Fools, All Of Them!
“The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year,” Samuel Clemens tells us. Seemingly a trivial and silly non-holiday, celebrating only justified puerile pranks and callow capers, its origins and contemporary expression actually symbolize how the majority establish the standards of right, and of how people with dissenting opinions are played for sweet and bitter fools.
During the Roman era, the new year began when it was supposed to, at the start of the year. Starting in the Middle Ages, the French, being French, decided to celebrate the new year around the vernal equinox, with celebrations ending after a week or so (actually on April 3, so my column isn’t untimely) with a day of social calls and gift-giving. In the mid-16th century, Pope Gregory established January 1 as New Year’s Day again, perhaps to sell more copies of his new calendar; some resisted the change, and continued to observe the holiday customs in April. The newly reformed mocked the conservative reactionaries, and sent mock invitations and gifts, calling the Poisson d’Avril (a favorite April Fool’s prank was to avail to poison each other, still a custom in some provinces).
It appears a quaint and anachronistic story, but it’s the story that continues even today, when the majority of society -- often under the instruction of some authoritative decree -- establishes what’s right and proper, and what opinions are foolish. From Alan Greenspan’s analysis of the dismal first quarter on Wall Street, to the recent U.S. News graduate school rankings, to the new area codes and mandatory 10-digit numbers, to the horrible conspiracy that is Daylight Savings Time, all are decrees from on high, supported by the compliant majority eager to find out the Truth, which creates a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating prophesy. Once established, the inertia of the majority opinion allows little room for dissent. The few who stubbornly refuse to pretend it’s an hour earlier than it is, who naively believe in the prestige of a school with low rankings, or who valiantly rail against having to remember three extra digits, are mocked and derided.
Individuals deviating from majority opinion, too, can bear the brunt of collective contempt -- from Justin Fong, author of the infamous “Invasian” column in The Harvard Crimson, to David Horowitz, under fire for criticizing reparations for slavery. Very high passions are aroused against these people who, rightly or not, oppose accepted societal mores and norms. Naturally, society should engage in rational discourse with people with what appear to be mistaken sentiments. To use the power of the majority to cholerically abase and degrade such dissenters, however mistaken they may seem to be, will ultimately be counterproductive. If it seems difficult to change the minds of “fools,” it’ll be all the more difficult to persuade humiliated fools.
How often do we ridicule those who don’t follow the same rules that we do? When we say “that’s so stupid,” or “that’s so sad,” how often do we actually mean “that’s so different?” Should we derive amusement out of belittling people’s beliefs (such as the greatness of David Duchovny)? Shall we impress ourselves with witty deception of the misguided (such as those who don’t appreciate Duchovny)? Of course; what else is sarcastic wit for?