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Tribune columnist skewers sacred cows in media & society lecture

Story by Jess Allen
Photo by Mark Vuong
Video by Tyler Huskinson

LOGAN—Most of us are not nearly as smart as we think we are, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby said Thursday. And he should know, he said, “because I’m an idiot, and I’m OK with being an idiot because I know that you’re one, too.”

Kirby—described by JCOM department head Ted Pease as “the world’s only religion-humor columnist, which might be redundant”—was the first speaker at the inaugural Morris Media & Society Lecture Series. He came to campus to speak on a snowy April Fool’s Day, “which sounds like a joke,” Pease said, “but it’s not.”

Kirby explained that it is all right to be an idiot, because when you realize just how stupid you are two things happen. One is that “a huge weight is lifted” when you understand that you don’t have to be right about things, and the second is that you realize everyone around you is an idiot as well.

That takes a lot of pressure off, he said. “We are the only creature on the planet that can think ourselves stupid,” Kirby said, “and we need to be very careful about that.”

Video of Robert Kirby’s Morris Media & Society Lecture is available on YouTube.

For example, when deer hear gunshots, they flee, he said. But when humans see something reeking of danger, we want to go and check it out.

Kirby’s central message was that humor can be a powerful tool in changing people’s minds and debunking their sacred cows, which he said get in the way of people being decent to each other.

Sacred cows, Kirby said, can be religious, but not necessarily. They symbolize something that people believe without a shadow of a doubt. What we need to understand, Kirby said, is that not everyone is going to believe in the same things, which can cause us to take offense to what others say about our sacred cows.

“Another thing I learned is people will sometimes threaten you if you don’t take their sacred cows seriously,” Kirby said.

Sacred cows—and the lack of a sense of humor that tends to accompany them—can make people angry, he said.

Religion, Kirby said, is one of the greatest of sacred cows, but they are too easy a target.

“P.J. O’Rourke once wrote an essay about the born-again Christian movement in the United States,” Kirby said. “And he said in that essay that making fun of born-again Christians was a lot like hunting dairy cows with a high-powered rifle and a scope. It was really kind of unsporting because they were big and slow and oblivious to the danger, and it really wasn’t fair.”

It’s not unfair because they are Christians, Kirby said, but “because of a herd mentality that takes over when human beings who believe alike and think alike congregate in these large herds to the exclusion of everything else.

“When we do that,” Kirby said, “we adopt a very narrow attitude about life. Pretty soon, the only validation we need comes from the herd. The only way we can see life is through the lens of the herd.

“When you consider how broad life is and how uncertain it is, that’s a fairly narrow, and risky way of going through life.”

That is the case in Utah, Kirby said. “We have a large group of people who believe alike and think alike, and behave alike and look alike and vote alike and, in many cases, are actually even related,” he said. “I am, of course, talking about my own people—Mormons.”

The point is not the religion, Kirby told the audience. “This is actually about whether or not you’re an idiot. There’s a huge difference.” And non-Mormons are no closer to the truth, Kirby said, “because you’re still cows.”

Kirby says he learned about the benefits of humor while he was a police officer for 11 years. His way of coping with stress was humor.

“Humor is a great psychological, stress reliever, tool,” Kirby said. “People will tell you that having a sense of humor or the ability to laugh is actually one of human beings lesser emotions.  That’s not true, I believe it’s the most important one we have.”

Humor and being able to laugh has both psychological and physiological benefits, he said, although in his case humor regularly got him into trouble. Like the time as a police officer that Kirby pulled over a man for speeding. The driver handed him his registration and license as well as his Temple recommend, across which officer Kirby wrote “Void” and handed it back to the man with his ticket.

“After 11 years of this sort of stuff it gradually occurred to me that I really wasn’t cut out for police work,” Kirby said.

His next job was at a small Utah newspaper, where Kirby started his career as a satirist by accident when his editor asked him to fill in for an editorial that had fallen through. He wrote a column about the “five kinds of Mormons”—Liberal Mormons, Genuine Mormons, Conservative Mormons, Orthodox Mormons, and Nazi Mormons.

Unfortunately, Kirby said, his publisher was one of the latter kind, and Kirbylost his job. But he had found his true calling as a “lampoonist of my own people.”

Since moving to the Salt Lake Tribune in 1994, Kirby has received many letters from people he has offended when he skewered their sacred cows.

Some of the letters have come from offended Catholic nuns, a little old lady who took offense to his language, about 500 cat owners who were offended that Kirby wrote that God owns a dog but Satan has a cat, and a Baptist minister who argued that there is no scriptural reference to God owning a dog named Vern.

Kirby said these kinds of responses show how seriously people sometimes take their sacred cows and themselves.

“I don’t care about what you believe,” Kirby said. “What I care is how you believe it. How you believe it usually has a lot to do in how you treat other people.”

Categorizing and stereotyping can be dangerous and hurtful, he warned.

“If you can reduce somebody to just one thing, whether it’s a Mormon, an illegal immigrant, an insurance salesman, or whatever, it’s very easy emotionally to dismiss them,” Kirby said.  “If you can do that, it’s that much easier to dehumanize them.”

That can happen when we base our opinions of others on our own beliefs, he said.

To Kirby, being an idiot is unavoidable for human beings. The remedy is to learn to laugh at ourselves and at our sacred cows, and to realize that other people have them, too.

The JCOM Department’s Media & Society Lecture Series, which began in 1995, was renamed this year in memory of John Morris, a former JCOM faculty member, with support of his family and friends. The lecture series is designed to bring media professionals to campus to broaden the perspectives of students and community members on the role of the mass media in our lives.

TP