Grappling with Illusions

Posted on 10 November 2011

“Black is black. White is white. Grey is a little less dark than black.”

When my brother spoke those words, I was taken aback. My first thought was, “What about green?” I’m not certain where he picked up the aphorism. Sadly, that sort of thinking is all too common in our culture and can serve to make black seem attractive. After all, it’s easier to attain than some people’s definition of white.

However, a world of kindergarten absolutes pares reality down to an apparently manageable size. We can easily point to the good guys. We can easily point to the bad guys. We know where we belong and what is expected of us. Piece of cake, right?

This poor piece of cake is only to be had if you can enforce these ideas onto the populace at large. And even then life will be messy. Holes will readily appear in the outlook. We are complex thinking, feeling, living beings and no one will find they can uphold an unrealistic and broken ideal. Life will always be a long string of exceptions. The exceptions and the holes are where we build much of our comedy.

Groups who demonise sexuality and preach abstinence are working against natural biological urges. They cannot stop people from procreating. They cannot even keep people from copulating outside their narrow realm of acceptable exceptions. All they can really do is create a system of endless guilt. Then they provide a parallel system of temporary relief through confession and/or penance, setting up a co-dependent relationship with their members.

I do not believe these groups necessarily had a Snidely Whiplash twirling his moustache and consciously devising this system. Physicality brings death. Sexuality is the origins of physicality. Denying physicality can seem logical to some, particulaly when you are in touch with the fragility of life.

Comedians, like everyone, have a hard time staring at death (not that we don’t upon occasion). But we are more than happy to find every single hole in the repressed sexuality debate. And so we should. We also have a few bigger fish to fry as well.

The people who do twirl their metaphorical moustaches are companies whose marketing and sales people are willing to use less than ethical means to ensure they turn a profit.

For instance: demonise normal to heavy body weights. Glorify a largely unattainable body shape in the media. Promote the values of indulgence and impulse buying through advertising. Sabotage people’s ability to make a considered choice about buying unhealthy foods by always placing those foods in their way. Make them feel guilty about their “lack of will-power” and sell them bogus weightloss programs. The results are people being manipulated into an unhealthy and unhappy lifestyle in order to line other people’s pockets.

Yes, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. But monied interests will do everything within their power to make that step a difficult one. Parents are not taught how to instill a strong character into their children. Many institutions teach obedience as the highest value, since thoughtfulness could lead to conscientious objection.

Doesn’t this just make you want to go to town finding sharp witty jokes that expose the system for what it is? Isn’t that better than a cheap fat joke?

I would say our highest cultural value right now is status. That status can be achieved through political power, monetary power, emotional or intellectual influence, brute force, or celebrity. Mind you, most institutions play with all forms of power.

Yes, we have a certain amount of biological and evolutionary urge to play the status game. The most fit members of a species have better access to other fit members and can thereby propagate their genes. Nature uses many methods to demonstrate fitness, from ability to build a sound nest to sporting the largest and most attractive tail.

However, we are so clever that our ability to demonstrate status goes beyond anything this planet can adequately support. Our media plays on fear and ego, both as a kind of rush and a motivational tactic. Status is seen as a place of safety: “If I have enough power and/or influence, I will be unassailable. No one will dare hurt me physically or emotionally.” This is an irrational dream, but it still sits inside us all.

So to gain status we have people playing with our black and white structures and exploiting our most basic drives, so that we are responding out of balance with reality. We need food, it’s an easy button to press over and over again. We are programmed for sex, it can be used to push our need for status and stimulation: buy the expensive red car, it’s like having sex, it will make you more important than your neighbour, and more attractive to potential partners. A need for the safety of belonging is twisted into co-dependency, so people turn themselves into products to sell to the right social groups. On and on.

All of this needs to be exposed. Ways must be found to make status less of an urgent drive. Alternatives need to be offered. John Clarke and Brian Dawe on ABC’s 7:30 Report do a fabulous job at portraying our cultural and political absurdities. The hugely popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report also do a great job. We are still a little shaky about offering alternatives. At least in comedy a more realistic range of human beings is represented: all body shapes, ages, genders, ethnicities, etc. The message is that it’s okay to accept yourself as you are.

I believe that our higher urges are also natural. They are what made our civilisation and many of our finest achievements possible. A certain amount of responsiblity, forward-thinking, and altruism are needed to build a school. And we have done this over and over again. Our ideas of good have made us see only black. We need just enough faith in ourselves to push past cynicism and discover that realistic step after step, we can make positive changes.

Peace and kindness,


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