Monday, January 19, 2009

Of Laughter and Red-hot Coals—the Humor that Saves

CAN our vaunted Filipino sense of humor be harnessed to help us get through the sickening corruption of our times? The question occurred to me when I received the two jokes recounted below from an American religious, Marist Brother Kevin O’Neill, who’d worked with us once in Malaybalay. The jokes, evidently, are going the rounds of Filipino communities in the States that he is in close touch with.

The first is about how corruption is supposedly looked at differently in America than in the Philippines.

Q. What’s the difference between corruption in the US and the Philippines?
A. In the US, they go to jail. In the Philippines they go to the US.

And the second is about Filipino super-expertise in corrupt practices:

Three contractors are bidding to fix the White House fence. One is from the Philippines, another from Mexico and the third an American. They go with a White House official to examine the fence. The American contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring, then works some figures out with a pencil.

“Well,” he says, “I figure the job will run to about $900: $400 for materials, $400 for my crew and $100 for me.”

The Mexican contractor also does some measuring and figuring. “I can do it for $700”, he says. “$300 for materials, $300 for my crew, and $100 for me.”
The Filipino doesn’t do any measuring or figuring, but leans towards the White House official and whispers: “$,2,700.”

The official, incredulous, says: “What? You didn’t even do any measuring like the other guys! How did you come up with such a high figure? How do you expect me to consider your service with that bid?”

“Easy,” the Pinoy explains, “$1,000 for you, $1,000 for me, and we hire the guy from Mexico.” The next day, the Pinoy and the Mexican are working on the Fence.

Jokes only—but with a special sting (because right on target?): the first reminds us that the worst practitioners of the “art of corruption” among us are the relatively well-off, people who really don’t have to steal to survive and who almost always get away with their criminal thieving. The second shows how our supposed penchant for improvisation makes for superior inventiveness even in corruption—a deplorable misuse of a God-given talent?—and for ease in enticing others to become complicit in its evil. Actually, it is this same devious talent that prompts the thoughts I’m proposing for consideration in this column: Is it possible for us to think of humor not just as a mechanism to cope with the evils corruption brings in its wake but for something more drastic—to imaginatively, creatively use humor as a means of purging the body politic of the poison that it is?

The reasoning behind my proposal is probably most simplistic, but I put it down in black and white anyway in the hope that it will catch and start more of us thinking along its lines. I have only two arguments to make: one from Philippine culture, another from Christian faith.

First, from culture: If there is one glaring defect common to the corrupt in our nation today it is their utter shamelessness. So we should ask ourselves: Can humor—jokes, laughter, even ridicule at their expense—help cure them, re-enkindle in them an ordinary Filipino sense of hiya? I don’t know for sure, but I believe it’s worth trying. Add this to the praying I suggested in my last column as one thing we could do.

And secondly, from faith: Prayer and ridicule don’t seem to go together. In fact the latter could well deny the former, at least in this sense, that it seems to sin against Christian charity. But then Christ himself constantly used ridicule against his enemies among the Pharisees of his time. And so did Paul the Apostle in his quarrels with Judaizers. He even talks of pouring red-hot coals over the heads of one’s enemies by doing good to them (see Romans, 12, 21)—something we will be doing to our corruptors if we are to be able to help them, through ridicule and humor, to cease from continuing the harm they’re doing. So, pouring burning coals on their heads, as Paul teaches? It is a thoroughly Christian act of charity that we should give more thought to in the intransigent fix we are in as a people. For laughter and humor can indeed be salvific—for both the corrupt themselves and the victims of their corrupt ways.

An afterthought: If the jokes I cited above are being widely circulated among Filipino expatriates in America, I suspect it is in reaction to the deep shame they feel in the constant citing of their country of origin as one of the most corrupt in the world today. So they trade jokes—even painful ones—for their possible cathartic effect.