Laughing Near Lawyers

Most people like jokes, but few like to be the butt of one. This is because jokes invariably belittle those they target through imputing to them, whether deservedly so or not, some demeaning quality or other, such as stupidity, cupidity or carnality.

In his highly instructive and amusing book, Jokes and Targets, the internationally renowned authority on humour, British sociologist Christie Davies, seeks to understand why jokes amuse us so and target those whom they do. Among the joke Davies seeks to explain are those which target dumb sexy blondes, the lascivious French, frigid Jewish wives and their shopaholic daughters and timid, sports-averse husbands, the former Soviet system, and unscrupulous American lawyers.

Being busy professionals, American lawyers might initially be inclined to dismiss the questions Davies raises as too frivolous to warrant their serious attention. They should think again, given in what a poor light jokes about them now routinely depict them where they are invariably portrayed as being venal, corrupt, money-grabbing, and dishonest. Could joke tellers be sued for group-libel, surely by now some enterprising American lawyer would have cleaned up.

Among the various unflattering attributes routinely ascribed to American lawyers in jokes, surely the least endearing yet most characteristic one is their imputed fondness for resorting to litigation whenever the opportunity presents itself of using it to make a fast buck for their clients and themselves. Davies illustrates the frequency with which this trait is imputed to American lawyers in jokes by means of the judicious selection of them with which he enlivens his text. Some examples:

What’s the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? One’s an ugly, scum-sucking, cold-blooded, bottom-dredging parasite. And the other one’s a fish.

What educational programs should the United States support to ameliorate the burgeoning U.S.-Japan trade imbalance?

Japanese language lessons for lawyers.

Did you hear about the lawyer hurt in an accident?

An ambulance stopped suddenly.

Everybody in my family follows the medical  profession.

They’re all lawyers.

How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to climb the ladder, one to shake it, and one to sue the ladder company.

These jokes might amuse you but not all American lawyers find them funny. For example, consider what was said about them by John Carpenter, a former President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and scion of a long and distinguished line of American lawyers that include his father, both grandfathers, and a great grandfather. Carpenter denounced jokes such as these in the following terms:

‘This is a truly great and honorable profession. Yet we stand by and watch other people make fun of it and us and…we even join in the self-abuse… May I suggest that you and I join together to… stamp out “lawyer jokes”? Think about it. Their demise just might begin with me – or you.’ [208]

Again, consider the response to such jokes of the Pennsylvania attorney Terry Light:

 ‘I have been a member of the Bar for 16 years… and have never understood why lawyers sit by idly as others ridicule and humiliate them… My abhorrence of “lawyer jokes” runs deeper than a mere pride in my profession… I resent those who use me and my profession as whipping boys… To be blunt, it just isn’t funny and it hurts.’ [208]

Light, indeed, has gone so far as to call the following joke “an invitation to genocide”:

Question: What do you call a lawyer up to his neck in cement?

Answer: Not enough cement.

Davies provides several further variants of the same ‘death wish’ theme:

How do you stop a lawyer from drowning?

Shoot him before he hits the water.

What is the ideal weight for a lawyer?

About three pounds, including the urn.

If I had but one life to give for my country, it would be a lawyer’s.

About a year ago, another well-known Chicago lawyer now resident in Washington D.C. levelled a similar charge at Sarah Palin for having used crosshairs on a campaign map to indicate target states. Palin denied the crosshairs had been intended to represent sightlines of a rifle rather than symbols used by surveyors on theirs. Whatever their intended meaning on that occasion, Davies has no truck with the suggestion that jokes berating lawyers or any other group do their targets any real damage. As he puts it:

 ‘Somehow I doubt that lawyer jokes were ever very popular with the Khmer Rouge… who murdered not only lawyers but anyone wearing eyeglasses or showing any signs of education… Ideologies kill. Jokes do not… Jokes have no effect in the real world out there… American jokes about lawyers have had no impact.’ [211]

Despite denying jokes influence how people think or behave, Davies considers them ‘interesting and important’ because, as he puts it, although ‘not a thermostat… they are a thermometer’. [211]. In other words, jokes reflect how those whom they target are viewed by the societies where they emerge and circulate.

It is precisely because they do that American lawyers should take seriously the jokes that have lately begun to circulate about them. For they betoken that they and their profession are now suffering very badly there from a poor public image. Should any American lawyers be tempted to dismiss that poor public image as of little practical import, they should take a look across the Pond at Britain whose bankers have lately been denied contractually agreed bonuses and stripped of public honors because of the poor image they have lately acquired, doubtless with as much and as little reason as that which with which American lawyers have lately become invested with theirs.

If American lawyers are to improve that poor image, they must first understand why so many jokes have lately appeared targeting them as unscrupulous, and more generally why jokes target those whom they do. It is in the explanation Davies offers of why jokes target those they do that the value of his book lies for American lawyers.

Why, then, according to Davies, do jokes amuse and target those they do? Davies offers a relatively perfunctory answer to the first question. It adds little to the explanation first famously proffered by Freud of what he called ‘tendentious jokes’. Puzzlingly, Davies credits the Russian linguist Victor Raskin and American sociologist David Riesman for the explanation rather than Freud. Either way, he explains the capacity of jokes to amuse so:

 ‘Jokes are .narratives or riddles, whose main, though not exclusive, humorous force lies in the punch line… The joke appeared straightforward… but then suddenly a second hidden and unexpected script… is revealed.… [Their enjoyableness] lies in this combination of appropriate incongruity and suddenness… There is often a further humorous bonus… for the second script revealed in the punch line may evade the conventional rules of a particular society or group about what may or may not be said… Jokes play with the forbidden… Jokes are a brief time off from the everyday inhibitions and restrictions that bind the ways we speak.’ [3]

Given this explanation of why jokes amuse us, to account for their targets, Davies must identify in the case of each which social conventions jokes about these targets are designed to break. To understand that matter, so Davies contends, it is vital to bear in mind when jokes with specific targets first began to circulate. Consider, for example, jokes about proverbial dumb blondes. Blondes have long been associated with physical attractiveness and hence with sex.

Blondes, however, only became targeted by jokes for their imputed dumbness after women had entered the workplace in large number as the increasingly equal partners of men and hence in circumstances where their sexual attractiveness was irrelevant and hence mention of it had become taboo. As Davies explains:

‘The focus in earlier jokes [about women in the workplace] is always on the breaking of sexual rules, not work rules… [B]y the 1920s there were many more women working in responsible jobs outside the home that required the exercise of independence and intelligence, and it is at this time that their comic antithesis, the dumb blonde, first emerged. Far from being a joke about the stupidity of women… it is an acknowledgement that the new world of work requires intelligent rather than merely decorative women.’  [44]

According to Davies, what accounts for the emergence of jokes about dumb blondes is what he describes as being ‘a tension and an ambiguity in the social order as traditional sex roles fail to mesh with the impersonal and instrumental rationality required by modern occupations’ [46].

Davies offers a similar explanation in terms of historical factors peculiar to jokes about the awfulness of the Soviet system.

As to the innumerable deeply cynical jokes about the Soviet regime which those obliged to live under its harsh rule invented, Davies accounts for their emergence and wide circulation as having very often been their only means by which to vent their spleen at it and at the nomenclatura who flourished under it. Davies writes: ‘The era of high terror [between 1928 and 1956] saw the murder of tens of millions of innocent people [in the Soviet Union] and the arbitrary imprisonment and exile of tens of millions of others…  The jokes of, from, and about the time of high terror… are a gallows humour.’ [220-21] As an instance of such humour, Davies offers the following joke of that period:

Three men were talking in a labor camp about why they had been arrested.

“I was sent here because I was late for work” said the first.

“I was so anxious not to be late that I arrived half an hour early and was accused of being a saboteur”, said the      second.

‘The third said, “I turned up exactly on time and was accused of owning a foreign watch.”

In the ensuing period of decadence, from 1956 until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, jokes about its rottenness proliferated still more, as repression lifted somewhat. However, it never entirely abated, which is why such jokes continued to circulate. As Davies explains: ‘It was not so much the gap between ideal and reality as such that gives rise to jokes but the ban on pointing out that the gap exists’ [276].

Despite the enormous difference and incomparable superiority of the United States to the Soviet Union, Davies argues that a similar gap there between ideal and reality, one that has widened in recent decades, accounts for the recent spate of jokes there about lawyers and the legal profession. He writes:

 ‘It is… the sacred quality of law in… the United States that led to the great cycle of lawyer jokes. The U.S. Constitution is the one aspect of American political life that may not be challenged or ridiculed… [They are] a very indirect evading of the taboo on trashing the Constitution… More precisely they stem from the clash between the [idealized] perception of America as essentially harmonious and the reality that the much honoured virtues of egalitarian individualism inevitably lead to strife in the courts. The clash is framed and briefly resolved by jokes about villainous lawyers stirring up conflicts for their own profits.’ [276 & 198]

It would, however, be grossly to misrepresent Davies to construe him as suggesting jokes about American lawyers express or warrant any disaffection by Americans with that profession as such or with the law and the ideal of its rule. Quite the reverse. As he puts it:

 ‘In fairness there is only one thing worse than having far too many lawyers and that is having too few. In the absence of enforceable legal contracts [as] in the new Russia, disputes and debt enforcement… [are] settled gangster fashion.’ [235]

Nevertheless, behind the recent spate of jokes in America about its lawyers, Davies sees genuine a public concern about how far short its lawyers have begun to fall in recent years from the standards and ideals traditionally associated with their profession. As Davies puts it:

 ‘The last decades of the twentieth century saw the destruction of many of the old constraints on competition rooted in custom, convention, or the concept of the lawyer as engaging in a profession as opposed to a business… American jokes about lawyers… are a strange tribute to the distinctive American virtues, to the emphasis on rights, legality, due process, limited government, free speech, rugged individualism and the American dream that anyone can make it.’ [205 & 212]

Should Davies be right about what ultimately lies behind the current spate of jokes about American lawyers, perhaps, the time has arrived for the latter to decide what they want to be. Do they want to be part of a profession with its own time-honoured, non-mercenary standards and values or just another business in which anything goes so long as it pays and stays within the letter of the law?

Lest any American lawyers today have difficulty appreciating that distinction, they would do well to reflect on the extract from an address that Davies quotes which was given in 1845 by the chief justice of Pennsylvania John Bannister Gibson. As well as serving as a timely reminder, it provides a fitting note on which to end this review of Davies’ splendid book:

 ‘It is a popular but gross mistake to suppose that a lawyer owes no fidelity to anyone except his client and that the latter is the keeper of his professional conscience. He is expressly bound by his official oath to behave himself in his office of attorney with all the due fidelity to the court as well as the client and he violates it when he consciously presses for an unjust judgement… The high and honourable office of a counsel would be degraded to that of a mercenary were he compelled to do the bidding of his client against the dictates of his conscience.’ [207]

It only remains to be added that one hopes that the economic and moral climate of America has not deteriorated so badly as might have led to any lawyer reading this extract there to respond to the sentiments expressed in it about their profession by echoing the Englishmen who drew praise from Arthur Schopenhauer for his candour when he openly confessed: ‘I cannot afford to keep a conscience.’