This is an extract from Political Ideals (1917) by Bertrand Russell:

In combination with the instinct for conventionality,[1] which man shares with the other gregarious animals, those who profit by the existing order have established a system which punishes originality and starves imagination from the moment of first going to school down to the time of death and burial.

[1] In England this is called "a sense of humor."

(the footnote is from Russell)

Why did Russell relate "sense of humor" to "the instinct for conventionality"? I don't see any important connection. "conventionality", as I understand it, means adherence to accepted norms and traditions.

  • 2
    He is joking. That's why he put it in inverted commas (quotation marks). He is, in fact, demonstrating the British penchant for dry humor. – Lambie Jan 26 at 15:05
  • @Lambie, what is the joke here? Comparing humans with gregarious animals? – Arham Jan 26 at 15:26

Russell is being humorous. He is using both sarcasm and dry humor in that very special way that British humor works (British spelling: humour).

The explanations below are as good as any for these characteristics of British humor.

Sarcasm is the use of irony to convey. It’s often a sharp, bitter or cutting remark manifest chiefly in vocal expression. This means it’s often the tone of voice which can imply whether something is sarcastic.Professionals in psychology and related fields have long looked upon sarcasm negatively, particularly noting that sarcasm tends to be a maladaptive coping mechanism for those with unresolved anger or frustrations. Psychologist Clifford N. Lazarus describes sarcasm as “hostility disguised as humor”. While an occasional sarcastic comment may enliven a conversation, Lazarus suggests that too frequent use of sarcasm tends to “overwhelm the emotional flavor of any conversation”.

British Humour is quite often referred to as ‘dry’, synonymous to the description of deadpan. This describes a humour based in expressing very little, if anything at all. Humour where there is a tension around whether or not it’s okay to laugh. Or where a situation is so uncomfortable that laughter is the only escape from the tension. Dry humour is often intellectual and speaks of bigger topics in a simplified way. For more dry humour check out Steven Wright with jokes such as – ‘It’s a small world. But I wouldn’t want to paint it…’

Blog from an English-teaching school re British humor

The term conventionality means "the quality of being traditional and ordinary or a part of something that is like this: The artists were drawn to one another by their rejection of conventionality."

So, the philosopher is suggesting two things: - The British are traditionalists. - The British have a sense of humor.

That is very comical in fact. It is precisely the British sense of conventionality that makes it possible for British humor to have flourished so wonderfully. It is easy for the British to make fun of themselves as they are precisely "so conventional". In every day life, the British are not known for their sense of humor. They are known, as it were, for being conventional. The perfect kitchen for cooking up batches of funniness, which they have done wonderfully over the centuries.

British humor has a long tradition (going back a long way at least to Piers Plowman where the narrator's name Will mirrors the author's name and the characters' names are quite funny) which is still very prevalent today, one need think no further than Ricky Gervais in the TV comedy, The Office, to see how this dry humor is still very active in the culture. Of course, one needn't forget about Elizabethan Theatre (Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson), Restoration Comedy down to the late Victorian comedy of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest". One cannot overlook the theatrical form of the Victorian music hall, but which existed before that and included the origins of what is today known as stand-up comedy. Of course, even this sketchy (joke) overview of British humour would be sorely lacking without a reference to Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch (dead parrot_ENJOY1), a masterpiece of British dry humor and sarcasm.

(Cambridge Dictionary, online)

The point is not that conventionality itself constitutes a sense of humor. It is that it is the basis for British humor. The Wikipedia entry gives a pretty good overview of British humor. British humour

  • Thanks. I think there may also be another interpretation: that Britons use humor so often that we can say that having a sense of humor is, in some sense, conventional there. – Arham Jan 26 at 18:05
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    I doubt that. It's really that Brits are more conventional than not. Therefore, it is easy for comics, comedians, writers and...philosophers to make fun of the culture. I don't think one can say they "use humor so often". – Lambie Jan 26 at 18:18
  • I understand what you mean @Lambie. I wasn't familiar with the term 'British humour'. But after you mentioned it, I read a little bit about it. In one website it is written that "For the rest of the world, there is a time and a place for irony. For the Brits, that time and place is wherever and whenever." Descriptions like this, make me guess that maybe Britons have a strong sense of humor. – Arham Jan 26 at 18:29
  • Make no mistake about it: in terms of the chicken and the egg, the chicken is the conventionality and the egg is the humor. One has to be careful not to get any on one's face. [do you know the idiom? :)] – Lambie Jan 26 at 18:42
  • It seems you are right. I'm grateful for your help. – Arham Jan 26 at 20:35

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