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WWIII?: Desensitization, Alarmism, and Anxiety

image of British WWII enlistment poster

With the recent American airstrike which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani the internet has been abuzz with talk of a Third World War. This includes plenty of talk on Twitter about an imminent global war as well as countless memes which address everything from the potential widespread damage to the possibility of being drafted. This raises an important ethical issue: is it justifiable to raise the specter of a Third World War over this matter and is it okay to joke about such things?

To recap the current situation, following attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad, American drones targeted Soleimani just after he was getting off of a plane in Baghdad killing him and nine others. In Iran, Soleimani was considered a “folk hero” for his long military history. Following the attack, Iranian officials called the move “a foolish escalation,” while the Iranian President has called for revenge. Because of this situation, there are now worries that open conflict between the United States and Iran is a real possibility and that this could be the beginning of a new World War. Comparisons have been made on Twitter between the death of Soleimani and the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assignation famously started the First World War.

While a war between the United States and Iran is possible, the outbreak of a world war is unlikely. Still, the use of the concept of “Word War Three” is ethically salient. For starters it is alarmist language that could cause some forms of panic. The website of the Selective Service System crashed on Friday because of the “spread of misinformation” as many apparently were concerned about the possibility of being drafted into military service. Secondly, the flippant use of the term “World War Three” can now be added to several other historical scares, and continued use of the term may not only desensitize us to the possibility of an actual future war but also to the First and Second World War. It is easy to label a conflict as a possible “sequel” to the two historical events, but it is much more difficult to review the historical record in order to understand why those two wars were world wars, why they came about, and how the world has since changed in comparison.

Beyond the rhetoric, there is also controversy because of the jokes and memes which the incident has inspired. Several of these make reference to the possible widespread death, being drafted, being imprisoned for refusing the draft, and becoming a prisoner of war. A recent article by Katherine Singh is critical of such posts noting, “people on the internet have pretty much not taken the issue seriously.” She argues that joking about the draft is rude to those who were drafted and had to serve in the armed forces prior to 1973. It is additionally rude to those who are currently serving in the Middle East and face a very real danger of potential harm; such jokes do not take into account the real effects of war and the threat to civilians in the region. She asks, “How horrible is it that we’re so desensitized to warfare that we make memes and jokes about the prospect of airstrikes and combat?”

On the other hand, joking or making light of a world war is hardly new. Many early recruits of the First World War jumped at the chance simply to escape the boredom of life at home as the possibility of going to France and meeting French girls seemed exciting. Recruitment stations often advertised a “free trip to Europe.” Once at the front “trench newspapers” would joke that the sport of hunting was “open season all year round” with “no permit required.” Pilots in the Flying Corps, who faced the real possibility of burning to death in their cockpit, would joke about “joining the sizzle brigade.” Such humor would not be out of place in the memes of today. In the Second World War the slow start was dubbed the “The Phoney War” and the “Sitzkrieg.” During The Blitz of London, as civilians died or lost their homes, the BBC broadcasted satirical pieces about fictional officials of the German Propaganda Ministry. The fact that people of the day could joke about such things does not mean that they were desensitized to war, but rather that humor can be a way of dealing with anxiety and stress.

The humor found in modern day memes about a hypothetical World War Three is not necessarily any different than the humor derived from previous world wars. They may not reveal a desensitization to war, but they may, in fact, be a symptom of real anxieties that younger people might have about their future and their control over it. If such a war broke out, it would be younger people who would be expected to do most of the fighting and would have to deal with the long-term consequences. Large global conflicts such as World War Two or even the Cold War are not part of the lived experiences of many young people, and so the possible threat of a break down in the global order may be a real source of anxiety over a future that they are not prepared for. This can be true of other cases like climate change or the rise of populist and nationalist movements as well.

One must also consider whether joking about avoiding the draft or about going to war is worse than mere indifference to these possibilities. If the reaction was a collective shrug, it might suggest that people are desensitized to the possibility of war. Everything requires perspective. In some cases, alarmist language and jokes about war can be ethically harmful and desensitizing. It’s easy to euphemize the assassination of a general by stating that “Bullies Understand a Punch the Nose,” but the analogy breaks down if the bully then decides to set your neighbor’s house on fire in response. On the other hand, making light of war can be a way of reminding us what is at stake and help us deal with our anxieties about global conflicts that we may have little control over.

The Unexpected Tension of Netflix’s Nanette

photograph of a microphone and a dark background

“I don’t feel comfortable in a small town. I get a bit tense. Mainly because I’m in this situation,” Hannah Gadsby, a gender non-conforming comedian, says, airing her hands over her navy T-shirt and open blue blazer with a black lapel. “And in a small town, that’s alright. From a distance. People are like, ‘Oh, good bloke.’ And then you get a bit closer and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, no, trickster woman, what are you doing?”

Released on Netflix June 19th, Nanette has reached international attention. Gadsby’s opening string of jokes that introduce her comedy show at the Sydney Opera House seem like a humorous introduction to her life and the small Australian island of Tasmania where she comes from; however, they actually foreshadow the whole show. From a distance, comedy seems safe. You know what you are getting out of the genre. If you get offended by a joke, you’re too sensitive or don’t have a good enough sense of humor.

Ironically, Gadsby, the comedian running the show, says that people tell her all of the time, “Don’t be so sensitive.” I’m sure that many of us have laughed at jokes with which we were uncomfortable just because everyone else did. Maybe we have even walked out after a comedy show a bit sick to our stomachs about some offhand humor. But Gadsby’s show is unlike any other because she liberates us from the groupthink and easy laughter, raising her expectations for the audience. In fact, it would be inappropriate to laugh during the serious portions of her show. She brings a question into the mix that you would never expect out of a comedy show: “Why is insensitivity something to strive for?” She challenges her audience to think critically, and her show navigates humor and heartbreak.

Gadsby jokes about people apologizing for calling her sir: “I love being mistaken for a man because just for a few moments, life gets a hell of a lot easier. I’m top shelf normal, king of the humans,” she shouts in a deep voice. “I’m a straight white man.” Just like her initial physical appearance to passing strangers, her comedy show invites the audience in with disarming self-deprecating humor before challenging the genre and making people consider the price of her jokes. Trickster woman.

An audience member complained after her show once that there was “not enough lesbian content,” which becomes a refrain that she repeats in a sarcastically bitter voice throughout Nanette. Gadsby jokes, “I cook dinner way more than I lesbian. But nobody ever introduces me as that chef comedian, do they?” In her profession and life, her sexuality becomes a marker for her person: a label to boil down her comedy. She does not identify as transgender nor believe that lesbian is an appropriate identifier for her, but other people are eager to categorize.

A comedian would not be introduced as that straight comedian. Comedians would not be described as male or white. The expectations for their content are not qualified. People with intersectional aspects of their identities become “not normals”—to use Gadsby’s words—while the people who trump them in race, sexuality, class, ability, and gender privilege become the baseline normal with the top of the privilege ladder being simply: a comedian.

Another refrain throughout the show is her announcement that she has to quit comedy. Reflecting on her career as a whole, she says, “When I first started the comedy over a decade ago, always, nothing but lesbian content.” She tells her humorous tale about coming out to her mother and a joke about a young man who was about to fight her at the bus stop because he thought that she was a man flirting with his girlfriend. The jokes work. The audience erupts in laughter.

Halfway through the show, Gadsby says, “Let me explain to you what a joke is.” She continues, “a question that I have artificially inseminated with tension. I do that. That’s my job.” Gadsby can control tension so well because—as a gender non-conforming woman—she has been familiar with it since childhood: “I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension.”

Contributing to why she wants to quit comedy, she explains, “In a comedy show, there is no room for the best part of the story. Which is the ending. In order to finish on a laugh, you have to end with punchlines.” Sharing the third part ending of her coming out story, she says, “The best part of that story is that mum and I have a wonderful relationship now.” She pauses, shrugging her shoulders and looking around. “Look what I’ve done to the room. No tension. You all just go, ‘Eh, good on you.’”

With a happy ending, the tension dissipates. Through comedy, Gadsby cannot share full stories, especially the ones that skyrocket the tension and fail to conclude in a punchline that eases our worries. Revisiting the story that she told about the young man at the bus stop, she says, “I couldn’t tell the part of the story when that man realized his mistake. And he came back. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I get it. You’re a lady f**got. I’m allowed to beat the sh*t out of yous,’ and he did. He beat the sh*t out of me, and nobody stopped him.” She did not report him to the police or go to the hospital, explaining, “[B]ecause I thought that is all I was worth.”

Leaving us hanging, Gadsby does not give us the antidote to tension. She does not offer us the relief of laughter that she has been providing audiences for over ten years, proclaiming, “And this tension is yours, I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension, is what not normals carry around inside of them all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.” Gadsby carries that third part of the story every time that she relives the tension of the first two parts that make up the joke, but this time she uses her platform to share the whole thing.

Gadsby shares that her mother once told her that she felt badly for raising her as if she were straight, telling Gadsby, “I made it worse because I wanted you to change because I knew the world wouldn’t.” Well, in this revolutionary show, Gadsby quits playing into the same humor that has launched her career all of the way to the stage at the Sydney Opera House. Instead, she uses the genre to upend it. Trickster woman. And instead of an hour of changing herself, she spends it changing the world through genius, humor, heartbreak, and sensitivity.