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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Less Brow-Furrowing, More Joke-Cracking

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Civil discourse doesn’t just happen—at least, not without a little effort.

That’s just one of the many things we learned recently during our interview and Q&A with sociopolitical comedian and Santa Clara University Artist in Residence W. Kamau Bell. Bell, who hosts and produces the CNN television series United Shades of America, is well versed in the art of uncomfortable conversation, and had a great deal of wisdom to share with us and our audience members.

Bell’s United Shades explores a motley selection of communities across America, telling a refreshingly multi-dimensional tale of what it means to be American. In his exploration of diverse geographies, cultures, religions, life experiences, and belief system, Bell exposes both himself and viewers to the under-explored corners of America. Maybe he has always had a knack for breaking down barriers and forming unsuspected bonds, or maybe it’s a result of his travels across the country—but whatever the case may be, Bell somehow manages to traverse diverse conversational landscapes with the ease of a seasoned triathlete.

Although the four of us Hackworth Fellows feel deeply invested in the topics of free speech and civil discourse, we are also well aware of the potential these subjects have to deteriorate into a stale, disembodied conversation with little to no impact on audience members’ thoughts or actions. Needless to say, we were excited to chat with a comedian, and appreciated the way Bell wove a healthy dose of humor into our conversation. Through his clever use of comedy and witty, relatable voice, Bell not only told us about the importance of lighthearted discussion—he demonstrated how it’s done.

At one point, Bell explicitly called out those of us in the room who take ourselves too seriously, and reiterated the power of comedy as a tool for crossing ideological divides. If you can get someone to laugh, he said, you can get them to listen.

He suggested that, in some contexts, it might be more productive to engage in a playful banter than a heated debate. I was taken aback by this approach at first, as it seems the most controversial topics are also the most deserving of our serious attention. But after watching United Shades and listening to Bell explain the reasoning behind his tactics, I’m convinced that a thoughtful dash of comedy might do us all some good when we find ourselves in the realm of disagreement.   

If we want to engage in and promote civil discourse without tiring ourselves out or driving others away, it seems we ought to keep an eye out for creative ways to cross divides and form connections. Finding opportunities for humor amidst the pain and chaos of serious discord is certainly a viable way of achieving this goal—and I’d say it’s worth trying to crack a joke the next time we feel tempted to snap, yell, or furrow our brows.

May 31, 2018

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