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  • Mark Burns

Respect the Jester, Revere Nothing


Stańczyk, the famous Polish jester, depicted here after learning of the fall of Smolensk. Party goers in the background don't understand the significance. Painting by Jan Matejko.

The whole “royal court” system is ridiculous, which is why it’s best-suited for fantasy worlds. But let’s all take a moment to celebrate the true hero of that realm, the brave and inspiring court jester.

Across history, the jester ranged wildly in style and skills, but often his or her greatest superpower was that of “comic dispensation” - the freedom to speak blunt, brutal truth to power without repercussion. Ironically, while the jester assumed the lowly “fool” position of the social hierarchy, he could safely say things to the king’s face that would’ve gotten the richest nobleman beheaded. Meanwhile, since these observations were rooted in truth, the crowds would recognize that truth and they would laugh - it was as if the jester had read their minds.

This speaks to the power of relatability in comedy. When the jester warns the king, “hey now, remember what happened the last time you invaded Spain?” the people laugh because yeah, they remember. The jester has successfully diffused the tension in the room by bringing to light what was on everyone’s mind. When an audience relates to what you’re sharing, especially if it’s something they didn’t yet realize they related to, they feel understood. The result is a building of trust.

More importantly, the king trusted the jester, and this feedback system would help keep the crown in check. What’s interesting is that the king had no shortage of high-ranking “advisors” and experts at his disposal, but they apparently weren’t empowered to share candid feedback. So, naturally, the only way to contradict the king was using the all-powerful tool of levity. Over time, this clever workaround evolved: dress up a person in ridiculous clothes, deem them a “fool”, and let them deliver tough love in a way that won’t hurt the king’s feeble ego. It was the medieval equivalent of Breaking Bad News With Baby Animals.

Why was this whole charade necessary? We could partially blame the king’s surrounding “yes men” for being fearful and complacent, but it likely stems from an institutional structure that discouraged open communication and rewarded mindless agreement. Sound familiar? It’s still absurdly common in organizations today, and it’s a system ripe for disaster.

This is not a new observation. It’s how the dysfunctional workplace is portrayed in the “before” setting of several thousand leadership books. In an ideal world, we would live in the “after” setting of those books, with bosses that are curious, open-minded active listeners, and diverse environments that encourage radical candor. But we know that’s rarely the case.

In the meantime, you’ll still have to deliver messages that are boring, complicated, or downright unpleasant. You don’t have to dress like a clown or carry around a puppy, but you can use the same magical tool of levity.

At one point “levity” was a scientific term, theorized to be the opposite of gravity. But now it’s typically defined as the use of humor in a serious situation. In other words, lighten up. Here are some starting points for incorporating levity to benefit your environment:

  • Change your perspective. From another angle things seem drastically different. Here’s one such angle: we’re on a ball of dirt floating in space.

  • Say what everyone else is thinking or feeling. This doesn’t require ESP, but it is a sense developed over time. You can feel the tense energy of a withheld response from the group - call it out.

  • Respect all individuals, institutions, and ideas, but do not revere them. This can be a balancing act, but phrases like “don’t ask” or “we don’t talk about that” are a pretty sure sign of reverence. It’s okay to have lighthearted conversations about serious topics.

The sad truth of the jester was that no matter how funny and insightful, they were excluded from the normal social structure, forced to watch from the sidelines with no opportunity for promotion. It’s a pretty extreme consequence for their one superpower. It’s also a compelling case study of a society supposedly built on “honor” and “justice”; they valued the truth enough to designate a specialist to deliver it, yet they were so uncomfortable with raw candor that they cast him aside like a freak.

The jesters pioneered the art of irreverence, bringing balance to the court, and got a pretty raw deal in return. In their honor, try to recognize the bravery required to question the status quo. Be mindful of our instinct to resist and trivialize the jester. Instead, lighten up. Embrace the fun.