Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Teasing only the ones we love

NY Times: April Fool! The Purpose of Pranks

"[P]ractical jokes are far more commonly an effort to bring a person into a group, anthropologists have found — an integral part of rituals around the world intended to temper success with humility. And recent research suggests that the experience of being duped can stir self-reflection in a way few other experiences can, functioning as a check on arrogance or obliviousness.

The 1960s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman reportedly divided practical jokes into three categories. The bad ones involve vindictive skewering, or the sort of head-shaving, shivering-in-boxers fraternity hazing that the sociologist Erving Goffman described as 'degradation ceremonies.' Neutral tricks are more akin to physical punch lines, like wrapping the toilet bowl in cellophane, depositing a massive pumpkin on top of the student union building, or pulling some electronic high jinks on a co-worker’s keyboard (though on deadline this falls quickly into the 'bad' category).

What Hoffman called the good prank, which humorously satirizes human fears or failings, is found in a wide variety of initiation rites and coming-of-age rituals. The Daribi of New Guinea, for example, have children make a small box and bury it in the ground, telling them that after a while a treasure will appear inside but they must not peek, according to Edie Turner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Invariably the youngsters succumb to curiosity — only to find a sample of human feces.

The Ndembu of Zambia have an adult in a monstrous mask sneak and scare the wits out of boys camping outside the village as part of a coming-of-age ritual in which they are showing their bravery.

'These kind of tricks are very common,' Dr. Turner said, 'and they are really a way to put a person down before raising them up. You’re being reminded of your failings even as you’re being honored'."

I'm all for "tempering success with humility" but for the more political variety, nothing beats RE/Search's PRANKS! and PRANKS 2.

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