Baptists on a bridge: when differentiation kills

Can’t we all get along? Nope. Here’s why.

Last week we chronicled a Twitter “cage match” between Social Media gurus Dan Zarrella and Jason Falls – two guys in the same industry who speak at the same conferences, ed and even hang out together. On the surface, find not that different. But yet, sale they found a reason to have a public and at times personal, argument over what might seem to be a small semantic point: the definition of “science”. And apparently that made one of them mad enough to want to punch a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter…  An aberration? Nope. It’s just human.

Baptists on a bridge

It reminded me of the classic “Baptist Joke” by the brilliant – and definitely different – Emo Phillips.

While you’re watching it, focus on three things: 1) The story he tells. It’s hilarious, but why? More on that later. 2) Emo’s style of delivery – how he plays with the comedy conventions and finds his own oddball path, and 3) How and where the audience reacts. I’ve linked to a longer “horse-face” version of the joke so you can see how he builds on it.

I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing. There. Done?

A bridge too far.

It’s especially funny to me because I come from a similarly schismatic tradition. The Dutch Calvinist / reformed tradition I grew up in has splintered over the years into dozens of tiny denominations – many of which are still busy splitting into still smaller groups.

How bad are we Dutch Calvinists? The scene: it’s late 1944, during the fury of the final Allied push through the Netherlands. The Scheldt campaign is underway and the disastrous “Bridge Too Far” battle fails to capture the bridge at Arnhem. The Nazis have cut off food supplies and 18,000 people are dying of starvation, with millions eating (no joke) tulip bulbs to survive. Harder, more dangerous times than I’ve ever experienced.

But yet, my spiritual ancestors are bickering with each  in a church basement. And that fight turns into a massive, church-splitting battle among themselves over… again, this is not a joke…. whether or not to sing hymns in church!

Seeing the bridges for the girders.

The problem is, like them, we often lose sight of the 95% of things we have in common, and have bloody battles over the teeny tiny 5% extra that separates us. Silly? Yes! Tragic? Definitely! But skipping over the “sames” and going straight to the “differs” is just how our brain works. And it can be a good thing too.

After all, it’s the same instinct that a wine connoisseur uses to tell you with one sip which year, region, and side of an Italian hill a wine comes from.

It’s the same instinct that lets a brand manager build a family of related products for customers (or confuse the heck out of them with meaningless differentiators).

But yes, it also leads people to slaughter their neighbours for looking a bit different, or worshiping a different god.

Which is why the world needs bridges – and jokes

In a divine irony, that “differ” impulse is also what makes a joke like Emo’s funny to us.  Humour relies on a twist in our expectations. As you listened to Phillips, he led you to *think* you knew where he was going. Two guys with a lot in common, find that in the end they really have something to live for, right?

Wrong. The unexpected violence of the ending rips apart the pattern and shows us where a real human flaw lies. And that’s why you laugh. Because Emo used your brain to fool you into seeing the truth.

I’ll wrap up with a  quote from Emo Phillips about jokes in the Guardian when he learned the Baptist joke had been voted The Best God Joke Ever:

Jokes are our safety-release mechanism. Sure they can sometimes be offensive. So can burps. But if you ban them even worse results happen. And believe me, if someone tells a joke that truly offends, he or she will be punished for it. That’s one area for sure where the government can take it easy and relax.

Can I get an “Amen” for brother Phillips?!?

3 thoughts on “Baptists on a bridge: when differentiation kills”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *