a standard butt of "dumb people" jokes? The easy answer is that they came over with German immigrants who always held their neighbors to be inferior. But the story may be a bit more interesting. That's for next week.

This week, we'll look at a couple of interesting features of these sorts of jokes: one logical , one sociological. First, these jokes lack what logic types call a semantic substitutivity. The referent of the term "Pollock," "blonde," or any other group that we plug into these jokes is an arbitrary stupid person -- we use the groups because they are immediately recognized as being stereotypic stupid. If you substituted "stupid person" for the member of the group mentioned, the sentence would have the same meaning. Yet, if you substitute "stupid person" into the joke, it suddenly ceases to be funny. "Did you hear about the Polish hockey team? They drowned during spring training." "Did you hear about the stupid hockey team? They drowned during spring training." Different, no?

(What did the hockey coach do when the ice melted? He sent in the subs.)

The second is the universality of these kinds of jokes. Every group has some other group that it makes these jokes about. Brunettes have blondes. Montanans have North Dakotans. There is always someone who can be plugged in. This can be understood in terms of the work 19th century sociologist, Ferdinand Toennies. Toennies argued that all groups will organize themselves in two ways: Gemeinshaft, or community, is social organization based on similarity -- think of a family or a neighborhood -- and Gesellschaft, or society, is social organization of those who do not share commonalities, but are united around a goal or task -- think of a team or corporation. Toennies argued that within any society, communities will form; and within any community, social factions will form. Stupid person jokes are one way of unifying a community. By identifying them as beneath us, the jokes serve a unifying function. It erases the differences between those in the society, unifying them into a community by making them similar in being superior to them.

Next, the history of Polish jokes. Part three, are these jokes immoral?

So give us your best stupid person joke.

Did you hear about the two West Virginians who went looking for a Christmas tree? They walked mile after mile, for hour after hour. Finally, one turns to the other and says, "We're cutting down the next tree we see, I don't care if it has lights on it or not."