Laughing at / with the Dead

I recently had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of medicine in Baltimore. It’s a great conference, filled with friendly and interesting people doing what academics generally do at such events – talking, schmoozing, drinking, and so on. If you work on the history of health, disease, or medicine I heartily recommend attending. There are always at least a few panels about drugs, and there are always people around who know a tremendous amount about the history of addiction and related topics. Plus, there’s always good food. This year they gave away free Haagen-Dazs ice cream and warm chocolate chip cookies. What’s not to like?

Anyway, I attended a number of interesting presentations at the conference, two of which got me thinking – not so much about the topic of the talks, but about the question of how we talk about the past. The first was a presentation on biomedical research in which the presenter made a number of amusing comments, some of which were at the expense of the people she was talking about. This is actually a pretty common dynamic at this conference – speakers will sometimes describe something objectionable that physicians did in the past, for example, and then sort of smirk or otherwise indicate their disdain for the behavior they are describing; audience members will react by chuckling or perhaps groaning in a sort of “I can’t believe they did that” type of response. In this particular case, the presenter made a few humorous comments about the research subjects who had been experimented on, at one point poking fun at one of their poems that she had discovered in an archive. The poem was admittedly quite bad, but there really wasn’t any reason to include it in the talk except for comic relief. Those people sure did write terrible poetry, didn’t they? Hah hah!

This sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me that we should be respectful of the people we study, even if they are dead and even if we disagree with what they thought or how they behaved. I’m not sure why I feel this way, but I do: it just strikes me as sort of rude to make fun of people, especially if those people don’t have the opportunity to make fun of you back. Of course, I also realize that I’m a bit uptight when it comes to these types of issues, and I recognize that I sometimes come off as a bit of a prig. I mean, really, what’s wrong with poking a bit of fun at people, especially if they aren’t around anymore to take offense? Beats me. All I know is that it makes me squirm in my chair and want to go out and get one of those cookies that I mentioned earlier. So there I sat, listening to the jokes about people being experimented on in years past, feeling both slightly offended and somewhat defensive about my own stuffiness. I probably should have just called it a day and gone back to my room for a nap.

Not Funny!

On the other hand, I also saw a talk in Baltimore in which the presenter was very serious – and I mean very serious – and spent a significant amount of time chastising other historians for not adequately addressing the suffering of the many people who died due to a certain catastrophic event. The speaker didn’t seem to realize that he was speaking to a friendly audience – I mean, historians of medicine are more than happy to talk about death and destruction, and to assign blame for said death and destruction – and he came off as both insufferable and self-righteous. That was a decidedly unfunny talk, and I can’t say that I left it any more pleased than I left the talk about medical experimentation. One was too funny, or perhaps funny in the wrong way, while the other was decidedly not funny enough, or at least not enjoyable enough. In both cases I probably would have preferred to be somewhere else.

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