. . . See answers in chart right.
Question #7 addressed the core issue we were investigating when we devised an instrument to attempt to gauge sentiment and style of expression about the controversy that erupted featuring the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops versus the Obama Administration over the rules for standard coverage for women's reproductive health under the Health Care Reform passed into law in March, 2010.
Question #7 was constructed from a joke going around, "If little boys could get pregnant, would the Bishops still oppose contraception?" Some people hate the joke but laugh at it anyway, some people think it's just a rework of a joke Gloria Steinem told 40 years ago, some people take offense and don't laugh, and for some people the joke just makes them uncomfortable. But whatever you think of that joke, there's a hundred of them going around. All over. Everywhere. E-mails. Water coolers. Late-night comics like Jon Stewart.
We wondered, first, why? and second, what? That is, we wondered if there were something else deeper than just the normal appeal of transgressive humor and ridicule of authority, and if so, what are the consequences? Our original concept was to surround the serious question about the joke with lightly transgressive humor in other questions so as to elicit unguarded and accurate reflections of the attitudes involved. But once we started doing that we realized we could address a couple of other tangents, hence, my pair of questions (#s 4 & 5) about the non-profit tax exemption, and my collaborator's question (#8) attached to the image of now-Cardinal Dolan, and we created #10 in conjunction with #7.
We were hoping (or one of us was, at any rate) to be able to discern a speculative correlation between the "formerly Catholic" answers in Question #1 and the hostility to the Catholic Church implied in the joke and the two questions that referred to it. If that were the case, it wouldn't be unusual--that pattern of first deeply loving and then profoundly hating the Church goes back 500 years. Whether it's occurring now might be important because, well, because it's now a political issue. For good or ill, Catholic doctrine on the ethics of sexuality is now an element of the secular American civil discourse. We don't know that love/hate is an animating force behind the jokery--but I for one am willing to state that it almost certainly is.
Constructing question #7 was extremely difficult. I knew "Is this joke funny?" wouldn't help. It was only after a good while staring at it that I realized the joke itself was constructed like a common poll question ("If the election were held today, would you vote for [blank]?"). And, actually, the hardest part wasn't the answer allowing approval, i.e. the real punchline, or the two answers allowing disapproval. It was creating an answer to transform a joke about child sexual abuse into something as innocuous as possible given the theme. I wanted to give people who weren't invested in either the religious or political controversy to say "I just don't like this joke." I think I wrote and re-wrote that answer 50 times. And I was pleased that it resonated--perhaps too strongly, because I think someone voted for it multiple times. That and answer 4 to question #10 are the two answers I think were distorted by multiple voting.
So that's why the Why? but what about the What?
We think the jokes pollute and corrupt the civil discourse. But wait. Stop. We are not talking about the First Amendment. We get it. We're smart. We can handle things. The right to have a political discourse guaranteed in the First Amendment also includes the right to degrade it.
Our question is: Can the easy joke overwhelm the difficult discourse?
Applying our fake social-scientific instrument and the fake data it produced, we offer this real answer about a real issue: Yes.
Compare, if you will, a set of jokes very similar to the one above told by Jay Leno in His January 5th monologue (starting at around 3:00), to Meet The Press's supposedly serious discussion of the issue on February 12.
Is there anything more vapid and forgettable than Peggy Noonan and E. J. Dionne hashing out the niceities of Catholic Catechism on national television? Anything about Leno's schitck that doesn't stick?
The point is, whatever else we can say about this controversy, we know it's serious . . . . and significant. Whether you despise Cardinal Timothy Dolan or Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, or whether you admire the Cardinal or the Cabinet Member, they are the ones that should be driving the discourse, not Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, or even Bill Donohue in condemnation of Leno or Stewart.
I usually try to end my articles with a joke. But not this time.
Well, my original plan was to write an analysis similar to above for all ten questions in our poll, but yikes! That'd be like 15,000 words. So, if you have questions, you either might have missed my answer in the thread below the original article, or you may inquire on this thread. I explained "really weird" in Question #2 and Question #3 HERE, the theory behind Questions #4 & 5 HERE, my collaborator discussed our disagreement about #8 HERE, and her theory of the image HERE, while I explained my failure HERE. I explained Question #9 HERE.
This went so well we're going to try to do one of these annual polls every couple of weeks or so, so stay tuned!