Eric Bergeson: Don’t be cruel, but that’s how we get our laughs
Most of us have been raised to recoil at cruelty to animals, at least if it is done within our sight.
But cruelty to humans? Ha! That’s a different story. That’s how we get our laughs!
After Halloween, a video made the rounds of parents who hid their child’s candy and told them they had eaten it all. The video captured the child’s despondent reaction.
Their eyes got wide.
“It’s all gone!” the parents said. “I ate every bit of it!”
Naturally, the children cried. After all that running around the neighborhood in a hot costume, wouldn’t you?
Despite the tears, most people saw the kids’ reaction as “cute.”
Over the past few years, video after video has appeared of children surprised by a parent showing up after a long tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
One showed a parent appearing in the child’s classroom. With cameras rolling, the kid burst into uncontrollable sobs.
“That is so neat!” was the consensus.
The genre took off. Soon, it became a fad to stage surprise reunions between small children and their military parents at half-time of college football games in front of 60,000 people. As the confused child broke into tears on the jumbo screen, the crowd roared its approval.
Nowhere did I see a peep of protest.
As a child, I would have felt betrayed. You all knew Dad was coming home and you didn’t tell me just so you and millions of others could watch me cry?
You mean you lied to me about stealing my candy just so you could record me crying in panic and get famous by distributing the video?
Practical jokes can be cruel, too. As a kid, I loved to play jokes on the people who worked for Dad and Mom.
One time, I cut up some jalapeño peppers and inserted them into the fresh sliced tomatoes on the table. When the crew came in for noon dinner, I waited to see who would get the hot tomato.
It was Oscar. Wrong person. Oscar was the most dignified neighbor we had. I wanted to stop him. But I didn’t.
After putting the whole tomato in his mouth, Oscar maintained his dignity against all odds. He carefully wiped the loaded tomato from his mouth into his napkin, took a drink of water, and announced apologetically, “I think there may be something wrong with these tomatoes.”
I felt horrible. I knew I had crossed the line.
Cruelty is defined as taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It bothers us when cruelty happens to cute little animals, but less so when we laugh at humans we deliberately place in a situation which strips them of their dignity.
So are all jokes cruel? Are all manipulations of another’s emotion for our own mirth out of bounds?
I’ll draw the line in the sand and say a little cruelty might be okay, but only if “he had it coming.”
Old Oscar didn’t have it coming.
People used to steal gas. One time, a gas thief stepped in a pail just as our neighbor unleashed his hounds. The thief ran as fast as he could with a pail on his foot.
He had it coming. The dogs didn’t hurt him. We can laugh.
I still think it’s funny when people tape the nozzle of the sink sprayer with electric tape, even if I am the victim. The sad fact is, I am usually my own victim with that one.
I had it coming.
However, children never have it coming. Manipulating their emotions for a good laugh, or a good cry — either one — is sick.
I have helped plan a number of surprise birthday parties, and they can be fun, but there is an element of cruelty to them as well. With cameras ready, we hope to catch the person off guard. Then we laugh and laugh.
The older I get, the more I am turned off by surprise parties. The charade benefits the surprisers, not the surprised. The surprisers want to catch you off guard, see a little emotion, strip a little of your dignity.
I can’t help but sensing some betrayal. You planned this all behind my back? What else are you doing behind my back that I still don’t know?
The moral cover used is that the surprise is supposed to be a good one.
Daddy’s home! Aunt Ellen came all the way from Seattle! We hid Uncle Charlie from Anoka in the basement for two days so you wouldn’t find out!
The unselfish approach would be to give people time to prepare for an emotional reunion.
Losing one’s composure in public isn’t everybody’s idea of fun.