The following is a reprint of the Letter from the Editor for Volume 3, Issue 3 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Self-Deprecating” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.
Communication is wonderfully and maddeningly complex. By it we share our lives, transfer important information, and express our deepest feelings. Although our spoken dialogue may set us apart from other creatures, our words do not always deliver superior understanding and connection. Our communications often get jumbled: We fail to send a clear message or the message is altered in transmission or the receiver’s filter skews our intended meaning.
And so we work hard to manipulate how others receive our messages by employing various tones, gestures, anecdotes, and even heavy doses of humorous, self-inflicted jabs. In this way, even if what we say is misunderstood, we may gain some points for knowing we are less than perfect. Our shortcomings and faults become the common enemy in the conversation, something the sender and receiver can both rally around. By admitting our failures and foibles upfront, we cut off an outside attack before it begins, thereby controlling the conversation. At least, this is what I tend to do when I use self-deprecating remarks.
The problem with self-deprecation is in its overuse. Self-deprecation can be a habit, a default way of communicating to others that we are aware of our faults. They exist over there, apart from ourselves, something annoying that we can both roll our eyes at. We may gain a few laughs, but nothing more. Most often, self-deprecating remarks acknowledge error without forcing us to own them—or move toward change.
Using self-deprecation as a defense of the worst within ourselves is what Mary McCampbell broaches in her article, “ ‘Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That’: Seinfeld, Satire, and Self-Deprecation.” McCampbell stresses that “a satire exaggerates the ugliness or problems within society and/or human nature in order to point out what is wrong—and often advocates change.” The sitcom Seinfeld exaggerated the ugly within the petty of our everyday lives, possibly elevating the use of self-deprecation, especially as a defense for our faults:
“But at the end of the Seinfeld series . . . we see no real character change. . . . [W]e leave the narrative knowing that the characters we say goodbye to are the very same ones that we met at the beginning of the story. There is no substantial narrative arc, no real justice is done, no meaning is found. Although Seinfeld has satirical elements, I am still asking myself if it is a true satire.”
Like satire, self-deprecation can be used for something more than just defending the worst parts of who we are. The best use of self-deprecation is when we use it as a sort of confessional, disclosing our faults and owning them so that we can present them to the refining process. Humility is key, one that is often lost in the sea of self-deprecating humor. In the feature, “Confessions of an Opera Dunce,” Gina Dalfonzo sheds light upon our tendency to be arrogant about things we assume others are arrogant about, in her case, opera. Dalfonzo’s use of self-deprecation as it relates to her pilgrimage from opera-hater to opera-lover is refreshing and insightful:
“When you find yourself dealing with a totally new art form, it seems to me now, that you open yourself up to the experience in a way that you might not if you already knew all there was to know about it. You have nothing to bring to the table yourself, which frees up your hands to receive it all as a gift. For a little while, you forget about what kind of self-image you do or don’t feel comfortable with and simply enjoy yourself.”
So true. Using self-deprecation as a defense robs us of our ability to enjoy life and its many gifts, the greatest of which is grace. All of us need the grace found in Christ to keep us from defending our failures and exiling them as something apart from ourselves. The articles gathered for this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine highlight self-deprecating humor on a variety of cultural issues and ideals. Our hope is that we all can be nudged from defense to confession, so that self-deprecation isn’t wasted and God’s grace would soften our pride and grant us surprising gifts.