Wednesday, November 28, 2018

TB's Law

On the train to DC for the Middle States conference, I caught up on a few podcasts.  (My inner ear can’t tell the difference between a car and a train, so reading was out of the question.)  One of them, Planet Money, discussed a few “laws” of corporate behavior that started out as joking asides, but which came to be recognized over time as accidental truths.  Parkinson’s law, for instance, states that work expands to fill available time. That was apparently a wry aside in a paper, meant as a throwaway line, but it turned out to be largely true.  The Peter Principle -- everybody rises to their level of incompetence -- was much the same.

Both were born in sarcasm.  Sarcasm allowed the floating of forbidden truths that could be tested and accepted only after they were put forward in a non-threatening way.  

Most of us have had the experience a few times of hearing a sarcastic or wry throwaway line and being stopped cold by the abrupt recognition of truth.  Most of us have also had the experience of hearing misanthropy excused as “just telling it like it is,” and coming away feeling vaguely soiled.

It got me thinking about the boundary between the two.

As a general rule, I’ve found that people who like to preface statements with “I know this isn’t politically correct but…” are usually about to say something ignorant.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s much better than random. (Sometimes it’s worse than that. Experience has taught me that the appropriate response to “I’m not racist but…” is “Please stop talking now.”)  Courtesy can feel restrictive to people who don’t consider others worthy of it; if that’s your starting point, then entitled rudeness can feel liberatory. I won’t name any public figures here, but several leap to mind.

But sometimes a sarcastic aside can be helpfully clarifying.  

A few years ago, The Boy was on a terrible Little League team with a coach who didn’t let him play much.  After the nth consecutive loss, in which TB barely got to play at all, he seemed unusually deflated on the ride home.  I asked him what was wrong. He responded that “it’s hard to just sit there and watch other people suck.”

I’ll call that TB’s Law.  It was actually my primary motivation for going into administration all those years ago.  I looked around at who was already there, and at who might join them if I didn’t, and I just couldn’t abide the thought of watching them suck.  TB’s Law explains a lot. This year’s bumper crop of new Congressional candidates was largely motivated by TB’s Law. TB’s Law can even override imposter syndrome; when I started spending time around community college presidents, I started thinking things like “hell, if they can do it…”  That’s TB’s Law at work.

Portability is probably part of the key to a good accidental sarcastic law.  If the content is too situationally specific, it won’t resonate. It has to touch on some larger truth, and ideally, it should be pithy.  Dorothy Parker was a master of those, as was Oscar Wilde. Twitter is the natural medium for sarcastic asides; both Parker and Wilde would have owned the medium.  

Wise and worldly readers, what accidental nuggets of truth have you heard muttered in sarcasm lately?