“In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed-amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.”
“Diapsalmata,” Either-Or Part 1
This particular quote resonates all too well. The setting of the theater is a stroke of genius. The people see things not as happening to them but as a grander narrative around them. Everyone’s the star of their own movie, so to speak. And so when danger comes, its this arrogance that nothing can hurt you, that you are passively observing.
And when the warnings come, it is from art. Its from the people who partake in the reflections of our culture that understand its dangers most of all. And yet, we see it all as a joke.
Sartre has a similar line of thought. That what we’d consider “trolls” are that way to delegitimatize the conversation. They know how awful they sound. Its a tactic that regresses the discourse.
In Kierkegaard, the audience laughs at the clown. The audience thinks its beyond our concerns. The audience delegitimatizes the threat.
Nothing is ever “just a joke.” Jokes are dialectic. They represent and operate in the norms of social convention. To say a joke is only a joke ignores the social context that allows for the existence of the joke. To make a racist joke is to legitimatize the discourse of racism. It is a reflection of what we take as our values.
The audience laughs at the clown crying “fire,” because fire is the life they lead. The danger is not something they understand. The danger is everything that they are.