However, it was not the fact of Fairooz’s laughter that caused her arrest, so much as what it signified: to “impede and disrupt then Senator Sessions’ confirmation hearing by drawing attention away from the hearing itself and directing it instead toward the Defendants’ perception of the nominee’s racist views, policies, and voting record” (from a government motion filed against her). Her laughter evokes the anti-patriarchal outbursts in the classic feminist film, A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982), in which three unruly women laugh exuberantly at their own murder trial, in response to the prosecution’s outlandish pretense that they live in a post-sexist society. (The women are on trial for killing a male boutique owner, whom they beat to death in an unpremeditated outburst of joyful fury due to his harassment of a female shoplifter.) In the film’s courtroom, this “question of silence” refers to the tyranny of lacking a voice against routine injustice, which then can only be articulated through defiant and disruptive laughter.
Laughter, and the power to dictate its meaning and address, has always been at stake in the law—at least since the Ancient Greek demos. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle associates laughter with the expression of scorn. He warns: “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should…a jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.” Indeed, God’s laughter in the Old Testament distinctly stems from anger and hostility, and is intolerable when enjoyed at His expense. In the Book of Kings, a group of children laugh at the bald prophet Elisha (just imagine their reaction to a dyed yellow comb-over), and God punishes the children by sending two she-bears to kill them: they “came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them.” Thomas Hobbes viewed laughter as a warlike tactic: a weapon for asserting political power. He argues in The Elements of Law that “men laugh at the infirmities of others…For when a jest is broken upon ourselves, or friends of whose dishonour we participate, we never laugh thereat.”
If we’ve come a long way with our laughter since the English Civil Wars of the 1640s—learning to laugh in empathy, in playful recognition of absurdity, or out of sheer muscular relief—this message has since been lost on Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and long-term visitor at Harvard Law School, has offered comment:
Criminally charging and potentially sentencing Ms. Fairooz for a brief spontaneous injection of political laughter as ‘disruptive’ when it, at least, so clearly was not looks like an overly thin-skinned reflex reaction to a woman appropriating what is usually a masculine form of power: ridicule, public humiliation by humor, in this case political speech against racism.
Trump’s Administration has been particularly paranoid when it comes to female mockery—evidenced by Trump’s repeated Twitter rants against feminist comedian Rosie O’Donnell, his avowal that “Americans will thank [him] when Lena Dunham moves to Canada,” and condemnation of the very idea that Sean Spicer would be burlesqued by a woman in drag (i.e. Melissa McCarthy). Like many authoritarian personalities, Trump associates laughter with weakness. His pandering to delusional fears that America’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord will make it “the laughingstock of the world”—that the “world is laughing at us”—is part and parcel of his warlike mania for never landing on the wrong side of a punch line.