Legacy media doesn’t like to be joked with. The New York Times recently accused satirical website The Babylon Bee of having “sometimes trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.” Last year, CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan made a similar allegation about the website:
Having a disclaimer buried somewhere on your site that says it’s ‘satire’ seems like a good way to get around a lot of the changes Facebook has made to reduce the spread of clickbait and misinformation.
To their credit, The Babylon Bee has responded to these attacks with more of the same hilarious jabbing, including articles with titles like: “New York Times Attacks Babylon Bee For Being More Accurate Than They Are,” and “CNN Attacks Babylon Bee: ‘The Internet Is Only Big Enough For One Fake News Site.’”
Of course, those like me, who believe the NYT, CNN, and other similar ideological and partisan outlets have abandoned any pretense at objectivity, might respond to the Bee’s teasing headlines in the words of Homer Simpson: “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”
Many Americans have gotten good at caustic ridicule. We know how to level the most searing barbs at our opponents on social media or the website combox, a weapon made all the more effective by our ability to carefully refine our language on our smartphone or laptop before clicking “send.”
Cancel culture takes many forms, but certainly one of them is the ease with which people can be labeled racists, sexists, bigots, homophobes, Karens, you name it, often with social or professional costs. At the same time, however, we’re increasingly disconnected from the art of teasing.
Of course, The Babylon Bee engages in satire — defined as the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize others’ hypocrisy or stupidity — but it is a satire that is intended as playful and good-hearted rather than vicious. In this sense, much of what it engages in — contrary to the more predictable and haughty satire one sees from, say, “Saturday Night Live” or the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri — can be characterized as teasing.
Consider headlines like “Report: Guy With Pronouns In His Bio Doesn’t Think The Babylon Bee Is Funny,” or “Biden Bans High-Capacity Assault Stairs.” Such satire is hardly motivated by animus. Neither is the good kind of teasing.
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and a prominent researcher on teasing, defines it as “an intentional provocation accompanied by playful off-record markers that together comment on something relevant to the target.” Teasing can be verbal or non-verbal, is intentionally light-hearted, and comments on or draws attention to something regarding the person being teased. Psychologists acknowledge that teasing can serve valuable functions in society.
Of course, humans knew this long before professional scientists and academics began labeling and studying it. If you’ve seen a war movie or read a book on the subject, you know that soldiers are constantly poking at each other, giving each other unflattering nicknames, and insulting their female relatives.
As an officer and friend of mine in the Air Force explained to me, teasing, whether on the practice field or during training, is an important social ritual. For one, players (or soldiers) are part of a team. Whatever their abilities, they must recognize that those talents are to support something larger than themselves. Teasing helps temper egos that can ruin a play or get someone killed.
Alternatively, teasing fosters humility and equalizes the group. If everyone possesses some trait or personality quirk that is worthy of mockery, then we are all in at least one sense equal. Nobody is allowed to remain aloof and detached.
As an extension of that, teasing also helps build unit cohesion by building trust among its members. You make fun of me, I make fun of you, and we develop a rapport in the process. Teasing, done properly, is a form of acceptance, notes psychologist Peter Gray, because it shows the recipient that he or she is considered part of the group.
Teasing also reinforces natural hierarchies based on competency and experience. Even if you’re the brilliant new kid who is more intelligent or skilled than the aged veteran, there are lessons — and traditions — that are learned only through “time on target.” This reinforces humility, but it also keeps the pecking order explicit.
If teasing is stifled or prohibited, those hierarchies don’t go away. Rather, those hierarchies will go underground, or people will act out in problematic ways that undermine the group and amplify tensions.
Unfortunately, our hyper-sensitive culture is aggravating this problem in our institutions. Human Resources departments and woke activists warn of “patriarchal norms,” “toxic masculinity,” and “mansplaining” that encourage people to aggressively police each other’s (and especially men’s) behavior. They promote “safe spaces” and deride “micro-aggressions” so no one gets hurt or offended. Ironically (and sadly), this can result in punishing those who question such pseudo-science, like University of Virginia medical student Kieran Bhattacharya.
Yet it is precisely in pain and suffering that virtues like trust, sacrifice, and camaraderie are fashioned. Ending nuanced behaviors like these eradicates social rites that mature us in favor of those that coddle and infantilize. The consequence is a generation of emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped (and malformed) whiners.
Of course, teasing can be taken to extremes, manifested in bullying that is aggressive, mean-spirited, and dehumanizing. We all know about cases of hazing where abuse crossed lines and led people into depression, self-hatred, and even sometimes death. The goal of such behavior isn’t to foster cohesion and build virtue, but to exclude and weaken. There were, and unfortunately remain, toxic “good old boys” clubs. I have no interest in defending any of that.
I was bullied a fair share as a kid. I had a funny last name, was short, and had bad acne. I was also smarter than most of my classmates, which made me an easy target. Sure, some of the teasing hurt. But a lot of it was formative, toughening me up for greater challenges and obstacles in my adult life. It’s hard to mature if everything you experience is warm, affectionate affirmation.
Ultimately, I’m grateful for learning to absorb teasing during my first tour in Afghanistan, when I spent a lot of time with the same people in close quarters. I was ribbed for being more introverted, bookish, and innocent than my peers (I was at the time a young, devout evangelical who mostly stayed on the straight and narrow). I knew barely anyone meant any real harm by it. In time, I learned to give as good as I got.
But more deeply, I knew that we were part of the same team, with the same mission, and could count on one another. That means a lot when you’re periodically experiencing incoming rockets and small-arms fire.
Even in less dramatic life scenarios, the give-and-take of teasing means a lot when you’re just trying to live in the world with people who are different from you. If you can’t suffer a little good-natured ribbing, how will you manage the real crises and losses of life?