During a 2013 retrospective last week, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, and four other panelists, mocked a Romney family portrait because Mitt Romney held his African-American grandchild on his knee.
As Harris-Perry pointed out the child, one of the giggling panelists sang the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other…” Another joked, “This really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party. At the convention, they find the one black person.”
Ridiculing people’s appearances violates the rules of adult humor. Yet these panelists are intelligent adults. Three of them are comedians, so one would presume they understand the subtleties of humor. Why was the portrait funny to them? Where’s the joke?
I believe one of the panelists revealed the answer when she sang the Sesame Street song: they were laughing at what they perceived to be absurd. Apparently, in the far-left world, people should remain within their proper racial categories, and white Republicans have no business rearing black children. “…One of these things just doesn’t belong.” Ha ha. It was the cognitive equivalent of a toddler laughing when her dad puts a shoe on his head, or a hat on his foot.
The old “something-out-of-place” bit is hilarious to three-year-olds, but not to normally developed adults. And it’s certainly not funny to adults who are discussing human beings rather than objects.
Unless, that is, the adults in question embrace a simplistic and disparaging impression of their rivals. When a cohesive group vilifies their rivals, their jokes become increasingly primitive as their view of those rivals becomes increasingly facile.
For example, Tea Party opponents frequently dismiss the group and their legitimate policy concerns with the locker-room epithet, “teabaggers.” Even President Obama – who is by no means a stupid man – garnered laughs from a friendly audience by invoking the term.
Pointing and laughing. Name-calling. These are high humor when the mind is running in low gear, overvaluing my group and demonizing yours. The MSNBC panelists could only have found humor in the Romney portrait by viewing the family as one-dimensional bad guys unworthy of basic respect.
What does this say about people of the left? Not much, in general. It’s a statistical truism that ideological opponents are much more similar than different. But the incident does suggest that liberals, who pride themselves on being nuanced and scholarly, remove their thinking caps when discussing conservatives. I believe this is partly because we conservatives and libertarians have a serious marketing problem.
MSNBC aside, reasonable, mainstream liberals have no difficulty advancing their ideas in the classroom, at parties, and in the workplace. But conservatives and libertarians (wild-eyed, off-putting extremists aside) tend to steer conversations toward more genteel topics.
Because mainstream conservatives too infrequently advance our philosophy in polite company, we make it easy for liberals to buy into a one-dimensional caricature of the depraved capitalist: we oppose ObamaCare because we disregard the poor; we question climate change models because we don’t care about the environment. And we are racist to our core, which is why MSNBC panelists were able to perceive racism in a family portrait that was perfectly loving and inclusive.
Conservatives must combat this caricature by coming out of the shadows. Ironically, it’s the very caricature of the heartless, racist Republican that prevents many of us from publicly discussing our philosophy. Who wants to be lumped in with a group that’s routinely branded as cruel and racist?
But conservatives must engage others, one-on-one, as the left does. At best, we will win a few hearts and minds. At the very least, a friendly and reasoned presentation will make it difficult for liberal friends and acquaintances to believe the bitter message of the far-left.
Shawn Smith is a licensed psychologist in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and the author of “The Woman’s Guide to How Men Think: Love, Commitment, and the Male Mind.”