Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten
Columnist

Correction:

An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Robert Weinstock as a professor at Gallaudet University. He is an adjunct professor. This version has been corrected.

Gene Weingarten: Hear no evil?

From time to time, I am accused of lacking sophistication. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I shall now prove with my response to an epistemological question submitted by a reader. It concerns comparative modes of cognition, perception and philosophical perspective in a pluralistic society, namely: Do the deaf find farts funny?

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that this is too complex an issue to resolve in the limited space of a newspaper column, but you are wrong. I am an interpretive reporter. My skills include synthesis and concision.

Gene Weingarten

Gene Weingarten’s humor column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in The Washington Post Magazine since July 2000. He also hosts a monthly humor chat. As a feature writer, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in both 2008 and 2010. Since 2010, he has co-authored the syndicated comic strip “Barney and Clyde.”

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We can accept as axiomatic that the fart is a genre of nonverbal communication that has proven intrinsically funny across all cultures and eras. It is an object of amusement in surviving documents in Sanskrit, Old Norse and even Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is rampant in Chaucer’s more ribald tales. Roughly 300 years ago, the Japanese had “fart scrolls” — cartoons of naked people engaged in ludicrous flatulence fights (you can see some on the Internet). I think it not reckless to surmise that the very first “joke” was likely a shared merriment at accidental flatulence — probably during the late Cenozoic era, when our human forebears began to intellectually distance themselves from more primitive hominids such as australopithecines and Neanderthals, establishing a de facto classist society where the notion of cultural sophistication, as a normative model, first arose. Ergo, unintentional deviations from this new concept of “dignity” exposed our pretensions, giving rise to mirth.

The question at hand, then: How significant to this paradigm is the component of sound — the distinctive bleat or blat or onomatopoeic tarrump-pum-pum that not only reveals the social error but readily identifies the culprit? How essential to the perception of humor is the naturally comedic noise, with its inevitable assignation of blame? With the deaf, does the tree-in-the-forest koan apply?

My research methodology was to send these questions to a deaf friend, Robert Weinstock, adjunct professor and special assistant to the provost at Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading institution of higher education for the hearing impaired. Weinstock, in turn, re-routed the query to a social network of distinguished faculty, administrators and graduates. More than a dozen responded — 11 men and four women, most with advanced degrees. From their answers — some of which approach dissertations in length and intellectual rigor — one may draw a number of conclusions. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it turns out that the central assumption in the initial question betrays a dismayingly shallow, eardrum-centric worldview.

The deaf do find farts funny, sometimes to a depth of appreciation that eludes the hearing. Both groups recognize the central irony that the planet’s most evolved species nonetheless has to make foul foof-foof from its fannies. The hearing laugh primarily at the sound; the deaf, primarily at the odor. With the deaf, however, the mystery of authorship turns out not to be an impediment to humor but an added frisson, a forensic challenge. This, the deaf pursue with gusto, and with an uncommonly versatile set of tools.

When a person is lacking a full complement of senses, others become more heightened in a compensatory fashion. Several respondents aver that — dependent on magnitude and proximity — they can often identify a fart through vibrations in the floor or shared bench seat or banquette. Moreover, the deaf also have developed a compensatory skill at interpreting nuance of body language; they are far more likely to notice when someone in their midst (most often a hearing person) adopts a body posture consistent with efforts to control the emission or prevent it — a telltale “jig,” as one respondent described it.

And here is where the greatest mischief attends:

I inquired whether farting, in general, is more voluble among the deaf. From the carefully qualified answers, I deduce that the answer is no, unless the hearing are also present, in which case the answer is sometimes ... yes. And not by accident. That’s because the deaf know that the hearing are always just a little uptight in their presence, fearful to give offense. So this subversively tests them.

Now that’s funny.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

 
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