Heyoka and Ne’wekwe are two names for people called “sacred clowns” in native tribes. They had many functions, but their main purpose was to keep people on their toes, to help them avoid getting bogged down in complacency.
Maybe the term “sacred clown” needs a rethink. Neither of those two words really resonates with the average modern person in a positive way, and a distressing percentage of the population would probably just visualize Ronald McDonald—or worse—anyway. How about “social jesters”? They exist today in the form of people like Jon Stewart, George Carlin (rest well, you ornery Irish bastard), or a Facebook commenter who makes you roffle and think “Huh. Never looked at [topic] that way before.”
I think there’s a rich opportunity to increase the current numbers of social jesters, and on a grander scale. Life is more complicated—and there are way, way more people on the planet today—than in the days of the heyoka. More daily minutiae and more political leaders call for a proportionately greater need to prod, examine, and snicker at.
Depending on your environment (or if you’re a deeply insecure politician), you might think this is an odd or even suspect declaration. Here’s why I’m saying this: This nation is crazy polarized right now, along a variety of lines. Fuck the whole “In God We Trust” debate—the word “United” next to “States” isn’t worth the space it takes up on our money. It’s de rigueur for many groups to be complete dicks to other groups. Some invest a lot of energy in doing so. Makes moving through the world quite a tap-dance, doesn’t it? A little confusing and exhausting, maybe? Insert an image of Mr. Burns hissing “Ex-cellent” here. Confused and exhausted people are easier to manipulate, and are less inclined to give a rat’s about anyone who isn’t “me and mine.” Divide and conquer, baby. We’re living it.
That’s why control freaks despise laughter (at least, the kind they’re not in control of). It releases. It unifies. It opens eyes. Remember the boggart in Professor Lupin’s class? [editor’s note: that’s a Harry Potter reference for you non-nerds]
“We need to unify… so poke fun at stupid stuff” isn’t a suggestion to harass everyone outside your clique. (For one thing, you’d be outnumbered.) There’s a huge difference between ego-puncturing satire and bullying (a term I, having half a lifetime of war stories there, am sick. To. Death of hearing!) It’s about having your mind switched on, and even being compassionate. First, examine a thing objectively: Does this person take themselves way too seriously? Is that topic such a sacred cow that even bringing it up makes bystanders go quiet? If the answer’s yes, it’s an opportunity to bring the hubris down a notch. Just like with the boggart, the goal is to neutralize that suck-all-the-air-out-of-the-room quality so that you can function, even in the face of that thing. Our society is afraid to breathe these days. How is that okay for “the land of the free”?
Some people would take this approach as cynicism, and I can’t entirely refute that. But which is worse: sniggering at the ridiculousness of an elephant in the living room, or blithely continuing to pretend it isn’t there?